MANILA, Philippines?The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has lost 24 key personnel, most of them experienced weather forecasters, in the past 10 years to lucrative offers from abroad, the Inquirer has learned.
Brain drain is not the only disturbance beclouding the state agency, on whose forecasts depend the lives of countless Filipinos. The problem of outdated equipment has battered it for years.
According to PAGASA personnel who talked on condition of anonymity, most of the weather forecasters have accepted offers from the state weather agency in Dubai, which is strengthening its forecasting system in its bid to attract investors and tourists.
Weather forecaster Nonoy About was the last to leave for Dubai. He left last year. Another experienced forecaster, Robert Rivera, left in 2008.
In 2007, Ayla Bayaca, former officer in charge of PAGASA?s Legazpi City station, and Leonilo Millanes also accepted positions in Dubai.
Also last year, Cora Samar of the forecasting section left for a position in Australia.
Just recently, deputy administrator for operations Nathaniel ?Ka Tani? Cruz left to work in Australia?s state weather bureau, making him the highest ranking PAGASA officer to leave for better climes.
Some employees told the Inquirer that Cruz was given three months to reconsider his decision to leave for abroad. Other employees said Cruz would not be returning.
What they earn
As of June of this year, the basic salary of a weather forecaster with the rank of Weather Specialist 1, the lowest rank, was pegged at around P20,000 per month. The next in rank, Weather Specialist 2, earns around P23,000 monthly.
A forecaster with the rank of Senior Weather Specialist earns about P27,000. Next is the Assistant Weather Service Chief with a salary of P32,000.
A Division Chief, which was Cruz?s rank, gets a monthly salary of P37,000.
At present, PAGASA has a total of 14 weather forecasters working in three shifts. The ideal number is 16.
PAGASA has been under a microscope after failing to accurately track Typhoon ?Basyang? (international codename: Conson) and its officials were publicly reprimanded by no less than President Benigno Aquino III.
The agency has upgraded the capability of two of its Doppler radars to improve storm tracking. Aside from that, the new radars can now provide information on wind speed, wind direction and rainfall amount.
The agency is set to upgrade five more radars in the coming months.
A Doppler radar is used in most sophisticated weather forecasting systems around the world, including Japan.
One of the two PAGASA radars with upgraded Doppler capabilities is in Baler, Quezon, and the other is in Baguio City.
But these two radars are only components in a network of at least 12 other radars that PAGASA needs to get a good clear picture of a coming storm.
Inherently, the Baler and Baguio radars have weaknesses. The Baler radar has a blind spot to the west because of the Sierra Madre mountain range, while the Baguio radar cannot cover Metro Manila. This means PAGASA is only making do with the information from these radars and from old radars.
By August, the agency hopes the upgraded Doppler radar in Subic would be completed. This radar would cover Metro Manila.
By September, PAGASA said it would see the completion of the upgrade of the radars in Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur; Tampakan, North Cotabato; Cebu; and Tagaytay City. The last radar station would also have the capability to cover Metro Manila.
Upgrade plan ignored
PAGASA?s old radars are the ordinary S-band radars that require a large dish, do not have the capability of measuring wind velocity, have a short range of around 300 kilometers in radius (the new ones can extend to 500 kilometers), have limited capability in monitoring thunderstorms and need to be replaced every year.
The new radars will also use the S-band which operates at a wavelength of 8-15 cm and a frequency of 2-4 Ghz, but also include the full range of Doppler capabilities that can estimate wind speed, monitor rainfall and track storms more accurately.
In 1998, PAGASA officials presented a six-year master plan to upgrade the agency?s equipment, like radars and early warning systems. The plan, according to an earlier interview with PAGASA Administrator Prisco Nilo, was ignored.
Before 1998, the agency had asked for upgrades of specific equipment. But all that was given were upgrades in the salaries of personnel and operating expenses.
?It?s a case of neglect,? Nilo had said, decrying that the country?s leaders did not appreciate ?the importance of better equipment that could save lives and property.?
Master plan junked
After 1998, PAGASA decided to chuck the master plan.
But Nilo said the Arroyo administration was more supportive of PAGASA?s plan calling for much-needed equipment improvement.
In 2005, Nilo and PAGASA embarked on a new plan that included the upgrading of PAGASA?s existing Doppler radars.
Unfortunately, the Arroyo administration toward the end of its term slashed PAGASA?s budget for 2010.
The agency had submitted a P1.7-billion budget covering personnel and maintenance expenses and including capital outlay for the purchase of new equipment. But it was told by the Palace to stay within the ceiling of P614 million.
For 2009, PAGASA got a P757-million budget that included some amount for capital outlay.
Because of the small budget from the national government, PAGASA has been aggressive in getting grants from foreign agencies, like the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Korea International Cooperation Agency.
Among other projects, PAGASA recently signed an agreement with the Japanese government to procure three more Doppler radars for the country?s eastern seaboard. The radars, which cost around P1.6 billion, will be installed in Aparri, Catanduanes and Samar.
The South Korean government is also involved in a P50-million project for a flood early warning system in Iloilo, Lake Lanao and Aurora.