How prepared are we?
No one saw it coming.
Without warning, a tsunami—triggered by a chunk of the active Krakatau volcano plopping into the ocean—sent tidal waves smashing into the coast on Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, and sweeping away people, inundating resorts and cutting down buildings late Saturday night.
“Underwater I could only pray ‘Jesus Christ help!’” said Zack, a member of the rock band Seventeen that was performing on an outdoor stage at the beach in Tanjung Lesung, Banten province, when waves slammed ashore. “In the final seconds, I almost ran out of breath.”
Zack survived by holding onto a part of the collapsed stage. The band’s road manager, bassist, guitarist and crew member were among the dead, whose number has risen to more than 420 to date. Some 1,400 were injured, and at least 150 others remain missing. Hundreds more are still stranded on remote and isolated islands, including some that have been turned into veritable wastelands, overrun with smashed cars, boats and furniture.
That it happened during the Christmas season has made the tragedy keener, rekindling memories of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, caused by a 9.1-magnitude quake on Indonesia’s Aceh province, that struck 14 countries and killed 226,000 people along the Indian Ocean coastline, the majority of them in Aceh.
As they picked up the pieces, survivors shared a common observation: There was no receding water or earthquake before the waves up to 3-meters high slammed ashore, as had happened in 2004. Worse, the country’s network of detection buoys have been knocked useless by vandals and budget shortfalls since 2012, disaster officials admitted.
Experts acknowledged that tsunamis caused by volcanic eruptions are rare, and that even if there had been detection buoys next to Krakatau, the warning time would have been minimal given the high speeds of tsunami waves and the proximity of the volcano to the shorelines. Even so, President Joko Widodo ordered disaster officials to install early warning systems, a need made acute by the increasing frequency of quake-spawned tsunamis in the archipelago in the last several years, including a recent massive one on Sept. 28 that left more than 1,300 dead and was also blamed on a faulty alert system.
Which brings us to the Philippines—a country likewise crisscrossed by offshore faults and trenches and is itself no stranger to destructive tsunamis.
In November 1994, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in Mindoro triggered a tsunami that drowned 38 people. Further back, in August 1976, an 8.1-magnitude earthquake in Cotabato spawned 9-meter-high waves that left some 8,000 dead and missing.
The few-and-far-between occurrences of tsunamis in the archipelago can make Filipinos smug. But the Indonesian tragedy has prompted Bataan Rep. Geraldine Roman to air a reminder for Filipinos to learn the basics of disaster preparedness. Knowing first aid, making a mental note of helplines, keeping emergency supplies handy, and mapping the location of hospitals and evacuation shelters can spell the difference between survival and death, said the chair of the House committee on disaster management.
Undersecretary Renato Solidum of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has also been pushing for a community-level awareness that zeroes in on the natural signs of an approaching local tsunami.
But shouldn’t the government consider investing, too, in a system that will alert residents in coastal communities of tsunamis?
If the budget appropriations are any guide, the Duterte administration appears to have other priorities in mind. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, for instance, has been challenged about flood-control programs in Casiguran town, Sorsogon province—where the mayor is his daughter’s father-in-law—amounting to P325.113 million. Diokno said the 2019 projects are intended to mitigate the effects of climate change; no studies to back up such projects have surfaced for independent scrutiny.
Other than this odd and sudden burst of supposed flood-control projects in the next national budget, there appears to be not much vision, even urgency, in the national policymaking landscape for a comprehensive, long-term and frontline disaster-preparedness blueprint, and for the sustained public awareness campaign necessary for it. The proposed Department of Disaster Resilience that would put more teeth to the task has been approved by the House, but remains pending in the Senate. Without due attention to this pressing need, the disaster-prone archipelago becomes even more vulnerable.
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