Earthquakes and excellence

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

As I’m writing this, at about 10:00 Tuesday morning, I’ve got on eye and both ears on the other computer (having two comes in handy), which is providing a stream of reports on the earthquake that struck the Visayas.

As it always is in times like these, the news is confusing and contradictory. Any disaster puts a strain on information systems, particularly here in the Philippines, where despite a virtual alphabet soup of acronyms representing various agencies responsible for managing crises (e.g., NDRRMC, PDRRMC, DILG, DSWD, FUBAR), coordination and communication seem to be particularly challenging, not the least because of the weird habit of government officials to go to great lengths to try to dismiss the situation.

For example, an official of the Cebu Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council Group Amalgamation Unlimited, or whatever it is “PDRRMC” actually means (seriously, if your acronym has six letters, you’re doing it wrong), was just on Radyo 5 telling the interviewer that the excitement was pretty much over as far as he could tell, and that people were going back to their normal activities. At exactly the same time, Agence France-Press and Yahoo News (via the Philippines’ own ABS-CBN) are updating their reports with pictures of widespread damage, and a death toll that has increased from four to six to 20 to “possibly more.”

I am not making light of the calamity. An earthquake is one of the most frightening natural phenomena a person is likely to experience; there is something fundamentally unnerving about the very earth beneath our feet moving. Beyond the deaths and injuries—numbers that I am certain will be much larger when this column goes to print than they are right now—the toll this particular earthquake appears to have taken on a number of historic churches in Cebu and Bohol is especially disheartening.


Nevertheless, this earthquake is not something that should have taken anyone by surprise; it was just a little less than two years ago (February of last year) that there was an earthquake of similar magnitude in Negros. This is, despite the government’s—and to some extent, the entire population’s—vain efforts to try to convince themselves otherwise, a country with a dangerous environment. In a span of five days, the Philippines has taken a one-two punch of a destructive typhoon and a destructive earthquake, and lest we forget, is still struggling with a large-scale humanitarian and economic crisis in Zamboanga, which started out as a man-made disaster but has been hugely aggravated by severe flooding.

As I have said before, more than once, it may be a bit of a dubious opportunity, but the Philippines’ being “disaster-prone” is an opportunity nonetheless: This country could be, and for its own sake should be, the world leader in disaster mitigation and response, but quite obviously it is not. Which is why an exhortation like the following from President B.S. Aquino 3rd is all the more ludicrous and infuriating:
“Talent, dedication, and industry: these are just some of the qualities that make Filipinos among the most sought—after professionals in the world. But to turn these individual attributes into the foundations of our collective success, we must also consciously adopt a culture that is geared toward creating better products and providing better services . . . By replacing our propensity to settle for mediocrity with a drive for excellence, I am confident that we will not only realize our full potential, we will also reclaim our place as among the leaders in the region.”

B.S. Aquino is probably the last person in this hemisphere who should be lecturing anyone about “pursuing excellence.” In management, credibility of the messenger plays an important role; the “do as I say, not as I do” perspective has never inspired anyone to better performance, and it certainly will not now.

Settling for mediocrity is one thing when it involves playing fast and loose with the national budget to buy intangible political results (and then calling it “disbursement acceleration,” as if that was an actual thing that existed, ever). It is quite another when it involves making bad decisions about dealing with real, present physical threats out of a stubborn pathological belief that any work done by anyone prior to June 30, 2010, was corrupt and wrong.

Standing up in front of the assembled Legislature and delivering a State of the Nation Address wherein a hazard-mapping project—an entirely superfluous one, as the same thing has been an ongoing activity of several agencies both inside and outside the Philippines for better than 20 years at this point—that is “almost completed” is touted as an achievement in disaster mitigation is mediocre. Funding bureaus like the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, and Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology at levels that are inadequate for them to retain experienced, qualified staff (while institutionalized racketeering in the form of large bonuses and perks is permitted at subscriber-supported agencies like the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. and the Social Security System) is mediocre.

Making the first words of comfort and reassurance to those affected by the quake come in the form of a text message from an underling to the TV stations, several hours after the event and then only to say that the President “ordered” the responsible agencies to do what they were already doing anyway—that’s not excellence. That’s mediocre.

What would not be mediocre, what would demonstrate by example the “drive for excellence” standard PNoy wants everyone else to adopt but shows no inclination to apply to himself would be to make—for what would probably be the first time in this country’s history—comprehensively addressing disaster management as the Philippines’ top priority. It would actually provide a substantial economic boost: The economic activity generated by requiring retrofitting or replacement of poorly-built structures, roads, and other infrastructure, building robust flood-control systems, and beefing up the country’s fire/rescue and medical services would be enormous. And the resources are available, no matter what the President or his arithmetically challenged economic team believes; for example, the P150 million given to just two of President Aquino’s party-mates, Sen. Franklin Drilon and former congressman and now Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Abaya, could purchase 15,000 (at retail, no less) so-called “Ondoy boats” for flood rescue.

It’s not as if the Philippines has a choice, actually. Not only has the country now suffered two seriously damaging earthquakes in consecutive calendar years, the Bohol earthquake coincidentally happened the same day the 20th tropical storm of the season was exiting the Philippine area of responsibility. If that’s not enough to convince the administration and everyone else in this country of the need to prepare, rather than simply react to disasters, then it’s likely nothing will.

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