Observations from Yolanda

Days leading up to Yolanda, I was hearing news about it but was not really on top of the news. When Saturday rolled around, I was very surprised and saddened when I first saw the reports of both big media channels in the Philippines, GMA and ABS CBN. Certain by then that there will be several hundred casualties, at least.

The following days, I kept tabs of the news but barely any was trickling in. I'd google and I would wonder, "Where the hell is the news?". Where is the planned operations after? Where's the coordinated effort? Who's managing the relief and rehab operations? Why isn't he/she providing status updates to the Filipino people? What's being done? I kept mum over the issue for several days until Anderson Cooper's CNN Update. Nothing's being done in Tacloban, at least nothing in the scale that he is expecting. All hell broke loose after that. People were up in arms over that news. I was up in arms over that news. 

Some perspective: Prior to Yolanda, the country was glued to the Napoles case, the biggest corruption case in Philippine history shedding light on how public funds are being channeled right under the public's nose. You can read how that happens here

Why was I up in arms over that news? I believed that preparations and relief operations were in place and being carried out by the government but I also knew, based from the updates from the media and government websites (or lack of it), that what was being done was not quite enough. There was no person overseeing what's happening from what I can see (at least no one moved forward to provide a bird's eye view of what's being done). And then to hear it from Anderson Cooper's account (albeit, in retrospect, we can see he was expecting first world response) was just the tipping point. Corruption + incompetence? OMFG! I might be working from Singapore right now but I am paying taxes just like every working Filipino. Collective corruption + collective incompetence? OMFG!!!

Why can't the Philippine government carry out large scale rescue and relief efforts? Because we have limited military equipment! The wide area that Yolanda hit only made it worse. Limited equipment means the effort was spread too thin which means what's accomplished in a day is limited as well. And why do we have limited military equipment? One can only assume and most probably will be right as well! Same goes for infrastructure.

Calendar of events as I saw it unfold and the response:

Nov 8: Yolanda made landfall and wreaked havoc in Central Visayas. Both ABS CBN and GMA were still able to broadcast the typhoon during the early morning. 

Nov 9: I saw the first update regarding devastation. Looting happened in Tacloban. Expected death toll to exceed 1,000.

Nov 10-12: Waiting for updates... Waiting for the concerted and coordinated relief efforts to be mobilised

Nov 13: CNN's Anderson Cooper described the situation in Tacloban as a "very desperate situation", asking where the bigger relief effort is as the situation "does not seem to get better day by day".

It does not help as well that a plan to handle a calamity of this scale has not been drafted prior. It took 6 days since the typhoon hit to the news that the government has drawn up a masterplan and that Metro Manila LGUs step in for the areas hit in the meantime. 

But instead of dwelling on that, I also came to accept the situation and instead of criticising, try to understand and help out where I can . So I waded through the Sitrep PDF files from the NDRRMC website. I come from the private sector so this was actually my first attempt trying to understand how the government and its different departments work together. Please correct me if my interpretation is incorrect.

Nov 6, 6pm: First document for Yolanda preparations came out. 

Nov 7, 12nn: Areas under storm signals 4, 3, and 2 were warned of a storm surge as high as 7 meters.

(In between this time, the media broadcasted the storm surge warning of 7 meters)

Nov 7, 6pm: 738 families from coastal areas in Tacloban were evacuated.

Pre-emptive evacuations carried out according to the NDRRMC Sitrep Prep file for November 7, 6pm.

Observation 1: Why were the residents of Tacloban not mass evacuated considering much of Tacloban is at sea level? Its lowest elevation is 2 meters. It just makes sense considering the math: 7m storm surge + rainfall + wind. Was it that the information and its effects were not fully explained by the information arm? Was it because, despite the warnings, the LGU still did not heed it?

Observation 2: The template used by NDRRMC (the sitrep prep files) looks like a document that has been in use over the years. I don't know what purpose it is intended for so I might be overstepping here. I see it as a minute/status updates of what has been accomplished so far but it does not highlight what still needs to be done (maybe there's another document for that). I could see the updates for the departments of the regions but each of these departments does not necessarily have an update in each of the NDRRMC file. I'd think there should be a line there for each but it's not the case. Is it possible for a department not to exist for a region?

Observation 3: Why was the preparation limited to just the affected LGUs? If one plans for a catastrophe, shouldn't a total  population wipe out be considered? And does it not make sense to prep the nearest non-affected LGUs to help in case of disasters of this magnitude? Why was it that only Davao was able to respond in the shortest possible time?

I am not going to go anymore into the national government's response after. I'd need to do more research to do that. I don't want to criticise and do not want to defend either. Clearly, plans and processes need to be revisited and reviewed considering the scale of this catastrophe. I was wondering what would happen had Yolanda hit Manila instead. Did the government have provisions for satellite offices? Satellite server backups of important digital files? What's the timeline for things to be back to normal or at least, a sense of normalcy? What's an acceptable response time? I'd just like to know that these questions are already being thought out now and answers already drawn up.

The Philippines is visited by typhoons every year. It's time for the knee-jerk reaction to stop and start putting in long-term plans. I recognize that this is not easy but I still believe it can be done. For one, corruption needs to stop and important roles need to be filled up by competent people. If you are a Filipino reading this, please think instead how to help.

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