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Lessons learned (hopefully) from ‘Yolanda’

/ 12:30 AM November 16, 2013

Supertyphoon “Yolanda” wrought immeasurable damage and havoc to the people of Tacloban City and others in its deadly path. The preparations proved inadequate because no one expected the typhoon to be that strong. The devastation seen on TV is enough to instill fear and sorrow in anyone, particularly those who have relatives and other loved ones in the affected areas. The few days when there was no communication whatsoever caused so much anxiety, despair and helplessness among those who did not know if their loved ones had survived.

It is very evident that so many wrong things happened in the government’s preparations and postdisaster response.  The delay in providing the needed assistance to the survivors and the evident absence of law and order led to anarchy in the streets. Many of the survivors took the opportunity to loot, under the reasoning that in situations like this, survival of the fittest is the norm. This is very disturbing because survival of the fittest should have no room in any civilized society.

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A number of people interviewed live on radio, including an Ateneo de Manila University psychology professor,  justified this mob behavior. He later qualified his statement by saying that only the looting of food and other essentials is justified—but once it starts, how do you stop  the looting of appliances, toys and nonessentials? One TV/radio commentator, quoting a high-level Department of Justice official, said looting is allowed under the Constitution in certain warranted cases such as what transpired in Tacloban. These statements were heard on radio by the survivors, and guess what: They were encouraged to loot more. Ships and trucks loaded with relief goods as well as the rice and palay warehouse of the National Food Authority were overrun by looters. Anarchy became the norm, and nobody appeared to be in charge of the situation.

Looting is wrong and should not be condoned. But the government should also understand the predicament of the survivors and make sure that their needs are immediately attended to.

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On CNN early last Sunday, the Philippine Red Cross head said that because the Tacloban airport was littered with debris and could not be used, the PRC had no way of sending relief goods, medicines and doctors to the stricken areas. The CNN commentator asked: Why not use helicopters? The PRC head did not answer. Inexcusably, two precious days were lost before the government started to respond.

In an ANC interview on Tuesday evening, the police and military spokespersons explained that with the airport in Tacloban open and the C-130 sorties, there were sufficient relief goods now in the city but the distribution to the barangays and sitios was being hampered by the blocked roads. Again, why not use helicopters and make air drops, if necessary?  If there are not enough available military choppers, why not borrow or rent private ones?  The objective was to deliver the relief goods to the survivors, and not simply transport these to Tacloban. This failure of the government to respond effectively and in a timely manner led to the total collapse of law and order.

Looking back at the history of disasters in the Philippines, one will find it easy to conclude that we will continue to experience devastation from typhoons, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and even manmade disasters. We are in the Pacific Ring of Fire and have a number of earthquake faults; the occurrence of high-magnitude earthquakes or supertyphoons is only a matter of time.

The government already has in place a disaster-response program, but it has proven to be inadequate and needs review and improvement. We need to accept the fact that in general, we do not have enough trained people, resources and equipment (including large electric generators, water desalination equipment, Huey helicopters and C-130s) that are required if we are to cope with disasters of a certain magnitude. Thus, we may have to swallow our pride and consider how other countries can immediately help us. In this regard, perhaps we should consider allowing the US government to install temporary bases or staging areas in selected locations in the Philippines, provided that part of the arrangement is for US troops to commit and maintain adequate disaster relief equipment and capability to augment our government’s own disaster-response capability.

The serious challenge now facing the Philippine government is addressing the needs of our countrymen who lost their houses, the restoration of law and order, and the rebuilding of basic infrastructure in the devastated areas. The hundreds of millions of dollars pledged by the international community, as well as the cash donations of private companies and individuals in the country, can be used for this purpose. The government should organize a Marshall Plan-type task force that will identify and prioritize the rebuilding of essential infrastructure to be financed by the relief funds received and the government’s own funds.

As in the previous disasters that have befallen our country, natural and manmade, the resiliency of the Filipino people will no doubt help us bounce back from this adversity. Yolanda brought us grief and misery. Hopefully, it also provided us enough lessons to prepare even better for other disasters that will come our way.

David L. Balangue ([email protected]) is chair of the Coalition Against Corruption and founder of the [email protected]

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TAGS: Business Matters, david l. balangue, Disaster, disaster preparedness, opinion, Yolanda
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