You just can’t win. If you look at the Internet you’ll find, on one hand, the usual trolls and contrarians accusing the government of not doing enough during “Ruby.” On the other hand, there are others who cry “OA” (overacting) for the way classes and work were suspended for so many days.
I’d say we were better, very much better, prepared this time around. As a school administrator, I did feel uncomfortable having to suspend classes for four days because the national and local governments had done so, but better to err on the side of prudence than to be caught flat-footed, or have students and parents stuck in floodwaters trying to get to school.
There’s still much to learn about when to suspend work and classes, but even more crucial is learning to persuade people in high-risk areas to evacuate. There was much less resistance this time, with memories of “Yolanda” still fresh in people’s minds, but in Albay, where people have been known to refuse to leave their homes even as Mayon spews out fire and lava, there were people who questioned the water-plus-fire scenario—rains leading to more volcanic flow .
We are indeed the most disastrous-prone country in the world, and it looks like we now have to explain to people how we can have a combination of disaster scenarios, as in a typhoon plus a seething volcano, maybe with risks from volcanic rumblings and tremors thrown in.
I have to keep reminding people that stubbornness in times of disaster is not unique to the Philippines. There are so many studies now from experimental psychology, in the United States and Europe, showing how even highly educated people’s judgements can be flawed in risky situations because of lapses in the way the mind processes memories.
Often the lapses come out of our own biases: We do not want to believe the facts, especially—and this is the irony—when it works against us. We might even have false memories, downplaying the adverse experiences we had during a previous disaster.
Cues and reminders
Given these problems with the way the mind works, it is important to keep putting up cues and reminders of the risks we face. Unfortunately, we put our minds into high gear only when a supertyphoon is about to strike, when we need to keep people on a kind of a yellow alert, like the traffic signal’s, to prepare for a change.
I’ve actually been out of the country since last Thursday, living out of a suitcase with almost a different hotel each night. What struck me is how, in Indonesia and China and Hong Kong (still China, of course), there were constant reminders in the hotels about disaster preparedness.
In Indonesia, the hotel room had a laminated card on tsunami, explaining what it is, and what to do in case of a tsunami alert. Follow the signs in the hotel, says the instruction on the card, and indeed, all throughout the hotel’s sprawling grounds were signs with arrows labeled “Assembly Point,” where people are supposed to congregate to be evacuated.
In Hong Kong, the hotel’s guest services directory had instructions on what to do in case of a fire, earthquake, or typhoon. Hong Kong’s typhoon warning signal system, which has something like eight levels, was also explained, together with what to do for each level. In Xiamen, China, the guest directory also had safety guidelines, with an explanation of China’s color-coded typhoon warning signals: blue, yellow, orange and red, each one depending on how close the typhoon is and its wind speeds.
I thought of how our schools and larger buildings should have similar guidelines and reminders—for example, signs with direction to places that are marked as evacuation centers.
Drills are also very important. At the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus, some of our colleges already have fire and earthquake drills. We’re working on possibly having campus-wide drills for the whole range of disasters, anticipating as well that the campus might be used as an evacuation center for communities in and around the university.
I’ve also heard good reviews of the disaster drills at Lyceum (Intramuros), complete with people fielded to “impersonate” the stubborn, the hysterical, and the elderly waiting to be evacuated.
We have laws requiring fire extinguishers, fire exits and signs leading to the exits. Perhaps we should have laws requiring designated disaster refuge and evacuation areas.
All the warning signs and guidelines, and drills, will still be of limited usefulness if we don’t keep pushing environmental awareness. People have to understand why we have more ferocious typhoons now, or why we flood so easily.
The hotels where I’ve been staying have made the shift to more environmentally-friendly practices. The hotel in Indonesia had signs everywhere saying it has joined a Planet 21 initiative—21 measures toward better environmental management, from segregated garbage bins in the rooms to the choice given to guests not to have towels and bed sheets changed every day.
Many years back I had a Japanese friend living in Thailand and working in hotel management. He was always complaining about “politically correct” practices of hotels concerning environmental management. He just hated the idea of having to keep a towel on the rack, or sleeping on sheets that had been used two or three days. He predicted that all the green practices were just fads, and would fade away.
I’ve thought of contacting him and asking what he thinks now of the greening of hotels.
Let’s not forget disaster preparedness at home. It was sad watching the international cable channels showing how people in Leyte, Samar and Albay would sometimes dismantle their shacks—their only way to prevent it from being destroyed by a supertyphoon.
In contrast, our middle- and high-income households have kids that see a typhoon as a chance to take a vacation. At one point one of my daughters texted asking if I could send her the password for an Apple account because she needed to upgrade her Minecraft, a game played on iPhones and iPads.
I obliged with a temporary password, figuring that at least it was for Minecraft, which hones kids’ creativity. But I made a mental note to talk with the kids about why classes are suspended during strong typhoons, and why we have such storms more frequently.
Now the last thing we want is to have a preachy session on disaster preparedness. You might want to take a cue from the US Centers for Disease Control about two or three years ago, when they inundated the media with announcements that zombies do exist and that the public had to follow a zombie preparedness system: having adequate food and water, agreeing on a place where everyone would meet, and many more measures. It was a big hit, and could be something to do at home—maybe an aswang alert, or a walking dead alert.
The kids do know, but don’t forget to clarify that these creatures don’t exist.
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