State of Calamity: Government Response and Media Reporting in a Disaster-prone Country

by Albert Lawrence Idia

Yolanda’s devastation exposed several opportunities for improving government response. The NDRRMC’s commemorative book “Y it happened: Learning from Typhoon Yolanda,” (2013) included assessment of media’s performance, among them, the need to translate complex information.

THE RECENT decade has made obvious that climactic events are no longer seasonal phenomena in the Philippines.  Filipinos have had to accept as a fact of life the unpredictability of typhoons.

In 2016, three destructive storms struck in the last quarter of the calendar, a period which Filipinos used to count on for generally good weather. During the Christmas holidays, Nina (Nock-Ten) made eight landfalls, causing 13 deaths and billions lost in damaged infrastructure and property. Prior to Nina, Lawin (Haima) hit Cagayan Valley in October while Marce (Tokage) struck Surigao del Norte in November.






PHP 6.1 B

cost of damage




PHP 1.5 M

cost of damage




PHP 3.7 B

cost of damage





Located in the “typhoon belt” as well as the “ring of fire,” the nation is hounded by natural disasters of every kind. Catastrophes can include earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and typhoons which average 20 a year, inflicting varying degrees of destruction. The record of calamities include the Luzon Earthquake in 1990, where the magnitude 7.8 tremor killed thousands, the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in June 1991 which spewed lahar and ash as far as the Indian Ocean and Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013 which was recorded as the worst storm in human history, killing more than 6000.

The Philippines ranks third in the United Nations University’s (UNU) World Risk Index 2016 list of “most-at-risk” countries worldwide and third among the 15 most exposed to natural hazards. It is also among the five countries hit by the highest number of disasters from 1995 to 2015, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

“Disasters and calamities are media’s natural subject,” CMFR wrote in 1993. (“Lahar and Mt. Pinatubo,” Philippine Journalism Review, September 1993). CMFR has also noted marked improvement in disaster coverage over the years. “Coverage used to be focused on failures in black and white, the inaccuracy of weather assessment and the delayed or lack of government response to help those affected. But things have changed, partly due to the improvement of government capacity in this field.” (“Learning Curve,” Media Times 2015)

Clearly, recurring disasters urged government action to upgrade their capacities, with positive impact on media coverage. Media reports have done their part to use the information to prepare the public to minimize danger and help the population save lives and protect property.

There have been gaps calling for improvement all around. The droughts in 2016 revealed that government and media have had much to learn about preparing and dealing with dry spell about which little is reported until food shortages happen. When violence broke out in the picket line of farmers in Kidapawan, CMFR urged the press to look ahead and provide information that will provoke a review of policies and prod government to take emergency action to avoid or mitigate the effects of disaster.

Learning Curve

The need to upgrade the capacity of the weather bureau was sharply exposed by obvious shortcomings.

Soon after he took office in 2010, then President Benigno Aquino III relieved Prisco Nilo as administrator of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) for the failure of the agency to warn the public accurately about Typhoon Basyang (Conson). Aquino soon learned that Pagasa’s equipment was outdated and that it was not realistic to expect the agencies to do a better job.

Installing additional equipment like Doppler radars which were placed in strategic locations across the country in 2011 helped the weather bureau provide more accurate readings.

The National Disaster Coordinating Council which was then the highest policy making, coordinating and supervising body for disaster management became the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), following the enactment of the RA 10121 (Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act). It involved more agencies with separate responsibilities focused on each thematic area: Disaster Preparedness, Disaster Response, Disaster Prevention and Mitigation and Disaster Rehabilitation and Recovery.

As its requirement, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (NDRRMP) was also approved in February 2012, which laid down plans and programs in disaster management.

In 2015, Aquino signed RA 10692 (the Pagasa Modernization Act), a bill aiming to upgrade the weather bureau’s physical resources and enhance research and development capabilities.

Better Technology Improves Capacity

Technological advancements over the years have also resulted in innovation. In 2012, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) launched Project Noah (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) which aimed to “improve disaster management capacity of local governments and assure homeland security by reducing casualties and property loss from extreme hazard event.” (See note).


Screengrab of DOST’s Project Noah


Batingaw, a mobile application that provides electronic resources that can be utilized in times of emergencies, was also launched in 2014.

Aside from technological edge, the upgrade of skills capacity was essential. The Office of Civil Defense (OCD), the implementing arm of the NDRRMC, told CMFR: “Previously, there were just more or less 200 civil defense staff across the entire nation. Now, we have increased personnel complement to more than 400.”

Earthquake drills nationwide were held on schedule using the drill scenario of the Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study (MMEIRS) and Greater Metro Manila Area Ready Project in 2014. NDRRMC led the drills in 2015.

Lessons Learned

Yolanda’s devastation exposed several opportunities for improving government response. The NDRRMC’s commemorative book “Y it happened: Learning from Typhoon Yolanda,” (2013) included an assessment of media’s performance, among them, the need to translate complex information.

As first informers, media needed to simplify technical terms. In the case of Yolanda, storm surge was not sufficiently described to warn the public about its danger. Yolanda caused storm surges of up to five meters. The public complained they should have been warned about tsunami. But Pagasa countered that no tsunami was expected and no tsunami occurred.

Since then, storm warnings have included estimates of surge heights as well as the areas further inland which could still be affected.

In an interview in ANC’s Headstart with Karen Davila, Project Noah Executive Director Dr. Alfredo Mahar Lagmay said they were offering free seminars on how to use and read scientific data.

The OCD has also been conducting regular DRRM orientations for media practitioners to be familiarized with various related concepts.

Post-Yolanda Landscape

In 2015, Margareta Wahlstrom, head of the UNISDR, noted improvements in levels of disaster preparedness in the country. “The communication of early warnings in the Philippines has improved significantly since Typhoon Haiyan claimed over 6,000 lives in November 2013,” Wahlstrom said, speaking about the success in reducing casualties in the aftermath of Typhoon Lando (Koppu). It claimed 58 lives while damages reached P14 billion.

The improving trend has continued. In the early morning of October 18, 2016, Typhoon Lawin made landfall in Cagayan Valley with its maximum winds reaching 225 km/h and gustiness of up to 315 km/h. The NDRRMC said Lawin left 14 confirmed dead and more than 10,000 families being served inside and outside evacuation centers. Total damage reached P3.7 billion. In reports, NDRRMC Executive Director Usec Ricardo Jalad said that preemptive and forced evacuation initiated by local government units was a big factor in keeping the casualty figures low.

NDRRMC Spokesperson Romina Marasigan echoed this in a report aired in CNN Philippines’ Network News, saying Yolanda was an eye opener and that communities now have contingency plans and that they are aware of the hazards. (“Yolanda: Learning Climate Change the Hard Way,” November 7, 2016)

The OCD told CMFR that people “have become more aware of the hazard risk in their communities.” The country, OCD said, “has learned a lot of lessons from the previous calamity incidents, not just Yolanda.” The agency said it has made good of the opportunity to further improve DRRM system as evidenced by aggressive information campaign for disaster preparedness, conducting pre-disaster risk assessment meetings and various DRRM training courses, among others.

It also noted that “the media did ‘layman-ize’ the information being sent and that it made possible the dissemination of important information to the public, specifically the warnings.”

Media’s reporting has leveled up. Primetime newscasts made use of visuals to illustrate the extent of damage by storm surges for example, as well as wind speed and amount of rainfall. CMFR observed lesser focus on grief stories and reporters have refrained delivering updates in the path of wind and rain just to demonstrate the strength of winds.

Media could help to popularize the tasks outlined in the NDRRMP, the policies, plans and implementation constitute a comprehensive effort.  Media can report on how well the changing actors put these into effect. Knowing about these issues, the public themselves can monitor how these are undertaken and assess how well the agencies are doing their jobs.

“It is not enough to constantly improve disaster management. Considerable efforts are also required as regards disaster preparedness,” UNU wrote in the World Risk Report 2016. “Examples range from enforcing building regulations through strengthening local self-help schemes, to improving the reliability of critical infrastructure.”

Media also needs to learn how to sustain the necessary follow up on recovery and rehabilitation.After the disaster hits and as response moves from rescue and recovery to rehabilitation, media attention is called to other developments. It is not enough to report the failure of rehabilitation. The media needs to broaden the scope of the post-disaster narrative by probing the reasons for delay and failure of targets so that the public can better understand the complex issues which can include corruption and low capacity of bureaucracies for problem solving.

For instance, as of the fourth quarter of 2016, three years after Yolanda struck, only 32,919 out of the targeted 205,128 housing units have been completed. The Philippine Daily Inquirer also reported on victims of Typhoon Sendong (Washi) who have yet to receive their own houses and have no access to water. Sendong struck southern Philippines in 2011. (“‘Sendong’ victims decry slow rehab,” December 21, 2016)


Yolanda’s devastation in 2013 gained worldwide attention and resulted to a frenzy of media coverage, yet as the narrative moved to rehabilitation and recovery, attention seemed to wane. As of the fourth quarter of 2016, only 32,919 houses were built out of the target 205,128 per NEDA. | Photos by Lito Ocampo


With media scrutiny turned to other matters in the aftermath, rehabilitation efforts can easily stall and slow down, stuck in some bureaucratic muddle. Media expose these critical points and provoke immediate attention from some higher official with the authority to hasten solutions. Reporting requires some appreciation of how government can stall. Reporting the slow building of shelters should be beefed up with some analysis of the source of the delay.

CMFR has not seen any follow up reports on the need for shelter for communities in the path of typhoons after Yolanda and Sendong. Clearly, government’s capacity to respond to shelter needs is demonstrated often enough even without typhoons. But it is the same Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council that remains principally charged for this aspect of disaster rehabilitation.

The post was held by Jejomar Binay during the Aquino administration until he resigned from the post in June 2015 to concentrate on his presidential campaign. President Duterte gave the same Cabinet post to Vice President Leni Robredo. The vice president’s office had shared Robredo’s problems. Funds had not been released for her programs nor were funding authorized for release.  A different kind of review could track the politics involved in every failure of disaster response, at national as well as local levels.

Time and again, it has been proven that it is one thing to learn lessons and another to keep those lessons as part of a way of life. Media play a vital role in ensuring that the lessons learned from disaster are not forgotten.  This collective memory is the foundation of resilient communities.

Note: Reports in January said that Project NOAH was set to be absorbed by Pagasa in 2017.



Tornado in the Metro: Quick and Helpful Explainers

Posted on: August 19, 2016

Screengrab from Aksyon


CHEERS TO ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol and TV5’s Aksyon for explaining in simple terms how a tornado develops. Tornados are an uncommon weather phenomenon in the Philippines but one ripped through some communities in Manila and Quezon City on August 14.

A report by Aksyon a day after the incident (“PAGASA: Severe thunderstorm sa Metro Manila, dahilan ng pagkabuo ng buhawi,” August 15, 2016) explained that a severe thunderstorm — during which hot and cold air masses collide, creating instability in the atmosphere resulting into a rotating column of air — developed over Metro Manila and caused the emergence of a tornado. Using animation, the report showed how the tornado was formed. Aksyon also interviewed the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) for further information on the weather disturbance.

ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol made a similar effort in its “Kaunting Kaalaman” segment on August 15 and also illustrated the report with animation. TV Patrol also provided viewers tips on how to tell if a tornado is coming.

Quick explainers on unusual weather phenomena such as tornados are useful to the public who may be vulnerable to such destructive forces. They may prove even more useful to people who reside in communities that do not usually see these types of natural events.

Disaster Preparedness in the Time of La Niña

Posted on: May 31, 2016, 5:25 pm

Screengrab from Failon Ngayon

CHEERS TO ABS-CBN 2’s Failon Ngayon for looking into the state of government’s pending flood-control projects as summer segued into the rainy season.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) announced the onset of the rainy season Tuesday, May 24. The weather bureau expects the El Niño or excessively dry period to end by the start of July. However, it also warned of the possibility of heavy rains and flooding with the onset of La Niña, or an excessively wet period.

In its May 28 episode, Failon Ngayon looked into how the government plans to mitigate flooding in the flood-prone areas of Metro Manila. While the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) claims to be ready for the incoming rainy season, Failon Ngayon revealed that major flood-control projects such as the Mandaluyong drainage system and the Blumentritt interceptor are yet to be completed despite years of construction.

The program also looked into the problem of clogged waterways in other urban settlements. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Flood Control Unit identified garbage from informal settlements along waterways as the cause of clogging. Failon Ngayon learned from personnel of the Department of the Interior and Local Government that it has only relocated half of its target of informal settlers.

As the rainy season begins, flashfloods become more imminent. Reporting on the calamity management efforts of the government — or the lack thereof — helps promote disaster preparedness.

After Kidapawan: Media Look at Drought Mitigation Efforts

Posted on: April 22, 2016, 2:18 pm

Screengrab from BusinessMirror website

CHEERS TO BusinessMirror and VERA Files for running pieces that looked more closely at the El Niño weather phenomenon and government attempts to mitigate its impact in light of the recent clash between local government troops and protesters in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato.

From April 11 to 13, BusinessMirror published “Farmers suffer El Niño’s wrath,” which took up various aspects of the disaster experience wrought by drought. Written in three parts, the reports were highly informative as these tracked the response of the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the shift in the tone of its press releases and pronouncements before and after Kidapawan.

In the first part of the series, reporter Fil Elefante wrote on the worsening drought and the warnings earlier issued about it by Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa).  Elefante noted the “upbeat tone” of DA press releases as it announced the steps the agency had supposedly taken to mitigate the effects of El Niño on agriculture. The DA press releases highlighted the use of cloud-seeding operations as the “most effective El Niño adoption strategies” that “bring in positive results.”

The second part of the report, published on April 12 and written by Manuel Cayon, looked at the plight of the farmers, noting that the province of North Cotabato had already declared a state of calamity earlier, empowering the local government to use five percent of its annual budget, amounting to almost P500 million,  to address the drought. It also reported that the city had identified 11,240 households eligible for direct food assistance and the province’s food-for-work program.

Because Kidapawan is  among the areas most affected by the drought, this section cited the measures taken by Kidapawan officials to alleviate the impact of the disaster.  Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines) regional chairman Pedro Arnado explained that Kidapawan City was chosen as the center of the protest action because it is where the biggest National Food Authority warehouse is located.

Concluding the series, Elefante cited experts from Pagasa who evaluated the impact of cloud-seeding. These pointed the limitations of the effort, as the evaporation rate can overtake the production of rain. Expert sources also said that seeding efforts must be strategic. Rainfall must be diverted to water catchment areas so as to disperse the benefits of rain for other needs, such as sustaining the capacity of hydropower facilities to prevent,power outages.

For its part, published “Kidapawan tragedy: Spotlight on climate change and local governance” on April 14, which focused on the limitations of the capacity of LGUs, now mandated with authority and responsibility to address climate change and disaster risks. It explained the expansion of the role of LGUs through the Climate Change Act and the Disaster Risk Reduction Management law. The report also cited data from the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) which as of December 2015 showed that out of 782 LGUs, only 160 have developed climate change action plans. Interviews with NGO experts who have reviewed the steps taken by LGUs in this area called attention to the limited planning capacity of local officials, some of whom simply cut-and-paste measures from other plans.

An expert view encompasses current detail in his review of cycles of food shortages even during drought-free seasons which emphasizes the link “between hunger and violent conflict.” Published by the Inquirer (“Bloodshed in Kidapawan: Climate change, conflict, politics of famine,” April 10), International Alert Country Manager Francisco Lara’s essay is instructive not only for policy makers and officials but for the media as well.

As pointed out in an earlier monitor, the media can’t remain in just passive or reactive mode, given emerging issues that could lead to crises (“Reporting the Kidapawan Clash: Lots of Questions”). Journalists, editors especially, need to look ahead to provide information that can call for policy review as well as prod government to take emergency action to avoid or mitigate the  effects of disaster.

Media efforts to explain the underlying issues post-Kidapawan are valuable. Public attention has not quite turned away from the horror of the recent bloody clash in the city. The Senate probe of official negligence and other flawed State responses should point to the need of review and amendments of current laws.