Urgent need for disaster management department
A 6.9-magnitude earthquake rocked the Indonesian resort island of Lombok last Aug. 5, causing the death of at least 347 and injury to thousands more as buildings and homes collapsed. Rescue operations were hampered, with power and communication lines cut by the quake. Thankfully, the death toll and destruction were not catastrophic, as Lombok has a population of only 4.7 million and has retained a more natural, uncrowded and undeveloped environment.
Like Indonesia, the Philippines rests on the earthquake and volcano Ring of Fire. The Metropolitan Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study estimates that when the “Big One,” a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, occurs, it will result in the collapse of 170,000 residential houses and the death of 34,000 people. Another 114,000 individuals will be injured, while 340,000 houses will be partly damaged. At least seven bridges will collapse, and kilometers of water distribution pipes will suffer 4,000 points of breakage. Thirty kilometers’ worth of electric cables will snap, causing power outage over a vast area.
In his State of the Nation Address in July, President Duterte urged Congress to pass a bill creating the Department of Disaster Management. He said: “To help safeguard the present and the future generations, we have to earnestly undertake initiatives to reduce our vulnerabilities to natural hazards, and bolster our resilience to the impact of natural disasters and climate change. As I had stated last year, we must learn from the experiences from the Supertyphoon ‘Yolanda,’ and other megadisasters, and from global best practices.
“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.”
Hence, said Mr. Duterte, his administration would ask Congress to pass a law creating the “Department of Disaster Management, an interagency crafted and a high-priority measure aimed at genuinely strengthening our country’s capacity for [resilience] to natural disasters.” It should be passed with “utmost urgency,” he added, because “Our people’s safety requirements cannot wait.”
I fervently hope this bill will not die a quiet death, the way a not too dissimilar bill back in the 1950s did. Then Rep. Francisco Perfecto of Catanduanes filed a bill in Congress to address the problems caused by typhoons, his island province being frequently pounded by furious typhoons, sometimes in the dead of night, that caused many deaths and serious damage on property and crops. A cynical member of the House of Representatives instantly dubbed the bill as the “Bill to Outlaw Typhoons.”
The press lapped up the derisive label, prompting political pundits to comment that the bill was reflective of the inanities indulged in by the occupants of the lower House. The twisted information that a member of Congress wanted to “outlaw” typhoons gained wide circulation among politicized citizens.
The fact is, nowhere in the bill was there any statement or even a hint to declare typhoons outlaws. The true intent of Perfecto’s bill was to study typhoons with a view to mitigating the damage they wreak. The bill included provisions for funding the specialized training of personnel and the acquisition of technical equipment.
But because of the jeers rained down on his bill and the snide remarks thrown his way, Perfecto allowed his bill to die a quiet death. He retired from politics at the end of his term in 1957.
Today, thanks to weather satellites and Doppler radars, we can track a typhoon days before it makes landfall, and even before it enters the Philippine area of responsibility, enabling people to ensure their safety and to secure their property. But, even then, much still needs to be done to enhance the state’s disaster management capabilities.
The passage of a bill designed to reduce our vulnerabilities to natural disasters could save thousands of lives and reduce enormous damage to infrastructure and private property. Indeed, it is most urgently needed.
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Oscar P. Lagman Jr. is a retired businessman and management professor.
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