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Disempowered

“Glenda” was a wake-up call for this year’s typhoon season. It was strong—but not a supertyphoon—racing across our islands and leaving within a day.

Over at UP Diliman, I had extra reason to be thankful because our new academic calendar has classes starting in August. Diliman is sprawled out over more than 450 hectares, with some 160 academic buildings, and even more residential units.

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I thought I’d share some of our experiences, and a few tips, to help other people working as administrators for large institutions. Let’s face it, even the best of disaster response plans need to be tested by real-world situations.

As early as Tuesday, out in Batangas with our deans and directors for a workshop, the challenges began as we got news of the approaching typhoon.  Should work be suspended? I called Mahar Lagmay, who is rapidly becoming a media celebrity for his science program.  He is also the executive director of Project Noah, which deals with disaster responses. He agreed that work should be suspended and for Wednesday; he sounded almost ominous, describing heavy clouds and predicting strong rains.

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That was the easy part. Next was disseminating the suspension order. Anril Tiatco, director of the Diliman Information Office, a young guy and social media-savvy, assured me the messages would get out quickly. I felt assured, helped by the fact that I was with all the deans and directors in one bus, who could inform their offices right away.

I suspect most of us went to sleep early that night, exhausted from our workshop. Next day, I woke up to find Meralco had cut the power supply. It was a strange experience, having gotten used to strong typhoons striking at night. This time, Glenda raged through the morning, but it might as well have been the night, sitting in the dark and listening to the howling winds outside.

I had driven back home to check on my parents, and as my father began to ask more frequently about the typhoon and the brownout, I realized we didn’t have a radio in the house!  I also began to fret about our emergency lights. My mother’s caregiver had been smart enough to charge some of the emergency lights, but I realized we had neglected several other lights, and a medium-sized inverter generator.

Now began the texting with other university officials to get updates. The damage mainly consisted of large, old trees blown over, damaging building and blocking the roads. Our Community Maintenance Office and Meralco teams were responding quickly, but there was just so much damage they had to prioritize clearing the main thoroughfares.

The texting became more frenzied that morning and into the early afternoon, as I tried to check with my kids in Laguna. And then I began to get messages: “Sir, low-bat na cell phone ko.” One of my key officials texted in the afternoon about having lost power, and the cell phone signal, as early as in the morning. By mid-afternoon, the messages sounded really bad, to the effect that cell phones were dying.

Glenda was a rude reminder of how precariously dependent we are on power supply. Early in the afternoon, my mother’s caregiver told me she was worried that she would not be able to use the electric food blender to prepare meals for my mother, who takes very few solids now. I checked on her other needs and went out to the groceries, most of which were closed.

But our greatest vulnerability now comes from being disconnected from the world, literally disempowering us. I sent an update to Anril, asking him to post updates but he said that without electricity, this couldn’t be done. I realized, too: Even if we could post, just how many people were going to do the Internet?

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That afternoon I drove back to UP Diliman, again to be reminded of our dependence on electricity. Our small hospital was in the dark, saving the emergency lights for the night.  The dorms each had two or three emergency lights, again being saved for an anticipated night without power. The maintenance people were valiantly clearing the roads, and cutting down tree branches that were about to fall, but they were doing this with itaks and bolos, worried again that the two chainsaws we had would run out of power.

By the evening, the text messages had dwindled to almost zero. Fortunately, they began to trickle back in as power supply returned, but I shudder thinking about future typhoons, if power outages are more prolonged.

 

Lessons and tips

Glenda was like a strict theater director, putting us through a tough dress rehearsal. Some lessons and tips from that dress rehearsal, mainly around power and disempowerment:

First, emergency lights are important. The costs have come down for LED lights, which are quite bright and durable. The problem though is with their batteries, which have to be recharged; and if you’ve left them in the closet for some months, they would have been completely discharged—sometimes, with cheaper ones, permanently. Invest in good ones, and keep them charged. Some manufacturers also recommend discharging them regularly by actually using the lights.

Second, the cell phones. Turn off your 3G and LTE during an emergency, saving them for occasional checks on the Internet for news updates. Don’t use the cell phone light or battery: a few minutes of bright light could kill your cell phone.  Don’t make calls unless necessary since they drain the phone very rapidly. Invest in power banks, which are batteries that you charge up through electrical outlets, and which you can then plug into your phone when power dwindles.

Third, think of investing in generators. Even a small inverter type with 500 watts capacity can at least be used for lights and for charging your cell phone. If you have the budget, go for the large ones, like those used in upper-end condominiums.

Which takes me to another tip. If you have close friends living in condos with generators, ask if you can drop by for a “friendly” visit. . . to charge your phone. Don’t abuse people’s hospitality by bringing in all your laptops and tablets and phones, and the food blender and microwave.

There are two sources of emergency power supply that we might overlook. One is your computer. If it’s well-charged, you can use its USB port to charge many types of cell phones.  You do have to make a decision: Do you need the laptop for something else, like doing your newspaper column, or can you sacrifice it for the cell phone.

The other emergency supply people forget is the car battery. There are all kinds of chargers now which you can plug into the lighter port, some only for a cell phone while others, the inverters, with pretty high wattage that can be used to charge, and run a laptop, even a DVD player.

I’m ambivalent though about living off the car battery.  Glenda reminds us again of a perennial challenge: What are we doing about alternative power sources? Solar chargers are around, but are still very expensive. But we have to get serious now about tapping the sun and the wind for other emergencies, or face more disempowerment.

* * *

Correction from Wednesday’s column: The UP versus Ateneo game is not this Saturday but Wednesday, July 23 at 2 p.m. at the Mall of Asia.

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TAGS: Academic calendar, Glenda, Mahar Lagmay, Meralco, project noah, up diliman
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