PGTW: Beaten but unbowed

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 14 November 2013, Thursday

Beaten but unbowed

The severity of the beating dealt by supertyphoon Haiyan (Yolanda) has forced the Philippines to its knees, if not reduced it to crawling on all fours.

Never has the world in its recorded history seen a storm of this magnitude. Said to be a Category 5 typhoon, some sources say that it “fits the box” of a Category 6 – meaning Haiyan even exceeds the present scales devised by meteorologists.

Vast swaths of central Philippines are flattened, with few structures or trees left standing. There is no food, no water, no electricity, no communication.

People who lived through the storm are deeply traumatized and fighting over the most basic necessities to survive. Looting is occurring in stores and homes.

As for many of those who didn’t make it, their bodies are still lying in the streets. With government offices in the area also for the most part wiped out, and with land transport near impossible given the impassable condition of roads, the breakdown of public services was inevitable.

The sheer scale of the disaster means we have no empirical data to base our responses on. If from the start we had taken as our peg “Hurricane Katrina” that wrecked New Orleans, we might have been more prepared. Or maybe not. In many places, there were no structures strong enough to withstand the typhoon’s force, no higher ground to flee to, no way to escape the waves surging from three sides.

Both local and foreign analysts say we were woefully unprepared, that we did not realize just how powerful Haiyan was, nor how it would affect humans and their settlements.

According to Rafael Alunan III, former Department of Interior and Local Government secretary, this could be because the national weather bureau, PAGASA, is not aligned with international weather measurements.

Alunan commented, “While CNN, BBC, NASA, and the Joint Typhoon Weather Center were saying that Haiyan was….packing winds in excess of 300kph, PAGASA was saying…that the winds were in the 200kph range.

“While the world was tagging it a…Category 5 typhoon, PAGASA [lifted] its highest warning to Storm Signal No. 4. The world uses the term ‘category’ while we use ‘storm signal’….

“Worse, and perhaps because of that [misalignment], local government units may have been misled into thinking that it ‘wasn’t going to be that bad’, having weathered strong typhoons in the past, notwithstanding the President’s and NDRRMC’s warnings to take all precautionary measures.”

For that matter, why does PAGASA even have to change the storm’s name? It leads to confusion. Why not just refer to the international name?

As we deal with the aftermath of this catastrophe, the focus now is on aid management. Netizens are fearful that the one billion dollars so far raised by the world will be misspent by corrupt politicians or incompetent bureaucrats or that the goods be repacked in bags stamped with the names and faces of petty politicians.

Speaking of inept officials, a friend whose brothers are mayors of Visayan towns said they approached a government functionary and asked him to release relief goods in the warehouses. The functionary refused, saying “he had no approval” and “baka ma-CoA [Commission on Audit] ako.” Common sense, along with the basic necessities, seems to be in short supply, but is no less needed for survival.

We need to keep a sharp eye on that foreign aid, both monetary and in kind. The public should be given a strict accounting afterward of where the money was spent and the goods spread. The distribution of items should be fair and equitable. Much media focus has been on Leyte; other towns in Samar and surrounding areas are equally ravaged. The despair and suffering there is just as acute.

What needs to be urgently restored? Alunan shared a comment from a friend who quoted General Russel Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, as saying on CNN that in our situation he would restore satellite communication first and foremost, because the disaster areas are so many and widespread. The lack of communication is hampering rescue and relief efforts.

Alunan also reminds us that a new way of thinking must be used to deal with the challenges of recovery and rebuilding. “We must have a ‘whole of nation’ approach,” he says, taking into account climate change adaptation and disaster risk and crisis management.

We may be raw and pummelled after Haiyan’s visit, but with our vaunted Filipino-brand resilience and patented bayanihan that works everytime, we’ll get through this. There’s a lot to do, but we will rise again. ***

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