You can act, or not act, on disasters, Filipinos told
MANILA, Philippines—There are four things people can choose to do after a disaster strikes: Do nothing after picking up the pieces; look for someone to blame like Pagasa’s inaccurate weather forecasting, the unprepared local government or the President himself; talk about it and hope it was a bad dream, or act on it.
Dr. Miguel Vergara, president of the Crisis Preparedness Center, says a Filipino living in Metro Manila can detach himself emotionally from the destructive massive flooding in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in Mindanao by rationalizing that he does not have relatives there.
However, the dip in the national economy will catch up with that indifferent citizen.
Speaking at a Rotary Club of Makati meeting at the Peninsula Manila on Tuesday, Vergara cited a figure from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters that estimated that “the Philippines loses $500 million a year due to disasters and calamities. That amount can be ten times more this year.”
Vergara, a physician who specializes in the field of disaster management, describes the year 2011 as “horrific as regards disasters like earthquakes in the eastern part of the United States and storms in places where these didn’t normally happen, like in Thailand and many parts of Europe. Phoenix, Arizona, experienced a huge dust storm, called habub in Arabic. It was 10 miles high and covered the sky. People thought it was the end of the world.
According to Vergara, the history of typhoons in the country shows that only once in two years does a strong typhoon pass through Mindanao, and only once in 10 years does it hit northern Mindanao. Thus, Tropical Storm “Sendong” was unexpected despite the warnings that were aired for several days that a weak storm was headed towards that part of the southern Philippines.
From 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., Sendong dumped 100 millimeters of rain on Cagayan de Oro City, which normally gets 150 millimeters of rain in an entire month. Much of the water (83 percent) came down from neighboring upland Bukidnon. What worsened the disaster was that the affected houses were built along the Cagayan River.
Vergara predicts that if another typhoon blows over Cagayan de Oro in December 2021, the silt upstream that is now on the banks of the river would no longer hold as much water and the city would get flooded again. Worse, the cut logs have left crevices along the mountains, for all the water and logs to come down.
He warned that when trees, which hold the earth together, are cut in great amounts, “the water will just be delivered downhill.”
“Thousands have died. It’s an old story that will happen every year with the places changing. It’s like playing Russian roulette—which city will be hit next?” he said.
“It’s a fact that there will be more severe and more frequent climatic events worldwide. Climate change is very real. The sea is rising slowly. Nature is inventing ways of killing us because we’re prodding it to. There’s nowhere to run. Nature will catch up,” he said.
In the meantime, according to Vergara, what people could do is to train and put up a fight the way they would when they know boxer Manny Pacquiao is out to get them.
There are six steps in preparing for a disaster: Identifying the risks; assessing your situation; reviewing resources; listing gaps; planning to fill in the gaps; and evaluating, monitoring and reassessing.
For example, residents of Loyola Grand Villas in Quezon City, a subdivision that stands on a waterway, have learned their lesson from Tropical Storm “Ondoy” by investing in hydro cycles, rafts and water boats.
Vergara said the challenge for organizations like the Rotary Club was to upgrade disaster risk reduction by training people in the barangays to withstand and prepare for calamities, instead of reacting when they happen by going on a campaign of donation and solicitation of cash and goods.
“The best way is to teach our people and make them prepared,” he said, adding that civil society could do this by pinpointing the high-risk communities, such as those around active volcanoes.
Training people at the barangay level “opens their eyes so they can spot problems,” Vergara said.
As for the government, all it has to do is “apply the laws on the total log ban, exert its political will on this, be strict,” he said.
He also recommended a ban on chainsaws in certain areas because these “can cut dozens of trees in a single day.”
Finally, Vergara noted with dismay that the big-time loggers included mayors, governors and even former environment and natural resources secretaries.