Lessons From Terrible Tragedies

Typhoons Ondoy, Pedring, Sendong, Pablo, two freak monsoon rains, and now Yolanda have resulted in too much disaster, too many lives lost, too many houses and infrastructure destroyed, and too much suffering. The unfortunate thing is this would not be the last.

According to an Associated Press report, which was published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Philippines “sits in the middle of the world’s most storm prone region.” The same report referred to a research by Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the Weather Underground, which reportedly said “Half the storms on an informal list of the strongest ones to hit land in the 20th and 21st centuries ended up striking the Philippines…”

Scientists have predicted that there might be less typhoons but with more intense ones. There are studies that hypothesize that the accelerated climate change has got something to do with it. And governments are too stubborn to do something about it. The Kyoto Protocol looked promising, because it was supposed to oblige industrialized countries to reduce their GHG emissions by five percent and later, 18 percent against 1990 levels. However, the biggest emitters of GHG, such as the US, refuse to be bound by this agreement.

And then there are the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which the Philippines also has plenty of. The country is within the Pacific rim of fire and has many earthquake fault lines. We were just given a sample of its fury when Bohol and Cebu islands were devastated by one just this October 15. These have got nothing to do with climate change but are destructive nonetheless.

Are we really that vulnerable and helpless against these forces of nature? Is the ‘zero casualty’ target of the Aquino government a mere press release? Are we really prepared?

There are early warning systems; on this basis, communities near coastlines are forcibly evacuated days before the typhoon is supposed to hit land; after Ondoy hit, local governments parade their rubber boats to show their preparedness.

But recent calamities show that early warning systems are not enough; rubber boats are useless under strong winds and are sorely inadequate; and the usual evacuation centers being set up in public schools are scant protection for storm surges, earthquakes, and even landslides and volcanic eruptions.

According to the same Associated Press report, “Yolanda slammed the island nation with a storm surge two stories high and some of the highest winds ever measured in a tropical cyclone—314 kilometers per hour as clocked by US satellites, or 237 kph based on local reports.”

Another thing that Typhoon Yolanda proved is that the ferocity of typhoons, and even earthquakes or volcanic eruptions –especially those at the level of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption – for that matter, are too much for a local government unit to handle. In Leyte, even local government officials, the police force, and their families were struck hard by the impact of the typhoon. And what needs to be done in the aftermath is way too big to handle by local government officials on their own.

What is needed is a national, concerted effort bringing together the energies of the national government, line agencies, local government units, and of course, the affected people themselves. What is happening in Leyte shows that when people – treated as mere recipients of support and aid – take matters into their own hands, out of desperation to survive, they could easily overcome local governments. And the government commits a greater violation if it, instead of responding to the people’s needs, tries to establish “order” with the use of force. This could not have happened if the people know what to do and are organized. This could also have solved the sore lack in manpower for relief operations during major calamities.

NGOs and people’s organizations have shown the way in conducting trainings and organizing peoples and communities for disaster preparedness and response. Communities and their organizations identify risks and hazards, draw hazard maps, agree on and collectively implement measures and evacuation plans, and organize themselves into committees. However, the reach and resources of NGOs and people’s organizations are limited.

The government could support and multiply these practices in as many communities as possible, provide funds and resources for these, and build the necessary infrastructure by constructing sturdy and safe evacuation centers; pre-position relief goods in secure but accessible areas, provide communication facilities, and coordinate efforts on the national level.

In the long-term, the government should undertake mangrove and tree reforestation, ban commercial logging and massive mining operations for export, and provide adequate housing for the poor residing in high-risk areas. More important is that the government should effectively address the biggest vulnerability afflicting peoples and communities: poverty.

Only then could we mitigate the destructive impact of the forces of nature and eventually hope to make “zero casualty” a reality, not just in press releases. (Bulatlat.com)

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