11/10/2013
Where we failed

I'm only seeing images from Tacloban, possibly the hardest hit of all the places Yolanda passed through, this morning. I've been following the dramatic stories from news teams stranded in the city, cut off from all communication, left with no choice but to do their jobs, which is to record all of the suffering around them. I try not to cry.

I'm pretty sure we prepared for this. We've seen it for weeks: there's this storm, and this storm could be strong, and turns out it was really, really strong. A category 5, to put it in hurricane terms. Katrina was a category 5 when it threatened New Orleans, but it weakened to a category 4 when it made landfall. Yolanda - you call it Haiyan, we call it Yolanda - it did not relent when it made landfall six times.

But how prepared were we, exactly? How prepared were they? Am I just comparing this, unnecessarily, with Katrina? I was watching coverage of that storm when it hit eight years ago. Will it hit New Orleans? Will it not? Are the people out? There were appeals from everybody to get out of the city, that the levees could break, that the levees will break, that the entire city will be inundated with flood waters and it will be hard to help people who are left behind.

Granted, there are warnings. Maybe they were drowned out by Janet Lim Napoles facing senators the day before the storm struck, but there are warnings. Lots of them. From our weather bureau, from local government units, from the media, from the president himself. "Makipag-ugnayan at sundin po natin ang awtoridad. Lumikas na po tayo kung alam nating nasa peligro ang ating pook."

But I can't help but feel that we failed our countrymen in hardest-hit Tacloban, in Leyte and Samar, in Romblon and Masbate, in Panay and in Mindoro and in Palawan.

Maybe it's because of what we don't know, and as I write this, we don't know a lot of things. We only know how bad it's been in Tacloban, of how the storm surge, roughly ten meters high, inundated downtown, gobbled up even those far away from the shore. We only know what the reporters, stranded and unreachable throughout daylight on Friday, finally telling us what they've seen over the weekend. We only know that the hardest-hit areas have essentially shut down: government has closed, looting is widespread, and a humanitarian crisis is in our hands. We only know there could be at least 10,000 people dead - and that's just in Leyte alone.

I don't want to be the guy who starts blaming people. The Philippines, after all, is frequently visited by typhoons, an average of fifteen a year. As much as we want everyone affected to be safe, there will always be damage, there will always be deaths. The government's goal of zero casualties is realistically impossible, what with people being either stubborn or unlucky, but that doesn't mean we should not try to minimize all adverse effects as much as possible. And for the most part, we've done that very well.

Maybe we were just overwhelmed by the sheer strength of Yolanda, of how it has supposedly gone past some forms of measurement, of how fast it all happened, most of the damage happening in less than a day. Maybe our best just wasn't good enough. Maybe our best just really wasn't our best.

Could the PAGASA have done a better job explaining what exactly will happen? We know the storm has winds this strong, rains this heavy. But it warns of storm surges - and what that means, well, not everybody really knows. I've seen news coverage of Katrina, of how the hurricane brought huge tides of water crashing down New Orleans - that's how I had an idea of what storm surges are. I don't think most of us do.

"Nagbigay po sila ng warning ng storm surge ... ang kanila pong warning, storm surge up to six meters. Ako mismo hindi ko naisip ... kung ano talaga 'yung storm surge. 'Yun pala, aba'y 'yung dagat mismo, pupunta sa buong lungsod."

That's Ted Failon, reporting yesterday afternoon. If one of the nation's most trusted journalists couldn't grasp just how dangerous a storm surge is, how about everybody else? I remember there was an initiative from PAGASA to translate some of the more technical terms in their weather forecasts to more understandable ones, but up to now they still talk about "intertropical convergence zones", which essentially means winds coming together, resulting in erratic weather. (And that in itself is hard to explain.)

Could the government of Tacloban, for instance, have done more to make sure that every one of its citizens is out of harm's way? I don't just mean forced evacuations. I'm sure there were forced evacuations, but evidently a bunch of people stayed in their homes, making light of the fact that the city is surrounded by water, and the city is relatively flat, and it is no match to, in Ted's words, the ocean gobbling it up.

Could the national government, even, have done a better job really ramming down the message - that there will be destruction - to those affected? The president's message on Thursday night highlighted the risks, but it spent most of the time assuring the public that they are ready to respond - perhaps a political tactic more than anything, considering how he emphasized the presence of his right-hand man, Mar Roxas, on the ground in Leyte. (And how he had the gall to blame Tacloban for being unprepared. Because it made him look bad?) I shouldn't be political now, but I can't help but be cynical about this.

Evidently we underestimated this storm. And that's a failure we cannot ever undo. But that's a failure we can all learn from. We have seen storms as strong as this hit the Philippines: Pablo, Ondoy, and personally, I have memories of Rosing cutting power in my home for three days (or what felt like a week) when I was just seven years old. And in all of those instances we have made strides in making sure the improbable "zero casualty" goal look a little more probable. Project NOAH, for one, has made weather warnings clearer. Social media has helped in spreading information and gathering relief in the aftermath of natural disasters like this.

So no, I am not going to play the blame game. Not now. Not when we still don't know the extent of Yolanda's onslaught. At least ten thousand are dead. And that's just an estimate. Maybe an exaggeration, but hell, we were told that this is a big storm. And we did a lot of things to make sure we get off relatively unscathed. And we're seeing all these images and, if you ask me, I want to cry and hurl things at the television because we tried, we really tried... but what happened?

Spilled milk is spilled milk, though. We should make sure we wipe up all that milk perfectly, and that's where we should not drop the ball. No matter how long it takes. We should not drop the ball.

The Philippine Red Cross is accepting donations wherever you are in the world. Visit www.redcross.org.ph/donatenow for details.

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