On the lack of familiarity with storm surges

While the people of Leyte and Samar are used to typhoons, Coloma said they were not familiar with storm surges.

He said people were now realizing that a storm surge has a “tsunami-like effect.”

– Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., in The Philippine Star

I have to disagree.  It is true for the majority of the masses maybe but not the LGUs in Eastern Samar and Tacloban.  How?  These are the program areas of my former employer.  Field staff and specialists have been, since after the government signed the Hyogo Framework of Action in 2005, conducting DRR awareness and education programmes, formal and informal, using various media, in local dialects even, from the villages to the provincial levels.  Everything that needs to be known in DRR, ‘storm surge’ definitely is one, have been explained to them, in print, video, etc., in various venues, year in and year out.  There were even community viewings of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  We’ve urged, cajoled, and humored – every tactic there is we knew – key LGU officials, the Local Chief Executives, from the village to the province, to do DRR “now because the children cannot wait”, always assuring them of our support.  There was no end to planning workshops where root causes to issues affecting their areas were fleshed out; there were DRR plans drawn, community to provincial, to establish early warning systems, mass orientation of local residents, and  among these, but our frustration continues to be that these plans were not translated to action.  LGUs’ justifications was that “there are no funds”. (Of course, when the pork barrel scam broke out, it was a shock that there had been funds all along)  Their investment plans, such as this one for Guiuan in 2012 or this for Tacloban’s 2011 IRA utilization, do not clearly reflect DRR allocation.  For Tacloban, the first item is construction of mini gymnasium in Barangay San Roque worth PHP4M.  When you analyze this using the lens of traditional politics, the project is laudable (and serves to transfer to generations ahead the community’s love of basketball). On the other hand, using the lens of DRR, you now will ask, will a mini gym contribute to disaster readiness and resilience of Barangay San Roque, an area located close to the shore and populated mostly by fisherfolks?  Is a PHP4M mini gym worth it in the scheme of things for the barangay?  What alternatives are there? Perhaps one a water proof, earthquake proof, nuclear fall out proof underground emergency facility (that will include a gym) to be put up by phases?  If so, the first PHP4M will cover first an evaluation and feasibility study.  Etcetera.  Etcetera. Going through the document some more, one is pushed to ask:  which is more a priority in the allocation of PHP1.3M – improvement of the City Architect’s Office or acquisition of emergency operations machines and equipments?

It’s not that LCEs don’t know what a storm surge is or its impact.  It’s that LCEs have clung to their personal perception of and attitude to hazards and disasters.  I don’t know about the others within the DRR community, but there were times when I felt like a doomsday prophet because that’s what I sensed the audience projects onto me.  But god I hate to be one even if it’s only imagined.  I counter this projection by assuring them that these things – tsunamis, storm surge – are the realities of today’s world, that these are not prophecies but are rooted in science and increasing evidence.  When LCEs and public officials themselves harbor private doubts, they don’t feel the urgency to do DRR or to educate the masses, their constituents, about these things.  They keep on postponing action on their DRR plans because as they are wont to say there are priorities that are more urgent.

But the tragedy in this is:  The children in the villages – Guiuan, Hernani, Salcedo, yes, those areas that now seem to have disappeared from the map – after having undergone a few orientations in DRR were the first group of locals to “believe”.  They also did plans for their sector and presented them to their adult-leaders and urged that actions be done “now”.  However, these children, like us, were frustrated that their call fell on deaf ears and “lack of funds” reasoning.

(By the way, I guess the reason I’m writing vigorously about these things now is that I remember these children and young people – probably they’re all dead, washed into the sea – and that somehow we adults have let them down.  I imagine they’re crying for justice; to let more people know the truth of their circumstances and maybe then change as they have dreamt and desired will happen.  We say we strive for a child-friendly community -we’re a signatory in the Convention of the Rights of Children –  but truth is we don’t really give a damn to their needs and rights.  Look at our public education system.  Our public schools, the majority of them, don’t even have a decent toilet and water supply.  The lots on which they stand are without titles.  The structures are still from WWII and put up by the Americans.  The roofs leak and your heart breaks seeing these school children moving this and that way to avoid getting wet from the rain.  They don’t have books and their teachers call them stupid.  K-12?  There are no kindergarten classrooms to speak of.  Many in the rural areas have their classes on the open stage with the mid-morning sun burning them.  I don’t understand how we have remained unfeeling of these.  Why?  And in the 21st century when we are said to be more civilized and have gained more knowledge!)

So when the good Secretary Coloma says “they were not familiar with storm surges”, this mirrors the situation wherein the LGUs who have been made aware and educated about storm surge did not in turn educate the masses about the hazard. Lack of familiarity is different from foolhardiness.  The latter is like that of the chain smoker who despite knowing that ‘smoking is dangerous to your health’ he or she does not or refuses to take steps to at least decrease the number of sticks consumed per day.  The former in this case is inability to make informed decisions because certain vital information were withheld, perhaps not deliberately, but still, it was not widely and regularly promulgated. One can hardly expect people who don’t know what a storm surge is to internalize its impact on the same hour that a storm signal 4 warning is issued.  To these people, it’s like you’re speaking in tongues.  One needs time to internalize such things.

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