(Suggestions on how to be better prepared for future natural calamities)
MANILA, Philippines – In January of 2009 after days of continuous rain – without any typhoon hitting – flooding and mudslides happened in northern Mindanao. The cities of Cagayan de Oro and Gingoog were badly hit, as were the coastal towns between the two cities. Other towns of northern and eastern Mindanao were likewise affected.
Almost three years later, at about the same time of year, came Typhoon Sendong devastating northern and eastern Mindanao, the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan standing out as probably the most devastated. Both disasters occurred when they were least expected and in an area where people rarely feel the effects of typhoons or other severe weather disturbances.
One can discern the start of a pattern, and this pattern shows that a natural calamity will re-occur in a particular area with increasing intensity and sadly with greater devastation.
There is much talk on whether the people in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan were adequately warned of the dangers of Typhoon Sendong. I can only say that in the case of natural calamities, especially in areas where these are infrequent, you cannot warn enough. More is better.
Officials are naturally conservative in giving warnings because of the backlash that inevitably follows when an anticipated natural calamity doesn’t occur. This is particularly true in cases of weather related phenomena such as typhoons and low pressure areas. It becomes more difficult if the situation is one of continuous rain without a typhoon.
Imagine a situation where rain is predicted for the next day to start from perhaps 9 a.m. to around 2 p.m. and to last for say 5 hours (you can’t really predict the precise time), you know that if rain does fall within the window given, children will be in school and may not be able to go home without wading through deep, dirty water, or worse, will have to stay in. Would you warn parents and advise them not to send their children to school?
If you were in the government will you cancel classes for the next day in the area affected? If rain does come at the given window, then you will be hailed a genius, but if not then, who knows? The real danger of a pre-emptive warning that goes awry is the danger of the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome occurring, if these occur frequently then people may take these warnings for granted.
All told despite the dangers and the potential backlash, I believe that the case has been made for more extensive warning protocols, especially in areas where weather related phenomena are less frequent.
I recall the example of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the face of Hurricane Irene’s threatening New York City. Mayor Bloomberg ordered pre-emptive evacuations, kept the information flow going, and was continuously warning people about the dangers of the Hurricane. CNN was also broadcasting frequent updates about the Hurricane and its potential effects, even on the financial markets!!
Both Mayor Bloomberg and CNN were criticized for overhyping Irene, but these criticisms were quickly disposed of. In our country, local government executives should exercise the same vigilance and the same zeal as Mayor Bloomberg did in the face of Hurricane Irene.
We tend to confine the issue of weather related warnings to two agencies of government: PAGASA and the NDRRMC.
Of course these agencies are the national agencies primarily responsible for the whole thing. But local governments are the principal agencies responsible for disseminating these warnings in their communities. In disseminating these warnings local government units are obliged to determine the peculiar effects on their respective communities of the weather disturbances spotted by the national agencies.
Thus all local government units must have workable disaster risk reduction plans to account for their specific situations and needs. This is particularly relevant in archipelago such as ours, with different weather patterns, differing terrain, and states of development. Local government units must develop and continuously review their warning methods and protocols.
The private sector – civic groups, foundations, media establishments must get involved. There has been a traditional divide between government agencies and civic organizations in the disaster risk reduction field. This is simply because of different, if not divergent agendas.
This does not mean however that one must be muted because of another. Private sector organizations must become more active and be better heard by the local communities. In order to do this they must be more aggressive in advocacy because it is an issue that is normally in the backburner of people’s minds.
Local media must take advantage of their presence in an area in order to bring disaster risk reduction awareness to a particular community. They must push disaster risk reduction as an issue that people should be aware of, given the fact that the topic is less juicy than the latest scandals.
The Philippines is one of the riskiest countries in the world in terms of vulnerability to natural calamities. This is a fact that we must live with. To live with this fact means inputting this vulnerability as an important factor in planning our lives.Our safety and the quality of our lives must be talked about when we talk about life itself.
In the disaster risk reduction field there is much to do and too much talk may get in the way of doing concrete things. But in the case of warning people of an impending natural calamity too much talk is hard to define.
(The author served as defense secretary from 2007 to 2009. Prior to this, he represented Tarlac in the House of Representatives)
Reprinted from the Facebook pages of GreenTeam Pilipinas Iloilo