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.
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.