State of calamity
While a political storm raged at the House of Representatives ahead of President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) last Monday, a different kind of storm has been raging in several areas of the country. Three tropical cyclones—“Henry,” “Inday” and “Josie”—hit the Philippines within days of each other and enhanced southwest monsoon rains, bringing floods that have affected more than 1 million people and caused damage worth at least P1.3 billion.
According to data from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), two provinces—Pangasinan and Cavite—and seven cities and municipalities in the Ilocos Region, Cagayan Valley and Central Luzon, Calabarzon and the Cordilleras, have been placed under a state of calamity as of yesterday.
Several places across Luzon, the most affected island group, showed scenes of damaged properties, inundated fields, pedestrians wading through knee- to waist-deep floodwaters at the risk of injury and the dreaded disease leptospirosis, and rescuers transporting residents in open trucks and improvised implements like styrofoam floats and wash basins.
In Cavite, where many depend on the coastal resources for livelihood, fishermen were unable to go out to sea because of the inclement weather. In Olongapo City, Mayor Rolen Paulino described as “buwis-buhay” an operation to rescue a family trapped under their house after a landslide. A drone video of a neighborhood in Malabon showed heavily flooded streets with residents trapped inside their homes.
These scenes are repeated without fail during the “habagat” season, with many citizens, often the poor, forced to survive natural disasters on their own. An average of 20 tropical cyclones affect the Philippines every year, with at least half of them making landfall and causing widespread damage like Tropical Storm “Ondoy” in 2009 and Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in 2013.
Acknowledging the country’s “vulnerabilities to natural hazards,” Mr. Duterte urged Congress in Monday’s Sona to pass a bill creating the Department of Disaster Management to “bolster our resilience to the impact of natural disasters and climate change.”
“We need a truly empowered department characterized by a unity of command, science-based approach and full-time focus on natural hazards and disasters, and the wherewithal to take charge of the disaster risk reduction, preparedness and response; with better recovery and faster rehabilitation,” the President said. The Cabinet has approved the measure, which he first mentioned in 2017, for immediate endorsement.
Several bills are pending in Congress, including House Bill No. 6075 filed by Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda, in response to Mr. Duterte’s call last year. The bill proposes setting up a Department of Disaster Resilience (DDR), modeled on the United States’ Department of Homeland Security that has several federal agencies under it. The proposed DDR will absorb at least four government entities critical to disaster planning and operation: Pagasa and Phivolcs under the Department of Science and Technology, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Bureau of Fire Protection under the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
Another proposed legislation, House Bill No. 344 filed by Leyte Rep. Yedda Marie Kittilstvedt-
Romualdez, seeks to establish a department that will handle all calamity-related operations and eliminate red tape in disaster management efforts. “The current setup has proven to be inadequate in preparing our country from major calamities that we will have to face on a yearly basis,” the bill stated.
Congressional hearings are still ongoing, and it remains unclear what will happen to NDRRMC under the Office of Civil Defense, which is currently tasked to lead responses to natural calamities.
While the plan to organize all disaster-related functions in one department is a welcome idea, the bigger challenge is ensuring it does not end up wasting public funds by adding merely another layer to the bureaucracy—or, worse, falling prey to corruption. Lawmakers should take the lessons learned from disasters like Yolanda and Ondoy to craft a law that will equip and give adequate teeth to such a critical frontline department, so it can, indeed, respond quickly and efficiently to calamities in the most modern, science-based way possible, and save as many Filipino lives every time instead of becoming an additional burden to taxpayers.
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