Old and New Issues in Reporting Disaster

by Albert Lawrence Idia

AMONG THE more disastrous of climactic events to hit the country in 2018, Usman and its record of destruction pale when compared with some storms in recent decades. Still, it was deadly. It approached the country categorized as a tropical depression, but became a low pressure area when it made landfall in Eastern Visayas on December 29. It brought torrential rains, caused flooding and landslides; leaving 150 people dead; with damage that was estimated at PHP5 billion. The overall impact caught everyone by surprise.Two days before the New Year, it had maximum sustained winds of 55 kilometers per hour (kph) near the center and gustiness of up to 65 kph. It moved at 15 kph. Tropical cyclone warning signals were lifted by the time it hit land. But Usman, along with other climactic events of the year, exposed new issues in covering disaster: the need to continue upgrading forecasting capabilities and to develop accurate hazard mapping. Most of those who perished were buried in landslides triggered by the volume of rain. ENHANCED CAPACITY STALLED The damage brought by Usman was not anticipated. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported that more than 35,000 houses were damaged as flashfloods occurred in Bicol Region, Mimaropa and in Eastern Visayas. In Camarines Sur where deadly landslides occurred, Mayor Evelyn Fuentebella of Sagñay told media that while residents were warned, no mandatory evacuation was ordered. She admitted that they did not expect such devastation. In Albay, Governor Al Francis Bichara called for hazard maps, echoing the same regret as they did not expect the amount of rain dumped by Usman.
Retrieval operation in Brgy. Sugod, Tiwi Albay. | Screengrab from the Facebook page of PIS BFP Bikol.
Technological advancements have helped reduce disaster risk globally. The Philippine government has continued to upgrade the weather bureau’s forecasting capacity by purchasing equipment for more accurate assessments. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) launched Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) in 2012. But a decline in the capacity was highlighted by the lack of risk appreciation in the case of Usman. NOAH was designed to provide a six-hour lead time warning during typhoon season.  Government cut funding for it in 2017 when it was absorbed by the National Institute of Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines. NOAH’s lower profile did not did not go unnoticed. In 2017, as Typhoons Urduja (Kai-tak) and Vinta (Tembin) devastated Visayas and Mindanao,  Philstar.com published a report asking what had happened to NOAH which had been hailed in recent years as the country’s premier primary disaster risk reduction and management program. In a Facebook post on January 5, 2019, Mahar Lagmay, executive director of NOAH, said wrong forecasts and late warnings worsened the effect of Usman. The weather bureau, Lagmay said, warned for a moderate to heavy rainfall in Bicol on December 28-29, 2018.The actual was intense to torrential. Pagasa responded, explaining how it defined moderate to heavy rainfall. It added that forecasters in December 28 to 29 “sufficiently warned that the 24-hour accumulated rainfall of moderate to heavy would trigger massive flooding and landslides.” Apart from this exchange, the impact of Usman showed up the more urgent need for hazard mapping, deserving more support from government as this would require the relocation of communities living in vulnerable sites. The series of landslides in the north were a tragic testament to its urgency; although these issues were not entirely absent in previous disasters. In September 2018, mud swept away a miners’ bunkhouse in Brgy. Ucab, Itogon, Benguet as Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut) brought torrential rain and high winds, killing 60. Another landslide destroyed homes sitting on a quarry site in Naga City, Cebu a week later. More than 70 died. Typhoon Rosita (Yutu), which came in October, triggered another fatal landslide in Nationin, Mt. Province and killed more than 15. Speaking on these tragedies, Lagmay appeared in public affairs programs and was quoted in reports as he showed that these areas had already been marked as landslide-prone in NOAH’s hazard map. Media also reported that the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) had long identified Sitio Sindulan in Brgy. Tinio in Naga City, Cebu as susceptible to erosion and landslide. While reporters focus on what government agencies are doing to prepare their communities for disaster, it is also important for journalists to report on disaster issues even when there is no disaster, as the discussion about long term action for mitigation and even relocation can produce solutions that could save lives come the next disaster. 
Screengrab of Project NOAH.
THE CHALLENGE OF THE AFTERMATH Covering the aftermath of any natural disaster remains a challenge for media. Post-Ompong, reports understandably focused on Itogon due to the landslide which forced Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to order the suspension of all small-scale mining operations throughout the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). As the press followed up on the situation in Benguet, journalists failed to report on other affected areas and losses suffered in other provinces. Marifel Macalanda, co-convener of the Tulong Sulong Cagayan Valley Disaster Response Network told CMFR that Cagayan was severely devastated, saying the loss of the rice harvest and the condition of the farmers in the top rice-producing province would affect the Philippine economy. Reports post-Usman waned as other developments took over the news cycle: bombings in Mindanao, the Bangsamoro Organic Law Plebiscite and the stirring campaign for the May polls. Unfortunately, media attention turns away too quickly when weather turns normal. The effect of destruction no longer makes news; which may be the reason for the failure of policy to attend to the issues of re-location for communities in vulnerable sites or other efforts to mitigate the threats to life that are weather borne.