Slipping out of control

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Shared struggles. The Ateneo community converged in the college covered courts last September 2009 to help out in relief operations, following the devastation caused by Typhoon Ondoy. Photo by Kevin C. Tatco

ON AUGUST 31, 2011, Typhoon Mina dissipated into a weak disturbance, and yet it still left a scene of carnage and destruction in its wake. Its legacy: more than a billion pesos worth in damages and around 30 people dead.

For a country frequently visited by disasters, it is surprising that the Philippines does not have a standard calamity control protocol to turn to in times of emergency. The country is therefore often left in demise over situations that could have been prevented, if only proper systems had been in place.

Underachieved plot

Since the Philippines is a country that averages 20 storms and typhoons annually, one would expect it to at least try to keep things under control. However, these expectations continue to be unmet, and a lot more is lost than gained in terms of achieving goals with apt results.

The country’s disaster management systems lack a clear, central authority. “One big problem that I see now is really the coordination between these offices, from the [Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration] (PAGASA) to the [National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council] (NDRRMC) to the [Commission on Higher Education] (CHED) and the [Department of Education] (DepEd),” says Gio Alejo, the Sanggunian Vice President and a member of the Sanggunian Disaster Response and Management (Dream) Team.

This decentralized organization of power has resulted in issues that have led to a poor communication system in most of the country. CHED has been assailed for supposedly late or erratic announcements regarding the suspension of classes, when, in fact, the office has no power to suspend classes. This indicates the widespread public confusion on which government agency can actually make the calls.

PAGASA, on the other hand, has been accused of flawed weather forecasts, leading to confusion in the process of decision-making and advising the general public.

Gio Alejo agrees in this regard, asserting that “efficient predictions should be made by PAGASA.”

Working under the Dream Team, whose duty includes the verification of the latest news circulating among the student body, Alejo says that PAGASA is the country’s “first line of defense.” For him, “[a lot] of lives could’ve been saved if not for [spurious] predictions saying that storms would not make landfall.”

Determining the cause

Agencies such as PAGASA and CHED receive the majority of the flak from the media and politicians. However, it is unclear if the agencies are really to blame for the disasters.

Charlotte Kendra Gotangco, PhD of the Manila Observatory refuses to put the blame on anyone when it comes to calamities. She asserts that what makes a disaster is a complex interaction of several factors.

“There are no such things as natural disasters,” she says. “What is natural are hazards like typhoons and earthquakes, but when there are elements exposed to these, then the potential for a disaster develops.”

It is in this light that Gotangco explains the ulterior cause for any calamity. “Vulnerability or susceptibility to a hazard is also a product of different physical, economic, political and social factors, and it varies from one context to another,” she explains.

Picking up from foreign land

While the country understands that much needs to be done, it could draw inspiration from the systems of more advanced nations. Recently, countries such as the United States have undergone natural disasters, serving as a test to the catastrophe response systems implemented in these countries.

An evident difference can be seen in how the US dealt with Hurricanes Katrina and (the recent) Irene. In 2005, Katrina ravaged the southern part of the country, leading to criticism about the government’s lack of leadership in the relief efforts. This led the government to implement reforms, promising that there will never be another Katrina.

This promise was put to the test last August 2011, when Irene threatened to damage the East Coast. Its threat prompted leaders like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to take preemptive action, such as ordering evacuations, although some took these to be overreactions. These overreactions, however, proved to be decisive as the damage incurred by Irene was significantly less compared to the predictions.

“Who would have thought, here we are, six years later [from Katrina], and instead of debating failures, we’re debating being over prepared?” Chad Sweet, Chief of Staff to former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, said in a recent CNN interview.

Taking responsibility

The Philippines often seeks to discover the underlying reason behind many of our systems’ failures. However, finding the root cause of these shortcomings and inefficiencies is sometimes seen as a futile attempt.

But as Gotangco explains, “Why fixate on assigning blame? Playing the blame game can become counterproductive. We should instead focus on what each person, institution or sector can do improve disaster risk management.”

The most tangible principle to which we could anchor our future behavior is on taking responsibility for every action we take. From the governing authorities down to the people under them, Filipinos must remember that the nation’s safety and preparedness will always be a collective effort from all avenues of society.

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