At the risk of repeating myself, the way we encourage and promote safer communities is through empowering people to reduce risks in their settlements and to train for greater resilience of kith and kin. In the long term we will see safer communities with preparedness measures to withstand the brunt of the worst disastersThe Philippines is on the way to reaching this enviable goal and should take note of this excellent article written by Alexis Romero.
Disasters highlight gaps in Philippines preparedness measuresMANILA, Philippines - It was late afternoon of Nov. 8 and personnel of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) were about to end their meeting at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
The meeting, which lasted about three hours, discussed the government’s preparations for Super Typhoon Yolanda that hit the Visayas that day.
NDRRMC executive director Eduardo del Rosario told reporters they did not yet have data on typhoon casualties as they could no longer communicate with their units in Eastern Visayas, the region worst hit by the cyclone.
Del Rosario, however, made a statement that would likely join the ranks of forgettable quotes.
“Based on our record in 1990, Nov. 10, the result of a (typhoon with) 240 kilometers per hour winds is 508 dead, 1,278 injured, 246 missing with almost P11 billion in damage. If we compare it now, and if that’s the premise of the question, we can see that we have not received reports on casualties,” Del Rosario said in Filipino.
“I hope, maybe (the number of casualties is) very low and we might get an encouraging report by tomorrow (Nov. 9),” he added.
Unfortunately, Yolanda was not the only disaster that tested the mettle of Filipinos this year.
A challenging yearAsked for his thoughts about 2013, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said: “I have everything. You have the encounter, the attack in Zamboanga, you have the earthquake in Bohol, you have the storm of Yolanda. What else can you ask for?”
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista echoed a similar sentiment.
“We went through a lot of crises this year. The year 2013 had just started yet we already had the Sabah (standoff), the kidnapping of our personnel in Golan Heights, the successive typhoons, the Zamboanga crisis,” Bautista said.
When asked to describe 2013, the military chief said: “challenging but fulfilling.”
This year was indeed a trying one for soldiers who serve as the first responders in times of disasters, be it natural or man-made.
In February, followers of the Sulu sultanate entered Lahad Datu in Malaysia-administered Sabah to assert their claim to the area, which they consider their ancestral land.
Clashes ensued after members of the Sulu army refused to leave despite the deadlines set by Malaysia. Dozens of sultanate followers and Malaysian security personnel were slain in the clashes that spilled over to other parts of Sabah.
While the AFP was not directly involved in the conflict, it was tasked to conduct maritime patrols and to provide assistance to Filipino evacuees from Sabah.
Clashes and aftershocksThe Zamboanga City crisis, which left at least 140 persons dead, happened last September, ironically declared as “National Peace Consciousness Month.”
It all started after followers of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founding chairman Nur Misuari tried to hoist their flag at the Zamboanga City Hall. This came weeks after Misuari declared independence from the Philippines in Talipao, Sulu and declared himself leader of what he called the “Bangsamoro Republik.”
The AFP admitted knowing about the MNLF’s plan to hold mass actions in Zamboanga three days before it happened. But it did not expect the massing up to lead to a full-blown crisis, since the MNLF had held similar peaceful actions in Davao.
The rebels held numerous civilians hostage, resulting in firefights with security forces that claimed the lives of 19 soldiers, five policemen, 11 civilians and 105 Misuari followers.
After almost three weeks of clashes, the defense department declared that the crisis was over but clearing operations would be conducted to weed out stragglers and explosives.
Critics said the crisis would have been avoided had the government taken seriously Misuari’s earlier pronouncements.
Rebellion charges have been filed against Misuari, who continues to elude government forces.
The country faced another disaster in October when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit a huge part of the Visayas, killing 222 persons while 976 others were hurt.
Officials said the numbers would have been higher had the earthquake happened on a Sunday, since several churches were destroyed.
The earthquake damaged P2.26 billion worth of roads, bridges and public buildings.
That estimate, however, does not include the historic churches that collapsed as well as the relics and antiquities that were destroyed with them.
Monster typhoonOver 20 typhoons visited the country this year but the most notable among them is Yolanda (international name Haiyan), which placed the Philippines at the center of world attention.
The gaps in the government’s response during the first few days after the typhoon struck were revealed to the world by international media.
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said the situation of typhoon victims was among the most desperate he had seen in the last couple of years.
“As to who’s in charge of the Philippine side of the whole operation, that is not really clear,” Cooper said.
BBC correspondent Jon Donnison remarked: “There does not yet seem to be an effective operation to get help to those in need.”
ABC News’ Terry Moran, meanwhile, said the government was paralyzed by Yolanda’s strength and scope.
“There are signs here in the Philippine capital that the government simply cannot handle the massive challenges the country faces in the wake of typhoon Haiyan,” Moran said.
Gazmin recently admitted that the Philippines was not prepared for a cyclone as powerful as Yolanda.
“Actually, we were not prepared for that kind of typhoon. It was too strong, signal number four. It appears that it was the strongest in the world. Any country that will be hit by it would experience the same,” Gazmin said.
He said preparedness measures could be improved by organizing local governments, amending the Building Code to ensure that structures can withstand strong winds, relocating people in risky areas, acquiring new equipment and simplifying warnings.
Are we ready?Even before Typhoon Yolanda ravaged the country, experts warned that the Philippines’ disaster preparedness measures are inadequate.
In a report released in 2010, multinational risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments said claims that the Philippines had achieved progress in disaster preparedness are “misleading.”
“As with most everything in the Philippines, there is a gaping disconnect between what is being proclaimed by politicians and bureaucrats as progress and ground truth realism,” the report said.
“The reality remains that, despite the government pretentiousness, the country remains ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the majority of disaster or crisis situations.”
The report cited “a blatant lack of government resources and coordination” between national and local officials to properly use international assistance.
Officials, however, claim that they are continuously working to make the country more resilient to disasters.
So is the Philippines ready for the next big one?It sounds morbid but answering that query might require another super typhoon or another powerful earthquake.
If that’s the case then perhaps the question is better left unanswered.