• Best practices in disaster preparedness: Hong Kong

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    ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

    ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

    When typhoon Lawin hit Hong Kong, I was at the 108th floor of the Ridge Carlton building. A 180 kph gust of wind brought by the category 8 typhoon (in Hong Kong ratings) slammed at the building, and there I stood in awe watching how the city prepared for potential disasters. The windows of the buildings were covered with nets to protect people from possible shards of glass.

    I was fortunate to see the entire process of their disaster risk reduction management, and let me share some of the lessons I have learned.

    In Hong Kong, the category rating system is different from the Philippines. The category numbers are 1, 3, 8, 9, and 10. Category 8, is subdivided into four groups (8 NE, 8 NW, 8 SE, 8 SW). It simply informs the citizens the direction of the storm, and it automatically informs the citizens which waterfronts and coastlines to avoid.

    On the other hand, the Hong Kong typhoon category system has an immediate action plan attached to it that specifically affects citizen activities. It was shared with me that category 8 immediately means to stay indoors, and category 9 and 10 means all modes of transportation are suspended.

    Citizens are quickly reminded what to do. For schools, it is immediately understood that faculty and students are asked to stay until conditions are safe. It seems that there is a seamless interaction of community, government, and private establishments in disaster protection.

    After the wrath of this storm, there was only one casualty, somebody who was near the shoreline during the typhoon.

    If I were to rank Hong Kong’s disaster preparedness, I give it 9 out of 10. In contrast with the Philippines, I give our country 2.5 out of 10.

    Disaster response of our cities
    Citizens keeps on staying and living in identified hazard areas, and it is proven difficult to evacuate everyone, especially those who live near rivers, coastlines, and mountain ridges. Our disaster preparedness is more of reactive than active prevention and mitigation. Prevention is 90% cheaper, and spares more human lives.

    Local Government should exhibit strong political will and be steadfast in enforcing the provisions in their land use and zoning plans that easements and hazard areas should strictly be non-habitable. Another provision that I have been proposing is this — areas that are identified vulnerable to different kinds of hazards should have special regulations on its building and structural code. For example, if an area is identified to experience 2-meter flooding, housing should be required to adopt a stilt design or no bedrooms or living spaces on the ground floor.

    Another issue that Local Government should resolve is the protocol during evacuation. The number one concern during disasters is potable water, and next are food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. Without clean water, disease and sickness can spread immediately and cause more problems for the evacuation sites.

    There is also a need to take into account all of the doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, and other professionals. During calamities and disasters, the barangays know who to contact and these people know how to immediately help. Learning from Hong Kong, government does not need to do everything. They should involve citizens. This is the only way that everyone can rightfully say, they are prepared.

    I strongly recommend that all LGUs should revisit their Comprehensive Land Use Plans and Zoning Ordinances, and adopt the new measures from Disaster Responses and Climate Change resiliency.

    Interconnecting cities
    I was in China last week to represent the Philippines for the Council on Tall Building and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), along with delegates from 46 countries. I shared lessons learned and possible solutions to the issues that Philippine cites are confronting, most especially Metro Manila. On the other hand, I was also there to listen to architects, planners, and developers, and bring home with me a wealth of new perspective that can be adopted here in our cities and regions.

    It was shared that interconnecting buildings acts as a disaster response measure. People from one building during fires can easily evacuate into the other building. And building a network of elevated walkways throughout the city prevents casualties from urban flooding, as well as safety against speeding motor vehicles. Through elevated walkways, citizens are still mobile despite heavy rains, and the walkways themselves become tools of disaster prevention.

    Another key learning is the utilization of waterways. Developing water transport can help alleviate traffic, while at the same time it gives access and quick response for rescuers in the event that some people are carried by the tide, as we have witnessed in Pasig River and Marikina River during Ondoy and Habagat.

    Since the late 1970’s when I was named hired by the ruler of Dubai, the recommendations that I recommended in terms of urban and regional planning, and disaster response, have been adopted. And some were the same recommendations that were in the World Bank-funded MMETROPLAN in 1975-1977 (for Manila).

    I believe that with visionary leadership, strong political will, good planning, good design, and good governance, we can work towards making our citizens prepared for disasters as well as planning our cities and communities toward disaster resilience.

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    3 Comments

    1. I suppose it also helps if the Citizens are even slightly disciplined and follow rules or commonsense, something sadly lacking here. Elevated walkways are in place here but few use them preferring instead to cross, whilst dragging their children across 6 lane, busy highways!

    2. I read you article with great interest sir. I agree that we have much to do and I am hoping that this administration will be able to address DRR the way they address the drug problem. Kudos to you once again.

    3. Another idea is for gov’t at national and local levels to provide a designated evacuation compound, including transport of evacuees’ precious possessions for safe temporary storage in cargo containers. Poor families are reluctant to evacuate if it means leaving their hard earned appliances or farm animals.

      Rather than evacuees’ material resources going to waste as a loss during a disaster like flood or typhoon, if they bring it with them these become relief supplies to alleviate their suffering and so they are not too dependent on relief. Such as what happened during the last super typhoon Lawin, though mercifully the human casualties were low, many farm animals in the hardest hit areas were wiped out. If there were sufficient means to bring these with the evacuees these animals could be sold for food, evacuees cooking appliances put top use at relief kitchens, and evacuees electric fans bring a measure of comfort in the evacuation sleeping area. In food for work programs, the evacuated men’s skills and tools, they brought along, pick and shovels can be readily organized to rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts.

      There is also a need to study and expose the aberrant politics of disasters (unique to the RP?) the exploitation in politics during disasters, control of the flow relief goods and rehabilitation of the stricken communities along political lines. The disaster resistant public works or the structural mitigation that are not prioritized or built.

      Lastly the basic unit of gov’t the barangay should reorient towards civil disaster and safety function, in other words instead of acting primarily as campaign machinery and entry level to perpetuate patronage politics and corruption or steering committees for fiestas, dapat public service muna!