Twenty days ago, the strongest typhoon to hit land on record— Typhoon Yolanda— brought devastation to a large area in the Visayas and left over 5,000 people dead with many more missing. Yolanda has surpassed Typhoon Ruping (1990) in terms of the number of individuals affected.
More than 10 million were affected by Yolanda while Ruping affected “only” six million.
Yolanda is also set to break records in terms of the number of deaths even with the official count of more than 5,000. This puts it at the top three local disasters in terms of deaths. Storms and floods comprise seven out of ten of the top disasters in deaths in the country. The other three disasters were either volcanic or earthquake related.
In terms of total monetary costs, we also see the same trend as nine of 10 of top disasters are also storm related. The only other destructive disaster on the list is the 1990 Luzon earthquake. Yolanda is also poised to surpass the 1995 flooding caused by Typhoons Helming and Gening as some current cost estimates of the destruction in Visayas is already reaching around $10 billion.
What struck us all was how Yolanda took out key cities when it made landfall. As Tacloban fell, it effectively paralyzed the nerve center for response and relief. This cascaded down the line and making the relief effort more difficult.
Recent disasters such as the Bohol earthquake and Typhoon Yolanda have shown that access to hard hit areas are hampered by roads that are destroyed by the calamity. Much needed relief and rescue work are delayed by several days because major roads have still to be cleared nor alternative pathways built. We have not much studies on the vulnerability of road networks during disasters.
Network theory can show some light on the importance of some nodes and how robust the links between these nodes would be when they are taken down. Some real world networks such as the so-called scale-free networks are robust to random node deletion. In a road network, this would translate to the fact that even if some towns get affected heavily in a disaster, the whole network survives as there ways to go around to deliver needed relief.
However, if key cities such as Tacloban go down, it takes with it the main ports, the main airport and the communications nerve center of the key disaster relief officials. Taking the Bohol earthquake as an example, it was not easy to get to the affected places since the road network itself is very sparse. There was no redundancy built in as there are only a few roads existing in the area.
Alternatives for bringing relief
Yet we do have alternatives in bringing relief, if we only get to use them.
We can utilize interisland links and of course the various airports that we have. Yet the only few shipping ports and the few airports we have are near the town centers which makes the whole setup less robust when these nodes fail.
Disaster planning should integrate redundancy in the rescue and relief systems so that we avoid total systemic failure. We do have hazard maps that have already been generated for most areas in the Philippines but these hazard maps do not put the vulnerability of roads and alternative access points in case of large scale disasters.
Of course disaster mitigation should always include improving further our disaster response plans such as constant typhoon drills, pre-positioned relief goods and well-planned (and well-practiced) evacuation plans. Clear and direct lines of responsibilities between national and local disaster agencies should also be delineated way before the disaster strikes.
The failure of our disaster plans is not really just a failure of disaster systems but is reflective of the general failure of economic and social systems that are only aggravated by disaster hazards. We need to reduce the vulnerability of our people by implementing wide-ranging changes in the socio-economic system that puts our people in deep poverty.
President Aquino, in a news report, was quoted to have said that “The systems failed” and asks “what else could I have done, given the resources we have, and given the magnitude of the problem?” He could do a lot. He can start and change laws that destroy the environment and strengthen those with regard to disaster response and mitigation.
He can start implementing widespread genuine land reform and build strong domestic industries. These will give jobs for us here in the country, make everyday things that we need and other special equipment that we would be needing whenever disaster strikes.