Disaster sans Management

Written by: Dante Tanjuakio, Deputy Director, Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (NOAH) Program 

A man perches on the remains of his house in Tacloban City, after it was hit by Typhoon Yolanda on November 8, 2014. Photo by: Dr. Mahar Lagmay

A man perches on the remains of his house in Tacloban City, after it was hit by Typhoon Yolanda on November 8, 2014. Photo by: Dr. Mahar Lagmay

I have been a member of Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Project NOAH team for the last 10 months, and I have learned to be critical of newspaper articles regarding hazards and disasters.  I am often asked if I am a geologist or a meteorologist, and my usual response is that I am a manager with a degree in anthropology.  Even my friends and relatives frequently ask exactly what I do for a living, and I tell them that my role is to humanize the hard science.  So what does humanizing the hard science mean?  A major part of interpreting hazards and disasters is to understand that there are natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, subsidence, and typhoons. All these processes have been occurring all throughout history, but have become hazardous only because of their effect on human beings.  Hazards do not turn into disasters when no human beings or properties are threatened.

For this critical essay, I decided to focus on three Rappler articles related to Typhoon Yolanda (international codename Haiyan) – “Leyte Warned of Storm Surges”, “Equating Storm Surge to Tsunami Dangerous-Expert”, and “Let’s Call Storm Surges ‘Silakbo’ in Pilipino”.  I selected these three articles for two reasons: 1) it is a recent disaster, and 2) the terminology caused confusion.  A few days before Typhoon Yolanda hit the country in 2013, DOST Project NOAH provided the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) a list of localities with the highest predicted storm surge.  Rounding the top three were MatarinaoBay in Eastern Samar, Poro Island Biliran, and Tacloban in Leyte.  On November 8, 2013 at 12:48 a.m., Rappler posted “Leyte warned of storm surges” and listed localities with the latest predicted storm surges.  As the title suggested, the article warned the localities to brace for storm surges up to 5 meters.  It includes the following paragraphs:

“For coastal communities, a storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property caused by a hurricane.  Aside from inundating buildings and infrastructure, it causes battering waves to pummel against structures and eventually destroy them.”

“Aside from having to deal with more than 5-feet high storm surges, they will also have to prepare for winds of more than 185 km/h within the next 12 hours.  Such strong winds can uproot large trees and severely damage buildings.”

The day after Typhoon Yolanda wreaked havoc on the Philippines, our office phone started ringing off the hook; calls from news agencies both domestic and international.  News reporters were interested in DOST Project NOAH Executive Director Dr. Lagmay’s assessment of the devastation.  At first, it appeared that very few deaths were being reported which prompted a sigh of relief from the many DOST Project NOAH employees.  It even incited a round of applause from the NDRRMC control center, who congratulated PAGASA for a spot-on prediction.  This feeling of elation lasted a few hours. Then news started trickling in that Tacloban City, Ormoc City, Guiuan, Hernani, Bantayan, Panay, Bogo City and other affected areas had not reported their casualties because of the turmoil.  In the next days after the destruction, confusion turned into anger.  Many negative comments were directed at DOST Project NOAH because as one Tacloban Councilor stated, they were warned against storm surges but not tsunamis.

The second article “Equating storm surge to tsunami ‘dangerous’ – expert” was posted on November 27, 2013 where Dr. Lagmay told reporters during a media workshop, that storm surges should not be called tsunamis because they are different.  People prepare and react differently for tsunamis and storm surges.

This was in response to criticism hurled against DOST Project NOAH for not properly communicating the impacts of storm surges.  Some people stated that it would have been better for DOST Project NOAH to have warned against tsunami to enable the public to visualize the devastating impacts of the storm surge.  Dr. Lagmay addressed the media to use caution and not confuse the two hazards.  In a tsunami scenario, people have a few minutes to run to higher ground for safety while in a storm surge scenario, there is a lot more time (days) to prepare and evacuate to safe centers.  In the case of Typhoon Yolanda, storm surge predictions were made as early as two days before the typhoon made landfall.  Nevertheless, the media and the public were unkind with their words towards the national government and warning agencies.

The third article “Let’s call storm surges ‘silakbo’ in Pilipino” was posted on December 27, 2013 by Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  This was Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo’s take on terminology that Filipinos should use to acquaint themselves with the destruction and devastation brought on by storm surges.  This was in response to previous articles suggesting the use of other names like “tsu-alon”, “humbak”, and “daluyong”.

These three articles came from one source (Rappler) to make it easier to compare news stories.  Other sources went for the shock factor or the “wow” factor to be able to sell their stories.  Other news programs focused on the demolition, damage, and devastation.  Others chose to highlight the dead while a minority celebrated the few successes.  Before the typhoon made landfall, very few (and I emphasize the very few) experts encouraged the public to heed the local governments’ advice and evacuate to safer ground.  Multiple team meetings were taking place in strategic areas of Metro Manila and local government units.  The warnings were given, the disaster personnel were ready, news reporters were on site, and the country was geared up for the biggest typhoon on record.  So what went wrong?

Before I attempt to address that question, let me go back to the three articles from Rappler.  These articles were very informative and helpful.  I found them illuminating because the news were factual and explanatory.  They were even educational.  One may or may not agree with the suggested terminologies but as long as the public continues to be aware of the hazards, then our information and educational campaign is doing its part in informing the public of the effects of natural hazards.  I do not wish to diminish the desolation caused by Typhoon Yolanda, but I’d rather concentrate on what we can do better to move forward.

So what went wrong with the supposed readiness?  There was a major disconnect between the issuance of the warnings and the people’s reception to those warnings.  After the landfall, numerous “experts” came out and gave their two cents.  Some of these experts called for a complete overhaul of the disaster management council and others offered their unsolicited “expertise” like calling storm surges tsunamis.  Some resorted to the blame game – he says/she says.  But what about the communities annihilated by the typhoon?  Some of these coastal communities did evacuate but still got obliterated by the force of the surge.  What about the confusion in the terminology?  Locals in the coastal communities reported that they were asked to evacuate due to “tsunamis” but decided to wait it out since they are used to yearly storms.  Other locals were told of storm surges but since they did not see major activity in the seas, they stayed put to protect their properties.  One homeowner even invited his neighbors because his house was made of concrete.  Unfortunately, everybody who stayed in that house perished because even if the foundation was spared, the flooring gave out and everybody was swept away by powerful waves.

We all need to be critical of what we read because behind every reading is someone’s bias.  I am no expert but I always look for the connection, understanding, practice, tradition, and human relations in what I read.  If it were me, how would I have reacted?  If I were a local in the coastal communities of Tacloban, would I have stayed or gone to safer ground?  Would it matter if the warning was given for a tsunami sans storm surge?

Let’s start with some basics.  There are four pillars of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan – Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, Disaster Preparedness, Disaster Response, and Disaster Rehabilitation and Recovery.  These four thematic areas are geared for safer, adaptive and disaster-resilient Filipino communities toward sustainable development.  The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) is the responsible agency for Disaster Prevention and Mitigation with main goal to avoid hazards and mitigate their potential impacts by reducing vulnerabilities and exposure and enhancing capacities of communities.  To achieve this goal, Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (Project NOAH) was created.  The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) has the overall responsibility for Disaster Preparedness and their main goal is to establish and strengthen capacities of communities to anticipate, cope and recover from the negative impacts of emergency occurrences and disasters.  Disaster Response is under the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) with a goal to provide life preservation and meet the basic subsistence needs of affected population based on acceptable standards during or immediately after a disaster.  The fourth pillar Disaster Rehabilitation and Recovery is under the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).  Their goal is to restore and improve facilities, livelihood and living conditions and organizational capacities of affected communities, and reduce disaster risks in accordance with “building back better” principle.

If you have not heard of these basics then the pillars – Disaster Prevention/Mitigation and Disaster Preparedness, need to do a much better job in informing the public of the effects of natural hazards.  After all, they are at the forefront of all Information, Education and Communication campaigns.  This is all part of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan.  This is disaster management and not management of disaster.

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