The sun will come out again, will the country be ready?

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

By the time this column hits the newsstands, a very large part of the Philippines will already be experiencing the effects of the approaching typhoon named Ruby by the local weather authorities and Hagupit by the international forecasters.

Hagupit, I was informed by no less an expert than our CEO here at The Manila Times, is a Tagalog word meaning “whip,” making this occasion a rare time that the international name actually makes more sense than the local one. I think all typhoons should be named so appropriately.

“Ruby” to me means the nice lady who runs a sari-sari store over by the elementary school; Hagupit, now that I know what it means in English, presents an altogether different mental image.

The reaction of the public at large to the approaching storm, which, although we might sincerely wish it wouldn’t, is certain to cause considerable damage to lives and property, has been admirable. Having been in this country for more than a decade, I’ve personally come to terms with the reality that large-scale, destructive typhoons are a regular occurrence. As the years have gone by (beginning in 2006, when my neighborhood took a direct hit from Typhoon Milenyo), it seems to me the general population has steadily become more aware and engaged, more interested in following the forecasts and making a sincere effort to prepare themselves. Certainly, the brutal object lesson of last year’s Typhoon Yolanda did a lot to encourage a more proactive approach on the public’s part, which is good because it reduces the chances that human tragedy will be repeated on a similar scale.

But the people themselves can only do so much; it is up to the government to do the heavy lifting in terms of preparation and response, and the object lesson of Yolanda does not seem to have made much of an impression on the country’s institutions. Beginning with the official weather bureau, PAGASA, which insisted on maintaining a forecast that differed – and differed wildly – from most of the better-equipped and more experienced international agencies, to the image of smiling, relaxed President B.S. Aquino 3rd, yellow ribbon lapel pin (a symbol that seems destined to be about as inspiring as a swastika or a burning cross by the time he’s through) firmly in place, blandly reassuring the country the government is prepared without giving details.

Once upon a time that might have been comforting, but in the wake of his administration’s complete – and ongoing, to be frank – failure to react effectively to Yolanda, the distinct lack of sobriety on the President’s part only serves to heighten public anxiety.

Another likely casualty of the approaching typhoon has gotten no attention whatsoever, and may very well turn out to be the biggest and most persistent problem the storm leaves in its wake. After a third quarter in which the country’s economy slowed considerably from its energetic pace earlier in the year, most everyone was counting on the last quarter of the year to provide a much-needed boost. Which it would, ordinarily, due to holiday consumption and end-of-year window-dressing in government and business expenditures, were it not for the inconvenient presence of yet another large, destructive typhoon. Last year’s Typhoon Yolanda occurred a little earlier in the quarter, and mainly affected a part of the country that contributes a relatively smaller proportion of the GDP. Typhoon Ruby, on the other hand, is arriving at the peak of the season in economic terms and, unless the most reliable forecasts change dramatically between the time of this writing (mid-morning on Friday) and the actual arrival of the storm, is expected to cut a path across, or at least very close to, Metro Manila.

Wherever the typhoon eventually goes, there is not much to be done at this point to minimize the harm it will cause, but what the government – and to the extent they can, local businesses and ordinary citizens – should be preparing for is a quick recovery. Plans should already be in preparation; they evidently are not, and a repeat of the unconscionable delay of nearly a year to produce a recovery plan after Typhoon Yolanda will not only be morally unacceptable, it will be disastrous for the country’s overall well-being.

The Philippines is very good at enduring these regular calamities, and its people will endure this one, perhaps better than ever before, given the palpable improvements in the level of attention and seriousness being applied by the general public. Having learned that much, now everyone needs to take in the next lesson: looking beyond the storm, and getting back to work as rapidly as possible.


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