Consistency is key
In Bohol, previously battered by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake and then by Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” flash floods inundated seven villages, sweeping away homes and damaging property. Similar deadly waves hit a village in Zamboanga City, the waters reportedly reaching 20 to 30 feet high. Elsewhere, scores of people died from landslides that hit several towns across the Visayas. Many others simply drowned in the sudden floodwaters, or got electrocuted. In Cagayan de Oro, a tree fell on a vehicle being driven by a father who was with his kids; the man died of injuries in hospital. A number of persons remain missing.
Typhoon “Seniang” left at least 53 confirmed dead, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. Some 38 roads and 20 bridges became impassable in various parts of the Visayas and Mindanao. Around 5,000 families were preemptively evacuated to 83 emergency centers. The affected houses number 1,533 at this writing; the damage to livelihood and agriculture is still being estimated.
The aftermath of Seniang, the last storm to hit the Philippines in 2014, is a far cry from the low-damage and zero-casualty figures that marked the onslaught of the much stronger and more feared Typhoon “Ruby” less than a month ago. The provinces along Ruby’s path also sustained damage to housing, crops and infrastructure, but Albay and Catarman, Northern Samar—to cite just two places that were directly battered—had zero death. Thousands of residents were evacuated early on, contingency measures were in place to deal with emergencies at the height of the typhoon, and recovery and rebuilding activities were in full swing as soon as the worst was over.
While Ruby constantly changed direction and dumped vast rainfall over a considerably bigger area of the country due to its slow-moving nature, the timely and efficient disaster preparation activities made by the government, from the national level to the local units, spared the country the kind of horrific chaos and devastation that followed Yolanda last year. The government seemed to have learned its lesson from that traumatic experience; it wasn’t to be caught napping again.
Was that said too soon? Because, in light of the number of deaths in Seniang’s wake, one has to ask: What happened?
The floodwaters that suddenly engulfed homes and drowned unsuspecting residents—was there no warning that waters could rise and that people must flee to higher ground? Did the local governments fail to implement a thorough evacuation plan? Was there any urgent advice at all to seek safe shelter? In Bukidnon, a seven-year-old girl drowned when she tried to cross a swollen creek in search of her father. In Misamis Oriental, a farmer went out looking for his cow at the height of the typhoon and was swept away by an overflowing river. Why were they oblivious to the dangers of the typhoon? Did they fail to hear the warnings, or were they missed in any preemptive evacuation done?
Did the government do enough this time to prepare for Seniang? We’re not raising this question in the spirit of accusation; we want to know, as much as we presume that Malacanang and NDRRMC officials also want to know, why, despite the success notched during Ruby at keeping casualties minimal to zero, the deaths this time, for a typhoon that is much less fierce, could lamentably still reach double figures.
Has there been a slack? It’s only been three weeks or less. What has happened to all the high-profile advisories and preparations done in the run-up to Ruby, and why did these seem to be much less effective this time? Ordinary people at the receiving end of deadly storms year in and year out have no choice but to pick themselves up and rebuild their lives every time. The government, however, is required to do more than just survive. It has the wherewithal to draw institutional lessons from previous disasters, fund and sustain programs that would mitigate the effects of any future disruptions to lives and livelihood, and prepare the country for a changing environment in which more frequent natural disasters will be a continuing test on its resources and planning abilities.
One-time stopgap measures just won’t do. As it is, the government’s much-touted accomplishments circa Ruby seem so long ago now, in the face of the very real tragedy attending Seniang. In moments of emergency, consistency may very well spell the difference between zero casualty and needless deaths.
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