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[OPINION] Planning and preparation: Unglamorous, yet most critical, in disasters

Dennis Acop
[OPINION] Planning and preparation: Unglamorous, yet most critical, in disasters
'The continued presence of residents right on the active volcano over the years is the most illustrative manifestation of the state of our disaster preparedness as far as Taal is concerned'

Suddenly, the world is plunged into all kinds of natural disasters, from fires in Australia to volcanic eruptions in Japan, Mexico, and now my beloved Philippines. In an effort to help out and alleviate the pain and suffering of all victims, present and future, allow me to share a few words from informed hindsight, formally and informally.

There is much to talk and write about when it comes to disasters, but I will merely focus on the fundamentals for brevity. These basics almost always bear out the heaviest impacts eventually on both planners, responders, and victims of disasters. I must also add that besides these fundamentals, cultures likewise impact the effectiveness of disaster management for better or for worse. Such disaster management basics include planning and preparation, response, and post-disaster activities and programs. Almost unspoken but definitely there in every stage is the cultural environment in which these basics are executed.

I will cut to the chase and highlight the ongoing eruption of Taal Volcano near Manila to illustrate my point. Contrary to the misconception by some, government plans to deal with disasters do exist. They only need vigilant and prompt execution by concerned stakeholders at every stage. The Philippines is an archipelagic country of 7,107 islands. Home to numerous volcanoes, the nation is not unfamiliar with their management and have dealt with such over the centuries. Taal, for one, has been erupting every now and then over the years. People now only seem taken aback by the seeming suddenness and severity of the eruption not to mention the sensationalism created by it on social media (for good or bad).

Planning and preparation is the most critical, yet unglamorous, stage in disaster management. Unable to prevent the hand of nature, human goals and objectives then focus on how best to mitigate the adverse impact of disasters on lives and property, in that order. Almost unseen and unheard of (probably contributing to ineffectiveness), planning and preparation activities nevertheless determine the success or failure of disaster management when the actual disaster strikes.

Many Filipinos say they have not been aware of any government announcements or drills prior to the eruption. Taal is an essential ingredient in the lucrative tourism and leisure industries of Tagaytay City, Batangas, and Laguna and perhaps public managers did not want to alarm visitors and investors too much.

But planning and preparation are the most critical in mitigating disasters. They are complex and take time to be properly addressed. Since they involve numerous stakeholders from almost every government department and relevant private sector players, the efforts must be centrally led and executed by public disaster managers from the defense and local government departments. Once plans are completed and updated, their simulation in terms of drills and exercises must be aggressive but balanced with the economic and social concerns of other relevant stakeholders, local and national.

In fact, a congested weekend and holiday destination like Tagaytay City which is right next to Taal overlooking it, is already a prime market for disaster mitigation, especially the residents who live right on the volcanic islands. The fact that people are even allowed to live there bogs me. I once sarcastically posted that we are overwhelmed to inaction and helplessness by massive greed on the one hand and extreme poverty on the other that we simply let things be.

Inadequate planning and preparation is tantamount to not being prepared at all. Even with exercised plans in place, people still perish. How much more with none? Or with plans that have holes in them? Or well-laid out and detailed plans that have not been drilled? With stakeholders who do not know their roles when the disaster comes? With planning and simulation activities that have not been fully supported by resources? With ineffective or non-existent communications issued to the public?

To be quite honest, the continued presence of residents right on the active volcano over the years is the most illustrative manifestation of the state of our disaster preparedness as far as Taal is concerned. Perhaps the unusual form of Taal, being a system of small volcanic islands and islets, and its interspersed and usually undramatic eruptions, has lulled us all into complacency. Still, it speaks much about how disaster management is heavily challenged especially by our culture. Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems hard to imagine Japan doing the same.

Disaster planning and preparedness also include the peripheries away from the center. For instance, flights from and into Manila were suspended for days due to near zero visibility. Thousands of passengers were suddenly stranded in airports across the country. Chaos was everywhere and witnesses bemoaned the lack of order and effective contingencies to alleviate the confusion in the terminals. Such disorder likewise aggravates the already adverse impact of disasters on people exaggerating their fears and magnifying their stress. Social media technology does the rest. People suddenly need masks to protect themselves from contaminated air.

Response is the offspring of disaster planning and preparedness. Effective response in terms of preventing or minimizing deaths and injuries is in fact the only goal of planning and preparedness. If the first stage did its homework, it means that all line stakeholders (i.e. NDRRMC, AFP, PNP, DOH, LGU, DSWD, etc.) will be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice by the quickest and safest means possible to rescue endangered lives to pre-identified safe havens. The responders themselves must survive in order to sustain other survivors.

Taal volcano is still raging. Much of the feedback is on the severity of the explosions reaching level 4. Phivolcs announced that Taal may reach up to the highest level of 5 in the coming days or weeks. Massive evacuations of people within a 10-km radius have begun. We are not receiving much yet in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of all-around response. Given the seriousness of the explosions and tremors, evacuation and response seem sluggish. The suddenness of the eruption appears to have stunned us more into disbelief than jolted us to resolute action. It is only now that people are gathering their wits, recovering from stupor after realizing what has happened, and running away for dear life.

And the disaster is only intensifying. Phivolcs expects a level 5, meaning that the evacuation radius may escalate along with Taal’s intensity. For weeks or maybe months. Hopefully not. By this time, visible responses aside from the government’s are those from the private and religious sectors offering shelters to the displaced. But even they may soon need to evacuate if the eruption escalates.

One thing good about disasters is that they may ultimately reveal our unpreparedness (or lack of it), catch us divided and bickering by their suddenness, but also tend to bring out the best in the human spirit: uniting each one to a common purpose that is survival and inspiring even the selfish to help another.

Post-disaster activities and programs include rehabilitation of victims, restoration of damaged property, and recovery of entire communities impacted by the disaster back to pre-disaster conditions. Lessons learned from the disaster experience by all stakeholders are likewise a key ingredient moving forward. And if I may add: factoring in the cultural nuances wherein the positive elements are maximized and the negative factors minimized. But that is for later. Today, we are still responding to the now exploding but once serene and beautiful Taal. –

Col. Dencio Acop (Ret), PhD, CPP, AMBCI graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1983. Managing with disasters was part of his job in the Armed Forces of the Philippines and later as Business Continuity Manager at Wyeth. He had attended Cranfield University’s course on Disaster Management in 2000.