By Gel Santos Relos
Our hearts go out to our kababayans in the southern part of the Philippines, especially those from Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan in Mindanao. Just days before Christmas, Typhoon Sendong has claimed the lives of almost one thousand people, and counting. As of Tuesday morning, PHL time, National Disaster Risk Management Council reported that 957 bodies were recovered while 49 people were reported missing. The number of injured persons reached 1,582 with authorities rescuing 432 persons.
Sendong has proven to be the deadliest typhoon in the world for 2011. It has surpassed even Ondoy and Pepeng that ravaged Luzon in 2009 -- claiming 464 and 465 lives respectively, and costed the nation some Php 38 billion in damages to home, infrastructure and farm production. Meantime, the Department of Agriculture has estimated the damage of Sendong to the Visayas and Mindanao areas be at least Php 8.1 Billion.
Images of families mourning, children’s lifeless bodies and communities almost wiped out by the floods almost shatter the joy of the the holidays that we, who are spared of this tragedy, feel in our hearts. Meanwhile, the stench of the problem of how to dispose of the hundreds of unclaimed decomposing bodies properly continue to haunt us, causing health havoc to those who have survived the storm.
Have We Not Leaned From Ondoy and Pepeng?
Are the lessons of Ondoy and Peping, and many more typhoons not enough for us to learn and be better prepared to effectively and proactively do something minimize the losses and damages inflicted by these natural disasters?
After all, the archipelago sits astride the typhoon belt, with around 19 tropical cyclones or storms entering the Philippine Area Of Responsibility in a typical year. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services (PAGASA) says of these typhoons, usually six to nine make landfall every year.
We have seen and experienced time and time again how the warning system employed by PAG-ASA has not been doing a good job to enable local government units to adequately help their constituents prepare for these imminent calamities.
PAG-ASA gave warnings of Public Storm Signal Numbers 1 and 2 for Mindanao as Sendong traversed its path toward the Philippine area of responsibility. Signals Number 1 & 2 might have sounded so benign, but history has proven that such warning system had not forewarned the government and the people of the amount of rainfall that comes with the storm.
We would remember how America has been forewarned by the National Weather Service and the media about storms Irene and Lee last August and September . We watched how meteorologists explained and visually demonstrated the path of the storm, how strong and widespread it could be, the estimated rainfall in inches for different areas of the Northeast, how the speed of the storm could affect the amount of water it could pump in, and the areas that could really be affected by severe flooding.
Through this kind of advisory, local government units were able to prepare for the worst case scenario, and media deluged the public with information on evacuation centers and processes, how to prepare the home and the family even before the storm made landfall, etc.
But even with these warnings and preparation, there were still a lot of casualties and damages because of the innate variability in the course storms would take. But imagine how much more casualties and damages could have resulted if no well planned preparation were implemented?
I know how behind the Philippines is when it comes to technology but maybe the Philippine government should have made investing in this kind of weather forecasting equipment that measures rainfall should have been made top priority after Ondoy. Moreover, our national and local government units should have learned from the examples of more developed countries when it comes to disaster management.
Unfortunately, the blame game just began. Cagayan de Oro City (CDO) Mayor Vicente Emano said they were not warned of the strength of Sendong. PAG-ASA, however, claimed that they gave storm warnings and updates.
ABS-CBN news reported that according to Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) Director Engr. Leo Jasanero, as early as 2007, the MGB had distributed geo-hazard maps to all Cagayan de Oro City officials which identified the river bank areas at high risk for flooding.
Jasanero said further that even in the first quarter of the 2011, they met with CDO officials to warn them that the river bank areas, where many of the "Sendong" victims lived, are not suitable for habitation. Unfortunately, he lamented, residents and local officials did not heed their warning, resulting in the massive loss of lives.
Presidential Adviser for Environmental Protection Neric Acosta said deforestation is the main cause of the Sendong tragedy. “All the logs coming down from the uplands, easily from 30k hectares, we're down to 3k forest cover” Acosta told ABS-CBN News Channel.
But the question remains: what has the government, both past and present, done to avoid this tragedy?
Sendong and the PNoy Leadership
Four days after Sendong ravaged CDO and Iligan, President Aquino finally declared a state of national calamity. He also delivered a long overdue statement to the people of Cagayan de Oro during his visit there on Tuesday-- a speech many people had hoped he delivered a day, if not hours after the storm.
Many kababayans have criticized Aquino for allegedly been “missing in action”, for not even going on television to reassure people that his administration is coordinating all efforts to help the victims of Sendong. We heard such words of empathy and compassion from US Pres. Obama and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton ahead of the Philippine president.
What even appalled many of our kababayans more was when they found out from a tweet of actress Valerie Concepcion that PNoy was enjoying himself in the Christmas party of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) while people from CDO and Iligan were fighting for their lives. PNoy’s sisters defended the President and said he was just fulfilling a commitment to the men who protect him everyday, and that he just stayed in the party for only 30 minutes.
Contrary to allegations that the president prioritized partying instead of attending to the urgent needs of the flood victims, his surrogates explained that PNoy, in fact, had been busy working behind the cameras, hands-on in coordinating with different agencies of the government to expedite delivery of help to the flood victims.
“Wala pong duda, babangon ang Cagayan de Oro at Iligan at ang iba pang tinamaan ni Sendong..” are words of reassurance for the victims of Typhoon Sendong that I hope have not come too late.
While I do not agree that PNoy has to micromanage his governance of the nation, and that a good leader knows how to effectively delegate tasks to able and responsible people to get things done, the President plays a very important role in lifting the morale of the people. Aquino talking to the people hours after the storm sends a strong reassuring message-- “I am in charge. I will make sure that help is on the way. Hold me accountable”.
This is particularly important when some factions of society accuse him of being too obsessed about prosecuting Arroyo over and above the other problems that the country faces. We know PNoy cares. He just has to project the same fire and sense of urgency in fighting against corruption to his disaster and crisis management , his professed support for programs like job creation, human rights, education, health, etc.
They say in politics, perception is everything.