Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lessons learned well

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Rumors, it has been said, arise out of situations where there is a lot of ambiguity and where the outcome is important but uncertain. Obviously, rumors fuel anxiety and breed the creation of more rumors including those that are too mind-boggling to comprehend and those that border on the bizarre.

For example, just before and during the time Typhoon Milenyo struck Metro Manila four years ago, there was a flurry of text messages from all over about the supposed actual strength of the typhoon, the path it would be taking, the kind of devastation it would cause, etc. These were important information to take in and would have been helpful to people if only they came from official sources such as the government and if only they were not unnecessarily alarmist. I remember the text messages quoted all kinds of experts—from United States military forces to certain international broadcast reporters. Milenyo was one of the most destructive typhoons to hit the country, but the terror that was in people’s hearts was probably more destructive than the actual fury unleashed by the typhoon.

When Typhoon Megi (local name, Juan; but why oh why do we insist on localizing the names of typhoons and not use the international code names instead?) loomed in the Philippine horizon last week, the rumor mill went overdrive churning all kinds of worst-case scenarios. There was talk about how super typhoon Juan would be bringing rains the volume of which would be comparable to what Ondoy poured in Metro Manila around the same time last year. There was this bit about how the typhoon was bigger than the whole island of Luzon. All these naturally struck terror in people’s hearts. I knew people who almost went catatonic with fear that what happened last year would come to pass again.

It was a good thing the government seemed really determined to show that it has learned from the lessons of Ondoy. In fact, it reached the point when some people thought the preparations and the level of pro-activeness of some people in the current administration bordered on the OA. For example, the decision to cancel classes in some provinces and among prep pupils in Metro Manila was a knee-jerk reaction that could have been avoided if only people were not hyperventilating too much. But then again, erring on the side of caution is still probably the better course of action in situations like these.

Overall, we must credit the people in this current administration for the seemingly well-coordinated disaster preparedness programs that appeared to have been in place this time around. I think it is safe to say that efforts were made to make sure that what happened last year was not repeated. The challenge is how to institutionalize disaster preparedness programs given our ningas cogon mentality.

Of course the message that some people in this administration really wanted to put out there was that this government is way, way better compared to the previous administration. This game of one-upmanship is getting tedious and one wishes the people in this administration begins to realize, sooner we hope, that there’s a limit to how much and how long they can demonize Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her minions no matter how deserved it could be. At some point, they have to stop blaming the past and begin to take on some of the responsibilities for the things that are wrong in this country.

But for now, we should commend everyone who has been part of putting into action the disaster preparedness programs of the government. It’s probably too early to make judgments about the effectiveness of post-disaster efforts such as provision of relief and assistance, but what we have seen so far is worth commending.

To begin with, there was a conscious effort to dispel rumors and government exhausted all media channels including Twitter and Facebook in an effort to bring to the people real-time information about the typhoon. The hourly bulletins that the weather bureau came up with did help in appeasing people and in promoting more responsible behaviors. The various projections and estimates, the alternative scenarios, even the various possible paths that the typhoon would take—all these proved effective. This time around, people weren’t passing around speculative drivel through text messaging.

A friend commented that what he learned in the last five days about typhoons, rainfall, storm signals, etc, were more than enough to probably qualify him as a meteorologist. In fact, some broadcast journalists seemed desperate for new and novel information that had not been reported elsewhere that they were forced to mine Facebook accounts of citizens in the affected areas. Some broadcasters resorted to reading Facebook shoutouts from Ilocos or the Cordilleras that were really personal accounts of how a lone tree in front of a yard had been uprooted, or how roads were empty of people, etc.

I wish, though, that some people in government learned to be a little more sensitive and careful when making pronouncements about areas that would be affected by a calamity. I was quite taken aback when one undersecretary said on public television something about how people in Metro Manila can be thankful because the path of the typhoon will spare the metropolis and how the devastation will be concentrated on the Northern Luzon area. I am sure the good undersecretary didn’t mean that people in other provinces are lesser mortals compared to those in Metro Manila and do not deserve to be spared from the wrath of Typhoon Juan, but his statements certainly smacked of insensitivity.

Unfortunately, many media people did echo the same sentiment in various ways. There was too much focus on whether the typhoon would be affecting or not affecting Metro Manila as if ensuring that Metro Manila residents do not suffer the devastation was the most important consideration!

What we have learned this time around is that there really is no substitute for preparedness and for faster and more comprehensive information.

And speaking of preparedness, it must be noted that the Philippine National Red Cross was, as usual, one of the very first agencies to respond to Typhoon Juan in a more proactive and coordinated way. They were the first ones to call out for volunteers and for donations. Perhaps because PNRC has always been there for as long as we could remember and has always been at the forefront of disaster and relief efforts, people tend to ignore the really great work that it continuously does.

The PNRC, through the leadership of its chairman, former Senator Richard Gordon was among the first to issue bulletins about Typhoon Juan in its newly-refurbished Web site (www.redcross.org.ph). There’s a lot of new initiatives the PNRC is doing to even further improve delivery of services to the Filipino people and I am going to write about these one of these days. But for now, we must not overlook the critical roles the PNRC continues to do in the country; and the fact that it does so very effectively.

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