Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Lessons from another typhoon

My column today, December 9, 2014.


We spent the weekend alternately wringing our hands in worry and clasping them in prayer as Typhoon Ruby descended into the country.  We have family members in Leyte who were also victims of the strongest typhoon in history last year, so our concern was understandable particularly as relatives kept sending frantic text messages and making alarming posts in social networking sites about how strong the howling winds were, and eventually, how long drawn-out their suffering was.  Fortunately, mobile phone signals and Internet connectivity continued to be available as the typhoon barreled until they gave way at about five in the morning of Sunday in Tacloban and most parts of Leyte.  Sadly, most of Eastern Samar was already incommunicado as early as 9:00 pm of Saturday when Ruby made first landfall in the town of Dolores.
Although Typhoon Ruby did not pack winds as strong as those of Yolanda, it meandered along its path at a slow pace of 13-15 kilometers – almost stationary – and battered Eastern Visayas for about five hours before it seemed to have decided that it has had enough and moved on its way towards Masbate.  Supertyphoon Yolanda was very strong but it mercifully moved briskly.  It made landfall at around 7:00 in the morning and was gone by 9:00 am.  Of course it left behind a swathe of devastation never before imaginable.   According to relatives who experienced both Yolanda and Ruby, being battered by howling winds for five straight hours under pitch dark conditions was also quite traumatic. 
But as has been crowed about by many of our leaders, we seemed to have been better prepared this time around.  We really seemed to have learned from the supertyphoon last year.  It would take some time before people will get over their fear of being caught in the same situation as last year when they had to scramble for food and water for days after so many went overboard with the panic buying and the hoarding of basic commodities.  Local officials tried to downplay the fact that supermarket shelves were emptied and gasoline stations all over Eastern Visayas were pumped dry by Saturday noontime.  An interesting sidelight was the presence of heavily armed military personnel in the downtown area in Tacloban, including a military armor truck in the biggest mall in the city, as foil for potential looting activities.
Still the one key area that we must learn to manage better is communications.  We all know that meteorology is not yet a perfect science, but we must really find a better way to explain projections about a typhoon’s potential path and strength.  The divergence in the projections of various weather stations became a cause for confusion and downplayed the more important message which was that preparation was still required of everyone within the vicinity of the projected path or paths.   The one thing that everyone in this country has is a cellphone so we wish we are now able to use mass text messaging as a way of disseminating critical information about a natural calamity such as a typhoon.  And then, there’s the matter of providing local officials and media people satellite phones so that they are able to provide immediate factual updates on real time basis and eliminate the spread of rumors about whole towns being washed out to sea or the number of casualties rising to alarming levels. We must work harder to institutionalize a system that enables authorities to deliver accurate and reliable information quickly and efficiently to everyone.
As I write, information about the extent of the actual damages in Yolanda-ravaged areas are slowly breaking the surface.  What seems alarming is that most of the bunkhouses built by government for Yolanda survivors were practically wiped out.  Some structures that were rebuilt after the supertyphoon also showed damages, which seems to belie claims that the delay in the rehabilitation efforts were mainly due to the “build back better” thrust of government.
And once again, media personality Korina Sanchez has found herself in the eye of a controversy over politically-incorrect statements made during a newscast.  Sanchez made an off-the-cuff remark wishing Typhoon Ruby would spare the country and move towards Japan, presumably because Japan is better equipped to manage natural calamities.  Actually, her fault was she verbalized what many may have been inadvertently praying for when they wished that the typhoon would change paths.  But it’s a lesson that people like Sanchez should learn on account of her influence as a high profile media personality and as the wife of a public official with a moist eye on the presidency.  

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