The disastrous manner in which the government responded to the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda is not an encouraging sign of its ability to manage the much larger and longer-term task of rebuilding the vast region wrecked by the storm, but the recovery need not be a failure.
If President B.S. Aquino 3rd and his administration can suspend their belief in their own infallibility and listen objectively to those who have been critical of the government’s efforts rather than tuning out anything that doesn’t sound like unconditional praise, they would discover that a number of solid proposals for calamity response and recovery have already been offered.
The administration would do well to heed some of the suggestions, because one of the key performance indicators the government is consistently failing is “progressive reduction in negative impact of subsequent similar events.” Typhoon Sendong in 2011 caused about 1,100 deaths. Typhoon Pablo in 2012 caused about 1,900 deaths. Typhoon Yolanda has caused at least 5,200 and possibly as many as 7,000 deaths. What has become the standard excuse for the scale of the loss due to Yolanda, that the storm was of such force that nothing could withstand it, is completely invalid. With all credit to the overworked and much-maligned Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, Yolanda’s strength, path and expected effects were forecast days in advance of the storm’s landfall with near-pinpoint accuracy. The entire region affected by Yolanda has a history (in 1897 and again in 1912) of being devastated by similar storms.
And the storm certainly did not catch everyone by surprise. Although Albay did not feel the full effects of the storm, it did experience weather bad enough that it would have caused significant casualties in the past, but none this time thanks to Gov. Joey Salceda’s well-led, efficient disaster preparedness plan. Southern Leyte, even closer to the path of the destructive heart of the storm, also suffered no casualties despite heavy damage being inflicted in some areas of the province. The best example is the tiny island of Talong, the smallest of the Camotes Islands lying exposed to the storm’s fury between Leyte and Cebu; despite having their village almost literally blown off the face of the Earth, every single resident of Talong survived unharmed, thanks to the foresight of their local government to move them to safety.
That is not to lay blame on local government units that did not prepare as effectively for the storm, although some of them probably do actually deserve it, because the present disaster management system embodied in the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) almost guarantees that the only way emergency response will be handled properly in affected areas is if those areas happen to have extraordinarily imaginative and effective leaders. The table of organization for the NDRRMC resembles a spider’s web rather than an arrangement of agency relationships that produce any sort of linear process, and so the responsible parties at the point of action—the local government units at the municipal and barangay level—are often contending with directions and objectives that are inconsistent, confusing, and too often compromised by petty politics.
It is difficult to assign priorities to the various major tasks the post-Yolanda rebuilding effort will require, because so many issues demand immediate attention, but if there is one initiative that could be tackled ahead of all the rest, it is the long overdue creation of a dedicated emergency management agency. Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano recently filed Senate Bill (SB) 1940 to create just such an agency, which would be called the “Emergency Response Department” (ERD). Cayetano’s proposal is not the first—the lack of such an agency has been repeatedly addressed without success over the past 20 years—but it is one of the better-designed and practical suggestions that have been made.
The most important feature of the proposed ERD is its permanence; many of the problems that seriously aggravated the effects of Typhoon Yolanda—and routinely aggravate even less spectacular calamities—such as habitation of at-risk areas, poor enforcement of building standards and codes, and sub-par facilities to be used as shelters in the event of a calamity would be addressed by the ERD during “nondisaster” periods. As it is now, problems like these are the responsibilities of different departments of the government, all of whom have greater priorities than emergency preparedness.
Criticisms of the ERD concept do not seem to take issue with the idea itself, but rather the way government initiatives seem to be quickly poisoned by political and financial chicanery. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of resentment and suspicion created by the blatant ethical deficiency of President Aquino’s leadership means these criticisms are not without some merit; the progress and development of SB 1940 must be watched closely to ensure that it includes sufficient safeguards against abuse. On the positive side, though, the public’s newly developed sensitivity to political misdoing, particularly in the mismanagement of funding, should encourage greater critical attention to how this important initiative is being handled.
Creating the ERD is vital to the recovery effort because it provides a foundation for “progress”: With an agency in place to monitor and act to mitigate risks before they become losses, what is done to recover from Typhoon Yolanda will be far less likely to be undone by the next calamity, and that will be a big step—one the country has never taken—in the right direction.