One month after Yolanda: What we need to do

Dean Tony La Viña, Kristoffer Berse
We need to make decision-makers listen to the stories of the survivors, take action, and assure us that there will be no next time

One month since Yolanda (Haiyan) made a deadly landfall across the Visayas, support from ordinary citizens, civil society organizations, and the international community continues to pour, complementing efforts of the national government. 

It is  reassuring to know that assistance is now steadily reaching far-flung communities in Leyte, Samar, Cebu, Aklan and other affected provinces. We have yet to cover all disaster-affected areas as reported in social media, but it is good that relief goods are now flowing regularly, albeit not without operational snags every now and then.

Support from local government units (LGUs) has also been overwhelming. The provincial government of Albay was the first to respond to Tacloban and other areas, providing immediate and critical support, from relief and rescue to water and sanitation. A 400-person contingent from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, led by no less than its chairman Francis Tolentino, quietly worked to clear Tacloban of debris and to assist in other relief operations. As of this writing, two teams from the Makati Rescue and the Philippine K-9 Search and Rescue Foundation (PH-K9) are still in Leyte continuing to assist the affected LGUs in search and retrieval operations. Many other cities and municipalities have been very active in the response phase, with some formally adopting those that were badly hit. 

Many foreign governments and international organizations like the World Food Programme, UN Habitat and other multilateral organizations have also descended to the affected areas bring needed expertise, equipment, and funds. It has been said that the Yolanda/Haiyan effort is the biggest humanitarian effort ever conducted by the United States. In the United Kingdom, something in this disaster has struck the hearts of Britons who have responded with record amounts of donations to support relief operations. Even China, with whom we have a territorial dispute, has risen to the occasion to help us out in time of need. 

It can now again be said that we have the best citizen organizations in the world, proving once again that our legitimate nongovernmental organizations play an essential role in disaster response, as well as in planning for reconstruction and rehabilitation. Citizen organizations from as far as Mindanao, such as Balay Mindanaw, to those based in the capital like the Ateneo DREAM Team have responded with imagination, competence, and dedication. These include churches of all denominations and faiths. When the dust settles, it will be obvious that our society would not have coped without our citizen organizations.

Ordinary citizens have also come out to help their countrymen in need. In Metro Manila, far from the center of bedlam that characterized the first two weeks of Yolanda, an unprecedented groundswell of bayanihan spirit converged in Villamor Airbase, welcoming the country’s first-ever exodus of “climate refugees” from the devastated areas.

Equally interesting and no less gripping are the stories of reverse exodus. Family members and friends of people in the areas worst affected by Yolanda who insisted in returning to their hometowns to look for loved ones and to conduct their own relief operations for them. Stories abound on of how determined individuals, against counsel and reason, found various ways to get home whether by ship, plane, car, bus or even by walking.

Finally, one great phenomenon has been the influx of many Overseas Filipino Workers and foreign citizens of Filipino descendant who have come to help out whether they are information and mapping experts helping figure out the logistics of the relief operations or going out into the field as nurses and doctors. One of the latter is Michelle La Viña, a nurse from Baltimore, Maryland and Portland, Oregon, who has been in Tacloban for two weeks. In one of her Facebook posts, Michelle observed:  “Our clinic days have been long and hot. The Filipinos are the most resilient culture I have seen. Everyone has been waving and thanking us everywhere we go.”

Road to recovery

By now, the situation is starting to stabilize in many areas that were severely affected by the disaster. On its third week, peace and order was no longer a major concern among residents. In Tacloban, the informal economy is slowly springing back to life, with some vendors starting to ply the streets again in the midst of all the debris that have yet to be cleared.

Government interventions like the Department of Trade and Industry’s Diskwento Caravan was also a sound move, in spite of the attendant issues it allegedly brought along, if compared to an iron-clad price control which would have only spurred irrational behavior in the market. The work-for-cash cleanup drive initiated by various groups is attracting not only Tacloban residents, but also people from neighboring towns who need as much financial relief.  

On the political front, it is good that the blame game has stopped for the time being. If we are to believe the Wall Street Journal account of what happened in the last two days before Yolanda came and the first 24 hours after it devastated Tacloban, everyone involved seemed to have exercised due, even extraordinary, diligence from the President Aquino to Secretary Roxas to Mayor Romualdez. 

Even ordinary citizens did their job of weighing the information about the risks and made their judgments. Yes, people miscalculated but we would not fault them for that. Instead, we would challenge everyone not to repeat the same mistake. 

Because we must not let Tacloban happen again. We must come to grip with our failures.

Stories of failure 

It goes without saying that now is the right time to reflect on what happened and start asking questions that are not divisive and derisive, but healthy and productive. Because no matter how much we try to “prettify” Yolanda (as one writer put it), the truth remains shattering: that even when survivors tell stories of resilience, these are always drowned by the terrible reality of death and destruction. No good stories can ever bury that, especially in the Philippines where journalists are daring, if sometimes reckless, and social media is widely available. 

For example, the way the casualty count has been managed and the manner by which the government has dealt with bodies of victims has been very distressing. No sugarcoating can hide the ugly truth that many more deaths happen than the President predicted or that, weeks after Yolanda, many bodies remained unburied. Without a proper closure on deaths and the right burials, many will never be able to move on.

It is one thing to celebrate the resiliency of the Filipino people, but it would be irresponsible of us to just sweep under the rug the collective difficulties and exasperation that we have been through in the immediate days of the disaster. We have to honor those stories of failure and frustration by listening to them and not shutting them off. The challenge is how to frame those stories properly so they lead to action and solutions and not despair. 

With this think piece, we try to do this by highlighting some areas where we need to improve on.

Risk communication

We have gone a long way with regard to identifying and tracking natural hazards, especially those that are hydrometeorological in origin. Thanks to sophisticated scientific initiatives like Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards), our early warning capability is no longer a hit-or-miss affair. As a multi-agency project based in the University of the Philippines (UP), Project NOAH data supplements PAGASA’s weather forecasting hub for better public information on disasters.

What we need to improve on now is in how we imagine and communicate various disaster scenarios. Dr. Mahar A. Lagmay, Executive Director of and the practical visionary behind Project NOAH, is cognizant of this need. Along with a group of engineering, architectural and disaster risk management experts from UP, he went to Tacloban last week to personally understand, among others, the warnings given to the local community before Yolanda made landfall and how the idea of a storm surge was interpreted by the residents. This local knowledge is important not only to inform future early warning strategies, but also to guide the development of community-based disaster preparedness programs. 

The media also has an important role to play. For instance, in Cuba, a small country situated in the heart of so-called “hurricane alley” in the Caribbean, forecasting does not stop at giving weather bulletins four days before a hurricane makes landfall. Advisories, which are delivered in phases depending on the development of the storm, are accompanied by intensive state media campaigns showing visual images and video footages of past similar disasters to support science-based forecasting. The country’s early warning and disaster preparedness was so effective that when Hurricane Wilma—a Category 5 super-typhoon in the league of Yolanda—hit Cuba in 2005, not a single human life was lost.

Ultimately, we need continuous dialogues to bridge the gap between science and policy, as well as between science and the rest of society in general. Disaster risk management—which includes risk reduction—can only be effective if correctly informed by science and properly understood by communities. The format of the Politicians Meet Professors Forum, sponsored by the Jesse Robredo Foundation, Kaya Natin and the Ateneo School of Government, held at the Ateneo de Manila University last week may be expanded to meaningfully engage other stakeholders (e.g. Professors Meet Yolanda Survivors, Politicians Meet Scientists, Disaster Experts Meet Media, etc).

Emergency planning

The Yolanda disaster also exposed an Achilles’ heel in how we deal with disasters in the country: our lack of an emergency operations plan, especially at the local level. And for major disasters. An emergency plan should be able to lay down the basic protocols in the event of disasters, from deploying immediate search and rescue operations, to overcoming communication and transportation jams, to properly locating evacuation shelters. The destruction of houses in high-risk areas may be difficult to contain in the face of a super-typhoon like Yolanda, but through proactive, science-based disaster management planning, we could still drastically reduce the number of casualties in the affected localities. 

Moreover, an emergency plan would allow LGUs to explore creative ways of encouraging people to evacuate. In Albay, a simple mechanism is in place: 3 kilos of rice are allotted per household as an incentive to evacuate hours or days before any destructive typhoon makes landfall. A purok-level security system may also be created to assuage the fears of residents that their properties will be ransacked in case they leave.

It also helps that Albay has set up strong, safe and “dignified” shelters for its evacuees. In the case of Tacloban, many of the casualties actually died in schools and buildings that were neither high nor strong enough to withstand the wrath of a 5-7 meter storm surge. The proper siting of evacuation centers and identification of emergency routes are one of the main components of a sound disaster management plan.

Setting up regional operation centers where emergency personnel, equipment, relief goods, and other resources are prepositioned is an imperative. One lesson from Tacloban is that it would be helpful to have other regional centers prepared to intervene when necessary.

We have to learn how to handle massive evacuations. For example, we have to be ready to evacuate huge areas of Metro Manila when, not if, the time comes when our scientists tell us it has to be done.

Avoiding risks, using natural defenses

As we move forward to reconstruct the areas devastated by Yolanda, and as unaffected islands and localities assess their own vulnerabilities, it is important to undertake serious hazard, vulnerability and risk assessments. As a piece of good news, the mapping of 18 critical river basins in the country through light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, as part of the Disaster Risk and Exposure Assessment for Mitigation (DREAM) component of Project NOAH, will soon be completed before the end of the year. Another promising development is the deployment of Mobile Operational System for Emergency Services (MOSES) tablets that can be used to directly relay risk-related information to and from designated barangay personnel.

To complement national efforts such as Project NOAH, more localized assessments are needed to cover capacities and vulnerabilities at the community level. We would encourage local governments to be involved in these assessments, working with their local universities, research institutions, and citizen organizations to get these done quickly. Such risk assessments should be incorporated into local land use plans that should now be tested also for its disaster and climate resilience.

One important consideration is ensuring that natural defenses of islands and localities are protected and strengthened. Mangroves for example must not be cleared or cut. Remaining forests and existing vegetation should be preserved. Reclamation projects, including those proposed for Manila Bay, should be discouraged, if not outright disallowed, as they usually increase the threat from storm surges, floods and sea level rise.

One important addition to how we conduct environmental impact assessment in the Philippines would be to include disaster and climate resilience as considerations in making decisions on granting or denying an Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC). Any project that significantly increases the risk of disaster to communities should be denied an ECC.

Stand-alone agency

We have written about this before and will not repeat in detail what we have said before. But the country’s institutional system for disaster risk reduction and management is beyond repair. It is in fact designed to fail.

We need a new, independent, and stand-alone disaster management agency. The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) has turned out to be exactly like its predecessor the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), a coordination body with a small budget, few personnel, and little teeth. In times of grave emergency, when command and control is essential, coordination can lead to indecision and paralysis.

It should still be the local government that leads the response to disaster in most cases. But we need a national disaster management agency to take command in Yolanda-like disasters. The idea of regional disaster emergency centers and undertaking massive evacuations cannot be done without a national disaster management agency. 

In between these big disaster events, you need a national agency to scale up capacity building so all our local governments are in the same page in terms of disaster risk reduction and preparedness. Implementing the educational and communications mandates of the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010 would also fall under this agency.

New laws

On legislation, aside from the creation of a new disaster management agency that we are proposing, the enactment once and for all of a law that prescribes a national land use policy is critical to reduce risks to disaster. Such a policy should provide guidance to local governments on how to prepare local land use plans. It should prescribe standards by which those land use plans should be assessed and must include disaster and climate resilience as criteria.                                          

Another law that requires review is the Climate Change Act of 2009. While the Climate Change Commission is fairly new, it might benefit from an assessment of whether the current institutional system, headed by the President and based again on coordination, is adequate to deal with the formidable challenges of climate change.

Finally, we must pay attention to the national budget. The General Appropriations Act is the most important law the Congress enacts every year. For example, the fact that the national budget does not allocate programmed funds for the People’s Survival Fund is a sign that the government is not serious about climate change adaptation or disaster risk reduction.


The fact that officials and citizens misjudged the extent of the threat that Tacloban and other areas faced is immaterial. Mistakes are made all the time, even by the most diligent. Finger pointing is counterproductive and will not lead to significant changes in how we should handle disaster risks in the country.

This does not mean, of course, that we simply forgive and forget. Accusations of negligence and misinformation must be investigated and substantiated. We cannot just revert to business-as-usual knowing that we lost the first 24 hours and maybe more when local and national government disappeared.

It is also important that we stay vigilant with how the resources for reconstruction are going to be allocated and expended. This includes, among others, the huge amount of international aid that we have received and the supplemental budget that Congress is allocating. The appointment of former Senator Ping Lacson is a good sign given his strong leadership qualities and his consistent stance on handling discretionary government resources. 

Ultimately, we need to make decision-makers listen to the stories of the survivors, take action, and assure us that there will be no next time. We should plan and prepare for even worst disasters as for sure they will come. It is fine, in fact it is good, to leave our fate in The Lord of Nature because many of its forces are outside our control. But first let’s do our part. –

About the authors:  Dean Tony La Vina and Dr. Kristoffer Berse co-teach graduate courses on climate change and disaster risk management at the Ateneo School of Government (ASOG). This think piece is dedicated to a student, an employee at the Department of Agrarian Reform, who perished along with her two children at the height of the storm surge that engulfed the city of Tacloban on November 8. 

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