Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Disaster unpreparedness

This is my column today.

When I switched on my cellular phone upon landing in Manila from Cebu last Monday noon, I was alarmed by the surge of messages inquiring about my “condition.” From what I gathered, the earthquake struck Cebu barely a few minutes after the plane I was riding in took off from the Mactan International Airport.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, by the time I was able to retrieve my baggage and leave the terminal building, I already had more than enough details about the earthquake including firsthand accounts from relatives who swore the earthquake was so strong they thought it was the end of the world already.

But technology is truly a double-edged sword. It enables people to spread information rapidly. Alas, technology does not distinguish valid information from those that are not such as unfounded rumors and irresponsible messages that provoke panic and strike fear in people’s hearts.

A nephew told me that they had to scamper to the top of the tallest building in their campus in light of text messages that said a tsunami had already hit the downtown area of Cebu. We saw footages of people in various places in the Visayas running around scared, some on the verge of a breakdown. Mercifully, the panic didn’t result in a stampede. The same situation was replicated in various places Monday afternoon as variations of the government warning on a possible tsunami got more and more ominous each time the message got forwarded from one cell phone to another. It was revealed later that the original warning was merely for people to stay away from coastlines. Unfortunately, people do tend to exaggerate things and blow things out of proportion when in the throes of panic.

Memo to the people at the Phivolcs: Terse announcements during a crisis situation tend to provoke panic and render people incapable of making sound judgment. It is best to over-explain warnings and alerts.

One would think that because we are on first-name basis with natural calamities, most of us would already know how to behave in crisis situations. If we are to go by what happened last Monday, we’re definitely not there yet. In fact, we seem to be sliding back in terms of overall preparedness for disasters. Based on what we observed last Monday, local governments remain practically helpless in dealing with crisis situations and national government offices don’t really inspire confidence either. The gaffe about the tsunami warning, the absence of real-time information about conditions in towns that were closer to the epicenter, the mixed and often conflicting reports – all these and more indicated just how inadequate our level of disaster preparedness is.

One of the most disturbing things about what transpired last Monday was the way most people in schools and offices reacted to the earthquake. In most schools, students and pupils were left to their own devices. I saw videos of elementary pupils scampering around, many of them in tears while their teachers were practically rendered catatonic. In many offices, people simply started running to the nearest exit, some even taking elevators to get to the ground faster. In many malls, security guards didn’t seem to know how to manage the situation—some seemed more concerned with making sure there would be no looting rather than ensure the safety of people.

We really need to make sure that disaster drills are conducted regularly in our schools and even in offices to make sure that people know how to behave on reflex. If we do it often enough, it becomes part of our conditioning; we will all know how to behave without being told. We also need to produce more information and educational materials on what to do during natural calamities and make these available to everyone.

***

I am not sure it is politically correct to point it out but the earthquake literally took the spotlight out of the ongoing impeachment trial. Most people (including myself) made it a point to watch the newscasts to learn more about the extent of the earthquake and promptly switched channels when the reportage about the earthquake was over. The trial has become boring and tiresome to watch; particularly since it became obvious that the prosecution does not have the goods on the chief justice, after all.

All this gibberish about Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth as well as about taxes are amusing to me because if we are to tone down the level of hypocrisy, we would all be acknowledging the elephant in the room: Everyone in this country does not declare the right value of his or her assets or net worth. Everybody in this country tries to get away from having to pay taxes on their income or transactions. Of course those of us who are paid fixed salaries are automatically deducted withholding taxes, but most everyone tries to get around the law.

No comments: