Congressmen not inclined to ‘outlaw’ disasters


Musings

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr.

With his island province of Catanduanes often pounded by furious typhoons, some times in the dead of night, causing loss of many lives and wreaking serious damage on property and crops, Rep. Francisco Perfecto filed a bill in Congress in the late 1950s to address the problems caused by typhoons. A cynical member of the House of Representatives immediately named the bill as the “Bill to Outlaw Typhoons.”

Nowhere in the bill was there any statement or even a hint to declare typhoons outlaws. The label “A bill to outlaw typhoons” was only the product of the satirical mind of another congressman as the true intent of Perfecto’s bill was to study typhoons with a view to dissipating their force and reducing the damage they wreak. The bill included provisions for funding the acquisition of technical equipment and the specialized training of personnel. For that reason, a political rival of Rep. Perfecto mocked, unjustly, the bill as being tantamount to outlawing typhoons.

The press lapped up the derisive label, prompting political pundits to comment that the bill was reflective of the shallowness of the occupants of the Lower House. Because of the jeers rained down on his bill and the snide remarks blown his way, Perfecto allowed his bill to die a quick death. He retired from politics after the end of his term in 1957.

We do not know how many lives could have been saved and damage to property reduced had the bill to study typhoon prospered in the halls of Congress and passed into law before the end of the 1950s. On May 28, 1960 a strong typhoon hit Metro Mania in the dead of night, cutting off power and dumping so much rain as to plunge the metropolis in total darkness and placed it under water. So many lives were lost and so much property was destroyed. On Nov. 19, 1970, super typhoon Yoling raged over Metro Manila in the morning of that day, knocking down power and communication lines and destroying many homes and business structures. Regular activities ground to a halt as the capital region lay in ruins.

Painful lessons were learned from the death and destruction wrought upon Metro Manila, the seat of government and the center of the country’s economy. So, in December of 1972, two years after super typhoon Yoling devastated Metro Manila, the Weather Bureau was reorganized into the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, abbreviated as PAGASA. It was mandated to provide flood and typhoon warnings, public weather forecasts and advisories, meteorological, astronomical, climatological, and other specialized information and services for the protection of life and property.

In 2010, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), was established to provide a comprehensive, all-hazard, multi-sectoral, inter-agency, and community-based approach to disaster risk management. The Council plans and leads the guiding activities in the field of communication, warning signals, emergency, transportation, evacuation, rescue, engineering, health and rehabilitation, public education, and auxiliary services.

It is a working group of various government, non-government, civil sector and private sector organizations administered by the Office of Civil Defense under the Department of National Defense (DND). The chairperson is the Secretary of Defense, vice-chairperson for Disaster Preparedness is the Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), the vice-chairperson for Disaster Prevention and Mitigation is the Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DoST), and the vice-chairperson for Disaster Response is the Secretary for Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

In November of 2015, or after the passage of 43 years since PAGASA was established, a law was passed to modernize PAGASA’s technological operational capacity. The modernization program included the acquisition of state-of-the-art equipment, facilities, and systems, the establishment of a technology-based data center that is consistent with international standards, the creation of a human resource development program that will include a new salary scale, and the establishment of regional weather service centers. Its current top officials — the administrator and the three deputy administrators — all have doctoral degrees.

Today, thanks to weather satellites and Doppler radar, we can track a typhoon days before it makes landfall, and even before it enters the Philippine area of responsibility, enabling people to ensure their safety and to secure their property. But in spite of all the extensive advances in weather forecasting and damage control, severe tropical storm Paeng caused the loss of at least 150 lives and about P2.74 billion worth of crops. It also rendered hundreds of thousands of homes across 64 provinces, from Ilocos Norte to Maguindanao, roofless, flooded, or totally destroyed.

Michael Rama, mayor of Cebu City and president of the City Mayors League, blames PAGASA for giving inaccurate information, leading some other city mayors to take inadequate or inappropriate emergency measures to protect lives and property. He also points to quarrying as the major cause of landslides. Others hold local government officials responsible for the unusual enormous damage wrought by a tropical storm.

Naguib Sinarimbo, Minister of the Interior and Local Government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao attributes much of the devastation of Maguindanao to the logs that the continuous rain of Paeng caused to cascade from the mountains of Bukidnon. The province accounts for 68 of the total fatalities caused by the tropical storm.

Dino Reyes Chua, mayor of Noveleta, Cavite said the town’s preparations for Paeng’s impact turned out to be inadequate as floodwaters rose much higher than in past storms. He also attributes the cause of the unusually high floodwaters to the logs and debris that came down from the nearby mountain and Tagaytay. They wrecked the wall on the river bank, allowing the river’s rampaging water to surge into the barangays, causing more damage than in previous floods.

PAGASA top officials acknowledged their shortcomings. But they in turn blame the Department of Budget and Management for not giving them the funds necessary to equip and man the 32 weather stations. Administrator Vicente Malano says PAGASA needs 700 more people to staff all 32 stations 24 hours seven days a week. They also admit they are wrong in using technical terms when disseminating weather forecasts to the public. “Winds of 120 kph” and “24 Inches of rainfall” are meaningless to ordinary folks. They resolved to translate technical terms into description of impacts of such winds and rainfalls.

Alexander Pama, former head of the NDRRMC, attributes the high number of casualties and extensive damage to crops and property to the lack of a government agency empowered to directly do damage control. While there is the NDRRMC, it is only a policy formulating body. Actual damage control — from prediction to preparation to protection of lives and property to rehabilitation — is performed by units of the different departments (DND, DILG, DoST, and DSWD).

Each unit is accountable to the secretary of the department it belongs to. The level of performance and coordination among these separate units is dependent on the capabilities and resources of their respective departments. Incompetence of the personnel of one unit or the inadequacy of resources of another unit would result in failure in disaster risk reduction and damage control. He recommends the creation of an authority or a whole department for disaster management.

Well, in his State of the Nation Address in July 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte urged Congress to pass a bill creating the Department of Disaster Management. He said:

“To help safeguard the present and the future generations, we have to earnestly undertake initiatives to reduce our vulnerabilities to natural hazards, and bolster our resilience to the impact of natural disasters and climate change. As I had stated last year, we must learn from the experiences from the super typhoon Yolanda, and other mega disasters, and from global best practices.

“We need a truly empowered department characterized by a unity of command, science-based approach and full-time focus on natural hazards and disasters, and the wherewithal to take charge of the disaster risk reduction; preparedness and response; with better recovery and faster rehabilitation.

“Hence, we, in the Cabinet, have approved for immediate endorsement to Congress the passage of a law creating the Department of Disaster Management, an inter-agency crafted and a high-priority measure aimed at genuinely strengthening our country’s capacity for [resilience] to natural disasters. I fervently appeal to Congress to pass this bill with utmost urgency. Our people’s safety requirements cannot wait.”

In the 1950s congressmen dismissed derisively a bill to study typhoons and to acquire the necessary technical equipment as “The Bill to Outlaw Typhoons.” In the 2020s, it appears congressmen dismiss facetiously Duterte’s proposal as “The Bill to Outlaw Disasters” as the proposal has been given only cursory attention.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.