Much better, but . . .
In the wake of Typhoon “Glenda,” the numbers are in, and they seem, well, in a sense, encouraging: 40 dead compared to 200 when Typhoon “Milenyo”—a storm of comparable strength—struck in 2006; zero deaths and zero major injuries in the City of Manila; likewise with Albay, which bore the brunt of the storm but reported zero casualties; and more than 400,000 people evacuated to higher grounds both in Metro Manila and in the provinces, with most residents cooperating fully this time and not taking lightly the government warnings to remove themselves from the path of disaster.
The deaths, of course, mostly due to falling trees and flying debris, are still regrettable. But the lack of dramatic footage of catastrophe led Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson to quip, rather jarringly, that the aerial survey he conducted with other government officials, which found minimal flooding in major metro thoroughfares, was “boring.” For his part, Mahar Lagmay, the director of Project NOAH, said on TV: “We’re getting more and more progress… Based on initial reports, it looks like we’re getting a good score.”
It’s fair that some degree of credit goes to the government for the preparations it put in place in the runup to the storm; at the very least, it seemed to have absorbed full well the political repercussions of another botched disaster response after the nightmare that was Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” This time, the warnings came clear and early, the evacuations were organized and orderly, and Malacañang appeared to be on top of the situation before and after the storm’s onslaught.
Or perhaps it got lucky with Glenda? The typhoon, after all, while it lashed the other provinces with ferocity, generally spared Metro Manila. It was over in less than three hours and the rain it brought was minimal (hence the lack of widespread flooding). The strong winds were what knocked down many infrastructure and power lines and caused a number of deaths. By lunchtime of Wednesday, it was safe to venture out into the streets to survey the landscape of fallen trees, smashed cars, the gaping holes in the facades of commercial buildings such as SM Aura and Glorietta 5, and for the cleanup to begin in earnest. All in all, quite an improvement, indeed, from the typically chaotic aftermath of past storms.
Still, it would be too early for the government and its disaster agencies to be giving themselves a pat in the back. The aftereffects of the storm remained widespread two days after Glenda had exited the country: Millions remain without power (and in some areas, lack of electricity also means lack of running water), communication lines are still down (which is hampering the timely and accurate collection of data from the remote areas of the country) and schools have yet to reopen. As always happens with major storms, Metro Manila was once again paralyzed—plunged into darkness, its offices and businesses shuttered.
The relatively low casualty count from the rest of the country, meanwhile, was still a cause for frustration for National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council chief Alexander Pama, who said: “We still have to find out what exactly are the reasons a lot of our countrymen refuse to heed the warnings.”
In that remark, perhaps, is the reason the Philippines has had to endure disaster after disaster with each new typhoon that comes its way. For a country visited by devastating tropical storms at least 20 times a year, which should have made it a world expert by now in terms of dealing with such natural occurrences, it’s startling to hear that government officials in charge of disaster response are still in the dark about the mindset that governs ordinary Filipinos when it comes to dealing with impending calamities. One would think that without that knowledge, no insightful, successful intervention can be made to turn people’s minds around and train them in the merits of vigilance and preparedness.
The horrendous devastation of Yolanda should have brought home the lesson that the ad hoc responses to disasters the Philippines has lived by all these years will no longer do.
The strongest typhoon in history to hit land marks a watershed for the world, but especially for us: It’s time to retire the patchy, improvisational approach and draft a truly comprehensive—and well-funded—disaster preparedness program that will not only save lives, but also ensure that those who do survive are spared further torments due to lack of food, shelter, water, power, etc. We’ve lived with typhoons all our lives. We’re supposed to know all these by now.
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