'How can forecasters get it so wrong?'

The Philippine weather bureau predicted that Typhoon Conson would miss Manila, but deadly 120kph winds ravaged the capital.

A resident looks at capsized ships and barges after Typhoon Conson hit Mariveles, Bataan, north of Manila July 15, 2010. Nine ships and and more than 20 fishing boats were reported sunk, and some run aground as Conson hit Bataan, local media reported. At least 26 people were killed and dozens were missing  after the typhoon lashed the Philippine main island of Luzon, government officials said. REUTERS/Erik de Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: SOCIETY DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

MANILA // When it comes to weather forecasting, the Philippine weather bureau has a pretty poor track record. On Tuesday night it forecast that Typhoon Conson, the first of the season, would pass well north of Manila. By the early hours of Wednesday morning Conson had slammed into the capital and surrounding provinces with howling winds measuring in excess of 120kph tearing down giant electricity transmission towers connected to the national grid, mobile phone towers, uprooting trees and destroying shanty towns.

Unlike the tropical storm that hit Manila late last year, dumping 334mm of rain in six hours and flooding 80 per cent of the metropolis, Conson managed to smash the electrical grid, plunging the city of 14 million into total darkness for the next 24 hours. Even yesterday with electricity restored to most of the city, the main power provider warned customers to brace for rotating blackouts of three to four hours in the coming days and weeks. A perplexed President Benigno Aquino asked Prisco Nilo, director of the country's weather bureau, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa): "How can you get it so wrong?" In front of the entire National Disaster Coordinating Committee (NDCC) and the local media, a stone faced Mr Aquino told the weather official: "This is not acceptable. We rely on you to tell us where the potential problems are." As he left the briefing Mr Aquino, who has been president for less than three weeks, said he could not understand how Pagasa could say the "typhoon would go in one direction when in fact it went in another direction". The Philippine Daily Inquirer in an editorial yesterday said: "Mr Aquino did well to take charge of the National Disaster Coordinating Council meeting, and indeed to tell off the weather bureau for unacceptable, inaccurate, forecasts. It was no time to be charming, after all, and if we are to get anywhere near the ideal disaster preparedness level, the accuracy of Pagasa's forecasts is key." The Philippine Star said in its editorial: "The weakness in the nation's response must be identified and remedied before the next major disaster strikes." The Pagasa gives out weather bulletins every six hours and claims that it does not have the technology in place to improve its forecasts. Calls by The National to Pagasa director, Mr Nilo, were not returned. The agency was criticised heavily last year when it failed to warn Manila residents of Typhoon Ketsana, which flooded Manila and forced nearly one million people to flee their homes. No sooner had Ketsana left than it was followed by Typhoon Parma which bypassed Manila and wrought havoc in northern Luzon. Both killed more than 1,100 people and caused US$4.38 billion (Dh16bn) of damage, equivalent to 2.7 per cent of GDP, according to government estimates. "Our equipment and communications systems are outdated and inadequate to effectively predict typhoons and point out with accuracy where they will hit," Senator Loren Legarda, one of the country's more outspoken climate change advocates, said in a statement. "This inadequacy increases the vulnerability of the people, the environment and our country's economy," she said. Throughout the metropolis workmen cleared fallen trees and debris from the streets as businesses resorted to using generators for a second day to supply electricity. According to the NDCC at least 26 people were killed and dozens more, mainly poor fishermen south of Manila, are still missing in the wake of Typhoon Conson. Damage to infrastructure, commercial buildings, homes and to agriculture is expected to run into the millions of dollars. The NDCC said that a total of 12,798 families (or 64,246 people) were severely affected by the typhoon. The main distributor of electricity to Manila and surrounding provinces, the Manila Electric Co (Meralco), said it had restored electricity in 92 per cent of its franchise areas. But within hours of making the statement consumers were sent text messages informing them of rotating blackouts that would last three to four hours. Many workers in the business district of Makati gave up and retired to coffee shops and hotel lounges with their laptops, although internet access was erratic. A young insurance broker who only gave his name as Marc said he could not afford to waste any more time with power cuts, so he moved his office to the main lobby of the Shangri-la Hotel. "The coffee is good, the chairs are comfortable and who knows, I could get some business here as well ? beats sitting in an office with a generator banging away and no air con," he said. The budget secretary Florencio Abad was quoted in the Philippine Star as saying that 70 per cent of the country's 1.4 billion peso (Dh11m) calamity fund had already been spent by the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He told the paper that most of the money had been spent in Pampanga, the hometown of Mrs Arroyo who is now the local congresswoman for the district. The businessman Antonio Ramon Ongsiako, a director at the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, said that the power cuts were likely to cost the country $216m a day in lost opportunities. "You have to remember that Metro Manila alone accounts for more than 30 per cent of GDP," he was quoted as saying. By yesterday, Typhoon Conson had left the Philippines and was barreling across the South China Sea towards Hainan Island off the southern coast of China. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae

MANILA // The death toll from Typhoon Conson, which hit Manila early Wednesday, is expected to rise as more bodies are uncovered in the debris left in its wake, the Philippine National Disaster Coordinating Council said today. The NDCC put the toll at 26 in its bulletin, made public at noon, but said the figure is expected to rise as more bodies are found. Dozens more are said to be missing from isolated fishing villages south of the capital. Conson hammered the capital and surrounding provinces with winds of up to 120kph. The metropolis of 14 million was plunged into total darkness as the fierce winds tore down transmission cables and mobile phone towers, uprooted trees and destroyed thousands of shanties occupied by families who had survived last year's onslaught of bad weather, which left most of Manila flooded. As the clean up continued today, the country's poorly funded weather bureau came under public scrutiny again in the local media for forecasting that the typhoon would not hit Manila but pass well to the north. The error even prompted the country's new president, Benigno Aquino, to tell the bureau to sort its problems out and to make more accurate forecasts. But the weather-monitoring agency said it is woefully short of funds and an urgently needed upgrade of equipment will not take place quickly. Damage is expected to run into millions of dollars, money which the new administration is short of. The budget secretary, Florencio Abad, was quoted in The Philippine Star today as saying that 70 per cent of the country's calamity fund, or 1.4 billion pesos (Dh110 million), had already been spent by the administration of the former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

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