Media Notes Lapses in Disaster Response
AS THE year drew to a close, two typhoons, Urduja (Kai-tak) and Vinta (Tembin) barreled through Mindanao. The first made landfall in Eastern Samar on December 16 and left with 47 reported dead and damage reaching PHP 2.8 billion. Vinta blew in shortly after; making landfall on Davao Oriental on December 22. Reports pegged the death toll at more than 100 by December 23. The following days saw the count estimated at more than 200.
Previous monitors of CMFR (“Covering Lando: Lessons Learned”, “Lessons Learned: Lawin and Improved Disaster Coverage”) had noted the improvement of media coverage of climactic disasters, primed by the enhanced capacity for weather prediction, the hazard maps of Project NOAH (National Operational Assessment of Hazards) and the quick response mechanisms such as emergency broadcast system established by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC). Disaster relief efforts were in place manned by local government officials allowing LGUs to set things in motion, unhindered by bureaucratic muddle.
Primetime news coverage during the holiday season showed news reports on Urduja and Vinta peaking on December 23 and continued even on Christmas day. Reports provided clips and photos of scenarios in different towns, with local government officials making the rounds in news to provide piecemeal updates on deaths and damage. The top three broadsheets were more consistent with at least a story per day, even as other incidents unfolded (NCCC mall fire on December 23 and La Union road mishap on December 24).
But post-disaster coverage, the critical work involved in rescue and recovery, tracking counts of casualties and checking out evacuation sites waned into a trickle after Christmas day.
The two storms were not comparable to Yolanda (Haiyan), but the loss of lives and the numbers affected calls for intense review by government agencies concerned. What happened to all the well laid plans for warning communities under threat and arrangements for evacuation before disaster strikes? What miscalculation threw off the mechanisms for disaster preparedness and mitigation? The loss of lives and destruction of property caused by Urduja and Vinta deserved sustained official and media attention, even during the holidays.
CMFR cheers media’s efforts to note the lapses in disaster response.
On December 27, Philstar.com published “‘Urduja,’ ‘Vinta’ leave scores dead: What happened to Project NOAH?” asking what had happened to Project NOAH which had been hailed in recent years as the premier primary disaster risk reduction and management program.
Project NOAH made it possible to broadcast warnings about rainfall, storm surge and other conditions of an oncoming storm.
Philstar took note of Project NOAH Executive Director Mahar Lagmay’s tweets to former Commission on Elections Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal on December 26, saying Project NOAH was removed from the Pre-Disaster Risk Assessment of NDRRMC in March 2017. In a Twitter post, Larrazabal had wondered where Project NOAH was amidst the many deaths caused by recent rains. Lagmay also tweeted “We humbly offer our services to NDRRMC just like it was from 2013 to pre-Urduja & Vinta. It’s best if NOAH information is communicated well.”
The story also sought the side of NDRRMC Spokesperson Romina Marasigan who said that she was not aware of such offer.
Is this a case of an incumbent administration not wanting to have anything to do with the previous administration?
Project NOAH was established in 2012 as the flagship program for disaster and mitigation of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). In an official statement on January 30, 2017, DOST announced that the program was set to end due to lack of funds. It is now housed in the National Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of the Philippines. Obviously, it does not have the same budgetary support that it used to have which enabled it to facilitate more effective disaster relief and recovery efforts at the local level.
Philstar’s report does not delve deeper into the matter but it called attention to a critical development which went with very little notice when it happened. Media need not wait for the next weather disaster to explore further the impact of the changes wrought by the current government.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s January 6 editorial “Storms and high anxiety” observed the lack of official attention or concern over the extraordinary impact of the last two typhoons of the year. Not much had been heard from officials – even the ones hailing from Mindanao. The editorial asked: “Where were Pimentel, Alvarez and other Mindanao and Visayas officials as those regions foundered in the kind of apocalyptic storms that, not too long ago, were a rarity in the southern part of the Philippines? Climate change, long forecast by scientists but ignored for far longer by shortsighted policymakers and politicians, has now clearly come home to roost, but it’s also quite as clear that no serious efforts have been done to cushion—let alone prepare the citizenry for—the impact of such changes”.
The downgrading of Project NOAH suggests a dismal lack of appreciation for climactic issues and the urgent need to sustain the gains made from learned lessons in the past. The country had established systems for disaster relief and recovery which had been hailed by international groups involved in similar issues around the world. Media reporting can do a lot by calling attention to the lapses in disaster response and from new issues that need study, for example, the fact that destruction of rain water rushing down denuded slopes.
There are telling signs that this issue is not one that holds the president’s attention who said lamely that it is difficult to convince people to leave their homes. “The usual answer would be [calamities do not happen] often. You would need a lot of convincing (to relocate people),” he was quoted saying in an Inquirer report on December 29. He added: “Human beings are animals of habit… I myself had been a victim of floods but I did not move out [the first time the flood came]. I did not want to relocate because I did not have somewhere to go to.”