Conversations with disaster experts

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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How do we minimize the loss of lives and damage when ferocious typhoons come our way?

How do we minimize the loss of lives and damage when ferocious typhoons come our way?

Amid the apocalypse of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), our national conversation has turned to heartrending stories of grief, happy endings in the search for loved ones, and, necessarily, impatience with the mammoth government bureaucracy in bringing relief where it is most needed. 

With such a scale of devastation—never seen in our long history of typhoons and earthquakes—our hearts are horribly broken and our tears can fill up a river.

We look for solace and help. Part of this search led me to 2 persons who have extensively studied disasters. I hope that they can contribute to our national conversation and shed some light on how we can lessen the loss of lives when  ferocious typhoons come our way. Their distance from the Philippines gives them a perspective that’s not sucked into our day-to-day woes. 

Meet Kathryn Hawley and Abhas Jha. Hawley works with the Asia Foundation in Fiji. She has been running disaster management programs in the Pacific Islands for over a decade. Jha, who is with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., is a manager for disaster risk management in East Asia and the Pacific.

I asked them questions by e-mail. Here are excerpts from their answers:

What do local and national governments need to highlight in planning ahead of disasters?

Hawley: Given the destructive nature (force) with which Haiyan hit the central Philippines even the best-prepared nation or government would have a hard time bracing itself against the effects of such a storm. When we try to prepare for hazard impacts as disaster mangers we look to worse case scenarios but I hope they never happen. When they do there are so many variables that can crumble the best-laid plans or preparation. This “super typhoon” storm was one of those “more than worse” cases.

Governments should consider putting in place: prevention, mitigation and preparedness measures.  

  • Mitigation measures that would assist in reducing risks from hazards such as “typhoons” are building codes and enforcement of; land use planning laws and enforcement of; regulating land use; public awareness campaigns; provision of safe housing through low-cost housing schemes; poverty reduction strategies.
  • Preparedness measures would involve such things as: stockpiling of food and water; strategic location of resources (warehousing); training personnel for emergency action/response; development of communication and public information networks; training of community leaders to carry out tasks; cutting trees close to structures; clearing drains…

Jha: The short answer is that preventive investments in risk reduction and emergency preparedness can be extremely cost-effective and can greatly reduce the impact of natural hazards. For example, over 40 years ago in November 1970, Cyclone Bhola killed some 500,000 people in Bangladesh. In 1991, a cyclone killed some 139,000 people. Having invested in early-warning systems including last-mile connectivity to the vulnerable communities, and improving cyclone shelters and evacuation routes,  during the 2007 tropical cyclone Sidr (category 5), Bangladesh evacuated some 3 million people from coastal areas, and the death toll was significantly lower, around 3,000. 

As a comparison, when a year later in 2008, Cyclone Nargis (category 4) hit Myanmar, an estimated 140,000 people were killed. Similarly, in India, a super-cyclone in 1999 killed more than 10,000 people in Orissa. When cyclone Phailin hit this year in October, close to 1 million were evacuated, and only 38 casualties were reported.

How does government handle the scale of destruction brought by Haiyan? What are the priorities? How to overcome logistical bottlenecks?

Hawley: Priorities are: to ensure there is no further loss of life; ensure appropriate relief gets to the worse affected areas in a timely manner; source and deliver food, clothing, water, shelter (the very basic necessities – not an easy task); ensure all agencies or organizations involved in the relief or response efforts are coordinated – critical to ensuring a credible or more effective response; water, sanitation, and health concerns across the worse affected areas need addressing with contingency plans to avoid further loss of life due to secondary health hazards; public awareness and news releases sent out regularly and sensitive to the enormous task in dealing with the situation; establishing evacuation/shelter sites with trained personnel to run them, supplies to ensure people are able to survive in them; of course treating the sick and injured goes without saying.

Jha: In the case of large-scale destruction, governments really have to brace themselves for the long-haul. There will be different needs and priorities at different stages of the disaster response and recovery. 

In the emergency phase, governments will make use of fast-track procedures to provide urgent assistance, debris removal, provision of transitional shelter, and to restore basic lifeline services and critical infrastructure. 

In the following phases, countries focus on more complex needs, major investments and restoration of communities under the principles of building better and safer to ensure long-term sustainability. To ensure that different phases of response and recovery build on the achievements of earlier phases, the government needs to identify an overall vision and recovery strategy. An inclusive and thorough reconstruction plan that brings on board all stakeholders is the most important process-determining success or failure of the entire program. 

Is delay in providing aid inevitable?

Hawley: Short answer – yes!  With so many competing priorities across a huge area and large population affected, there will be delays. Supply lines work well when roads, bridges, airports/air strips are open and accessible, when communities or people have some supplies to keep going for the first 24-48-72 hours.  But when all is lost despair/trauma/depression take over quickly and expectations or anticipations escalate.  There will likely never be enough assistance to meet the affected people’s expectations of need.

Jha: Large-scale disasters always pose serious logistical challenges, especially when infrastructure and service lines break down. This has been seen in many other countries, for example, in the US post-Katrina. Much of the speed of aid will be determined by the ability to restore basic accessibility and services. As seen elsewhere, the use of military resources and assets, bilateral and multilateral help in kind and resources can help with the urgent humanitarian aid and early recovery needs. 

What are handy lessons we can learn from other countries’ experiences?

Hawley: Not an easy question as each country comes with its own unique set of circumstances and depending on the hazard.

Not sure about handy. But lessons learned that are likely already being considered in dealing with this catastrophic event:

  1. Need for coordination: Ensure all agencies (local, national, international) are organized so there is little duplication of effort; provide an enabling but secure environment for relief efforts to happen unhampered;
  2. Need for information: Critical for people to be kept informed on what is happening – especially in the affected areas. This helps in reducing their anger or frustration. But timing is everything and delays with relief supplies can create massive problems;
  3. Need to mobilize the international community: Make use of the UN network: INGOs, Faith-based groups, health professionals, all bring expertise to supplement the countries resources, as the country will not be able to handle it on their own – certainly not in the early days as fatigue will set in during this immediate response phase.

Jha: Every disaster is different, and likewise every reconstruction will follow a different pattern. 

Here are three key observations:

First, we have seen in many other countries that experienced large-scale disasters that setting up a fully empowered Reconstruction Agency like BRR in Indonesia after Aceh or the Queensland Reconstruction Authority in Australia is an essential first step. Such an institution must have a clear mandate, funding and capacity support enabling it to fulfil its roles. 

Secondly, building on existing programs with outreach to communities, such as community-driven development program, can help with the reconstruction of the most urgent sectors such as housing and infrastructure. Successful housing reconstruction programs in Aceh and Java engaged the affected population to rebuild their homes and provide quality control. Capacity-building in disaster risk reduction was included in the program to support sustainable development. 

Finally, reconstruction is an opportunity to improve people’s lives and safety for the long-term. There is an opportunity to build back better and safer, and ultimately to strengthen the capacities of institutions for the next disaster. –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.