A Recession
in Disaster Response

by Albert Lawrence Idia

Media reporting can do a lot by calling attention to the lapses in disaster response and from new issues that need study.

DUBBED THE “strongest tropical cyclone on record to make landfall in world history,” Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013 posed an unprecedented challenge that showed up the limitations of both government and media. Government agencies in the area and their people were themselves victims. It was the same with the media who had gone to Leyte to cover the monster typhoon’s landfall.

But the tragedy wrought by Yolanda forced a clear learning curve. CMFR cheered the surge of reports, all showing a greater media appreciation of their role in promoting disaster awareness, in engaging the public for more effective community-based efforts to respond in all phases of disaster management: mitigation, rescue, recovery, rehabilitation and long term disaster needs.

Aerial view of Salvador and Lana municipalities in Lanao del Norte. | Mr. Richel Umel/Lanao del Norte PIO

Reports reflected the improved capacity of government as agencies mobilized resources for better public awareness. Government funding had made possible more accurate forecasting by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) in 2015. Quality information enhanced the coordination among local and national agencies, all of which primed media to act more effectively as first informer, a most important aspect of disaster management.

Media provided regular weather updates not only in primetime newscasts even before Lando (Koppu) made landfall in October 2015. Noting Lando’s strength as it approached eastern Luzon, news reports warned the public about the risk of landslides and flooding. Graphic illustrations accompanied gale and storm surge warnings, making clear the possible paths and reach, as well as the damage that these phenomena can cause.

In October 2016, that same attention was fixed by media reports in anticipation of Lawin’s (Haima) landfall. Local and international weather forecasting centers warned that the twelfth typhoon to hit the country in the year could intensify into a supertyphoon. The media duly noted this possibility, highlighting the need for the areas in its path to prepare for the worst.

In its commemorative book  “Y it happened,” the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) observed:  “Clearly, TY Yolanda underscored even more the critical role that media play in disaster risk reduction and management not only in the emergency and early recovery phase, but more importantly in laying the groundwork for addressing vulnerability through prevention and mitigation.”

Indeed, the media’s work does not end when a typhoon leaves the country’s “area of responsibility.” The journalists’ role is not limited to being the first informer. Long after typhoons leave, media should remain as an engaged partner in building up the national capacity to respond to the crises of severe climactic episodes.

Advanced Technology

Technological advancement in weather forecasting has had a huge impact on disaster risk reduction globally. Innovative applications were joined to the improved capacity of Pagasa with dramatic results.

In 2012, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) launched Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards), which aimed at providing a six-hour lead time warning focusing on vulnerable communities.

Project NOAH also familiarized the media with the technical aspects not just of weather forecasting but also of flood and hazard maps, made available for both the public and the government to understand, along with materials, forums and seminars to keep concerned sectors and the media updated with the latest data and analysis. (“Project NOAH exec explains flooding in Nueva Ecija”)

Project NOAH empowered every agency, especially local government units which are directly engaged with affected communities and operate from the ground as first responders to the call for help and assistance.

CMFR recalls that as Lawin approached, President Rodrigo Duterte was already in China for a state visit accompanied by most of his Cabinet officials. Even without the heads of departments on the frontline of disaster response, media reports showed government teams headed by the next in line in various departments, assessing potential damage and danger, mobilizing manpower and resources to attend to the most critical needs. NDRRMC’s quick response mechanisms were in place manned by local government officials along with emergency broadcast systems. (See: “Lessons Learned: ‘Lawin’ and Improved Disaster Coverage”)

Not perfect, but a huge leap from the pre-Yolanda set up, and showing the strong potential for doing beyond better, these efforts should have been further improved with even more experience, applying learned lessons in response to the chain of calamities that followed in the first full year of the Duterte presidency.

But monitoring media’s disaster reporting suggests a most disturbing recession.

Disasters in 2017

Before 2017 ended, Typhoons Urduja (Kai-tak) and Vinta (Tembin) pummeled Mindanao, the first making landfall in Eastern Samar on December 17 while the second on December 22 in Davao Oriental. NDRRMC reported 47 deaths from Urduja and damage reaching PHP2.7 billion. Vinta’s casualties were estimated at more than 200, with some communities reportedly wiped out – some by flood and some by landslides. Damage to property reached PHP2.07 billion.


Damaged properties in the Municipality of Salvador in Lanao del Norte. | Mr. Richel Umel/Lanao del Norte PIO

Primetime news coverage during the holiday season showed reports about Urduja and Vinta peaking on December 23 and continuing even on Christmas Day. Reports provided clips and photos of scenarios in different towns, with local government officials making the rounds primarily serving piecemeal updates on deaths and damage. The top three broadsheets were more consistently focused on the issue than primetime newscasts, with at least a story per day, even as other calamities unfolded (NCCC mall fire on December 23 and La Union road mishap on December 24).

But post-disaster coverage was definitely lacking.  Information about the critical work involved in rescue and recovery, the count of casualties, the situation in evacuation sites, waned into a trickle after Christmas Day. Local government officials routinely made the news to give updates on the situation, relief efforts and number of people missing.

Even during holidays, media have always managed to sustain attention on the impact of the most destructive disasters. There was no reason not to do the same given the high level of destruction and loss of lives caused by these storms.

Urduja and Vinta may not be comparable to Yolanda.  But the resulting loss of life and damage to communities should have called for rescue and recovery efforts that were simply not evident.

What happened to all the well-laid plans for warning communities under threat and arrangements for evacuation before disaster strikes? True, the destructive flood did not come from the coastal or riverine sources, but from denuded slopes and was therefore probably unexpected. But this is not the first time for this to happen. The flooding of lowlands in Cagayan de Oro in 2011 had the same kind of source. Where were the lessons learned, about identifying potential hazards?

The loss of lives and destruction of property caused by Urduja and Vinta deserved sustained official and media attention, even during the holidays.

Thankfully, the low level and apparently poor quality of government response were not entirely ignored by the press. CMFR cheered media’s efforts to note the lapses.

Project NOAH had made it possible to broadcast warnings about rainfall, wind speed, storm surge and other conditions of an oncoming storm. But in the pre-disaster news, there was little reference to these advisories.

On December 2, 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.

The report picked up conversation of Project NOAH Executive Director Mahar Lagmay and former Commission on Elections Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal over Twitter. Larrazabal had tweeted where Project NOAH was amidst the deaths and rain. Lagmay said Project NOAH had been removed from the Pre-Disaster Risk Assessment of NDRRMC in March 2017. He 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.” But NDRRMC Spokesperson Romina Marasigan said in the same report that she wasn’t aware of the offer.

Is this a case of the age old habit of traditional politicians who do not want anything to do with programs set up by the previous administration, dispensing as well with past gains and lessons?

On January 30, 2017, the DOST announced that the program was set to end due to lack of funding. It was absorbed by the National Institute of Geological Science 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 did 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 has 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 lack of attention, unfortunately, was not limited to Urduja and Vinta. On the last week of 2017, floods and landslides in Bicol wrought by the tail-end of a cold front went under the radar. No reports regarding the matter were aired on primetime newscasts from December 22-31 aside from the staple weather updates which did warn of the effect of incessant rains in regions including Bicol. The Manila Bulletin and The Philippine Star printed a story on December 27 and 30 respectively, while the rest of the reports were on the websites of these papers including Inquirer.net. The short reports provided updates on affected families, flooded towns and passable roads.

The downgrading of Project NOAH suggests a dismal lack of appreciation for climactic issues and the urgent need to sustain the gains from learned lessons in the past. Media reporting can do a lot by calling attention to the lapses in disaster response. It can raise awareness about issues that need further study. For example, rainwater rushing down denuded slopes was a threat about which little was known.

There are telling signs that this issue is not one that holds the president’s attention. He said lamely that it is difficult to convince people to leave their homes and shared this rather disinterested view as quoted by an Inquirer report on December 29: “The usual answer would be [calamities do not happen] often. You would need a lot of convincing (to relocate people). President Duterte also 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.” (“Duterte on high storm deaths: Folks in peril just won’t move”)



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