Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Disastrous disaster communication


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AS early as Monday, November 9, the National Irrigation Administration-Magat River Integrated Irrigation Systems (NIA-Mariis) already issued advisories warning the public about the opening of the floodgates of Magat Dam. It was posted in their social media page and was communicated to the members of the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (DRRMC) of Region 2, which included the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) and the governors of the affected provinces.

But apparently, no one was paying much attention to its social media pages as indicated by its exceptionally low engagement, considering the urgency of the matter. Its first warning posted at 3:23 p.m. only obtained close to 100 likes, a handful of comments and a few hundred shares. Succeeding warnings posted at 3:28, 7:06 and 7: 25 p.m. received even lower engagement levels.

Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba issued an order recommending a preemptive evacuation at around 6 p.m., which was posted as such on the official page of the Cagayan Provincial Information Office at around 7:11 p.m. The post only netted close to 300 likes, less than 10 comments and about 50 shares. Obviously, relying on social media would not be enough to communicate to the public such a particularly important official communication related to disaster risk reduction and management.

The Magat Dam Protocol on Dam Discharge and Flood Warning Operation clearly states that the issuance of warning advisories to the public should be done through commercial radio stations and local TV networks as well as through other means such as SMS, fax and radio. But what is apparent in the guidelines is that the NIA-Mariis is only duty bound to inform the agencies concerned, such as the OCD and the local government units (LGUs) through the provincial governors, which it did. The key question, therefore, is to what extent did the LGUs and OCD disseminate the warnings through the various channels. The provincial government of Cagayan used its social media account, but the level of engagement it received was simply inadequate to even make a dent.

More importantly, it is still unclear if indeed the LGUs at the municipal and barangay levels heeded Mamba’s directive to consider preemptive evacuation, particularly in Barangays Centro 01, 10, 11 and 12 of Tuguegarao City, as well as in the low-lying areas of Amulung, Alcala and other places that are prone to flooding. The order was actually not in the form of a directive to evacuate but a directive to convince local barangay officials to consider preemptive evacuation. From the extent of the flooding and the level of affected communities, horrifyingly seen in the images of people on rooftops and heard in the cries of people in the darkness of the early morning of November 12, it is obvious that the order went unheeded.

It is also unclear how media, particularly local radio stations and TV networks, were utilized. At the national level, only the Manila Bulletin featured a story about the flood warning on November 9 at around 5:41 p. m. but on its online platform. There was no news about it on broadcast television.

Apparently, mainstream media such as GMA-7 or CNN, or even state-owned PTV4, did not actively seek any information or dispatched a reporter, or called NIA-Mariis directly to ask for any water discharge advisory. Even if Magat is a big dam, and it would have been prudent to anticipate that it may open its gates and release water that could trigger flooding, this was a non-issue for most news desks. And by November 11 and 12, everyone was already preoccupied with the floods that were caused by Typhoon “Ulysses” in some parts of Bicol, Calabarzon and Central Luzon, and in the National Capital Region, particularly in Marikina, and some towns in Rizal.

It is here that it is now useful to ponder what could have happened had ABS-CBN, which admittedly has more reach with its provincial and regional TV and radio stations compared to other networks such as GMA-7 that is relatively stronger in urban areas, had not been taken off the air by the House of Representatives. In 2018, ABS-CBN held 40 percent of the overall media and audience share in Luzon, followed by GMA-7 which had 35 percent. Kantar Media reported that after ABS-CBN was taken off the air, over a third, or 36 percent, of regular viewers of “TV Patrol” just decided to turn off their televisions, while only 30 percent moved to its rival on the time slot, “24 Oras” of GMA-7. Even if ABS-CBN has migrated to digital platforms, this does not give it enough ground to cover its previous reach, considering that broadband penetration is lower than 20 percent, while 4G technology that enables online video reaches at most only 30 percent.

The source of ABS-CBN’s strength is its army of local radio and TV stations affiliated with it, and that it has regional newscasts that aired local news. It is fair to surmise that ABS-CBN affiliates in Ilocos, Cagayan Valley and the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) would have been a perfect avenue to disseminate news of local importance, such as the flood warnings issued by NIA-Mariis in relation to Magat Dam. ABS-CBN had eight free-to-air stations in Regions 1, 2 and the CAR, with the one in Baguio as an originating station, and the rest being relay stations. This would have complemented the 10 stations affiliated with GMA-7.

The actual impact of ABS-CBN’s absence in the air on the extent and quality of disaster communication, particularly in the case of Typhoon Ulysses, in the end, is really an empirical question. It would be useful to inquire into the actual comparative reach of all media networks in the affected areas in Luzon before Typhoon Ulysses, and before ABS-CBN stopped operating its free-to-air TV and radio stations. A corollary research question is how much of disaster communication was dependent on each of these networks. Knowing this will really inform us if the cost of losing ABS-CBN was indeed steep.



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