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The ‘disaster capital’?

/ 01:15 AM September 24, 2014

Sometimes, it seems like we’re the “disaster capital” of the world. No sooner had Tropical Storm “Mario” exited the Philippine area of responsibility than newspaper headlines returned to the possible eruption of Mayon Volcano, which had been spewing ominous clouds of ash, steam and vapor days before.

So from coverage of floods, emergency rescues and evacuations, and crowded evacuation centers, our media seamlessly turned to coverage of just-as-crowded evacuation centers, fleeing residents and Mayon Volcano covered in a veil of steam. All these coming in the wake of previous tropical storms, floods, traffic jams and warnings of a “long-delayed” earthquake. All we need to complete the menu is the arrival of the Ebola epidemic on our shores, which, given the far-flung boundaries of the Pinoy diaspora, is not such a far-fetched thing.

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A guest at yesterday’s “Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel” was Undersecretary Alexander Pama, who is just four months in his position as executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) but has had to oversee the mitigation and management of eight weather disturbances and humanitarian emergencies since.

Readers may be familiar by now with Pama’s appearance, since he was a fixture in the TV coverage of Mario’s onslaught, providing updates on rescue and relief efforts. But he is only the latest in a line of NDRRMC heads, at least since P-Noy took office, subject to the instant assessment of officialdom following one natural disaster or the other.

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Which may explain his defense of the agency he heads, protesting that the NDRRMC “is not Harry Potter.” Meaning, “We don’t have a magic wand to wave and all our troubles disappear.”

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BUT, being a former Navy chief, Pama must have little trouble dealing with floodwaters, which have become fixtures of our disaster landscape as much as rain and high winds.

The floods, he says, are as much a consequence of geography and the layout of our rivers and river basins as of human behavior (garbage and congestion).

The Marikina River, for instance, steadily narrows from its source, which means that it inevitably overflows its banks as it reaches the lowlands. The mountains from which the water flows are also bare (kalbo or balding, to use popular terms), and in strong rain “there is very little time to warn the populace living in lower areas for the sudden descent of water.”

Among the plans of the government agencies dealing with this perennial problem, especially the Department of Public Works and Highways, says Pama, is the construction of a “catchment” dam that would collect floodwater as the Marikina River makes its descent, allowing for a slower, more gradual release of water once the immediate danger passes. A similar plan is in place for the Tullahan River in Malabon, he adds.

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AMONG the major tasks of the NDRRMC is to prepare for and mitigate, or lessen, the risks and deadly consequences of disaster, says Pama.

He makes a strong case for the government’s improving performance in dealing with typhoons. In 2009, with the arrival of Tropical Storm “Ondoy,” for instance, the count of the dead was placed at 464 and the injured at 529. For Mario, he notes, the current number of fatalities has been put at 12, with 14 injured. Of course, he concedes, Ondoy was a far deadlier event, with double the volume of rainfall in 24 hours as that of Mario.

Relief supplies are also routinely “prepositioned” to be ready for any disaster or emergency that should arise, says Pama. And in the wake of Typhoon “Yolanda,” which devastated much of Eastern Visayas and other provinces as it cut across the archipelago, the NDRRMC has adopted what Pama calls the “twinning process.” When a typhoon or any disaster is anticipated to hit a province, he says, another province is designated as its “twin,” which would undertake much the same preparations and preparedness measures, including ways to ship or airlift emergency goods and personnel in case the area that is hit cannot cope with the scale of the disaster—as what happened in Samar and Leyte, which bore the brunt and unexpected force of Yolanda, deemed the most damaging and brutal storm ever in human history.

Also part of preparing for disasters, says Pama, is using technology to arm civilians with all the information they need to ensure their safety and get out of the way of floods, winds, quakes and other impacts of disaster.

One such use of information technology is the “Batingaw” (or warning bell) app available through Smart, which generates public awareness of incoming disasters. All the user has to do, says Pama, is to input one’s geographical location and the app will provide all the necessary information, including the nearest location of rescue personnel and links to government agencies. It is also, he adds, a “Swiss knife app,” since it can also be used as a “flash light and siren.” That is, provided one’s phone has battery power and there is Wi-Fi.

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POST-MARIO, Pama has visited Albay twice and met with Gov. Joey Salceda and other government officials to assess the state of preparedness in the area.

One problem presented was the insistence of residents in the 6-kilometer permanent danger zone to return to their farms to look after their crops and livestock left behind. For this reason, he says, local governments have designated holding areas for the animals although “this presents a problem because it then becomes the LGU’s responsibility to feed the beasts.”

Indeed, the NDRRMC’s problems, along with the rest of government, seem endless. But at least it is willing and able to respond to them.

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TAGS: Bulong-Pulungan sa Sofitel, Floods, Joel Salceda, Mayon Volcano, National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, natural disaster, NDRRMC, Philippine Area of Responsibility, tropical storm Mario, Undersecretary Alexander Pama
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