Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A way forward for the Philippines

You can only look at so many images of flattened homes and decimated communities or hit the refresh button so many times for updated information on damage estimates before it gets too macabre. While finding fault in this is hard, as I find infographics to be a useful and engaging tool for communicating information, the slick packaging of human misery doesn't feel appropriate at this juncture. I realize the inherent hypocrisy in this sentiment given that my last post praised the Filipino government for quickly publishing quantifiable data on the storms impacts, and it's precisely that information that makes communication pieces like this one possible...but what can I say, I'm fickle.

So instead of waiting for updated stats to tell me what I already know, that this is a major humanitarian crisis, I began to think about how the Mid-Atlantic region would fair if a storm like Yolanda were to hit. The tale of the tape shows that Sandy was a Cat 1 storm with sustained winds of 75mph, and Yolanda a Cat 4/5 with sustained winds of 150 mph with gusts over 170mph. But the damage in the Mid-Atlantic wasn't due to the winds, it was due to the storm surge; Sandy brought a surge of roughly 10ft to coastal communities and went inland for distances measured in blocks. Yolanda's surge was thought to be between 15-20ft and in some cases wiped whole island communities off the map. Drawing these comparisons doesn't change the reality millions of people in the Philippines or the mid-Atlantic region are facing, but it does help by providing perspective. And while far from scientific, the below image is what Yolanda would look like if it made landfall along the eastern seaboard--covering roughly 1200 miles while Sandy's diameter was approx. 950 miles.

Credit: Derek Medlin / Google Earth
So what's being done? If you go by the media's account, aid is slow to arrive and there is confusion on the ground. Some articles go as far as to chastise aid agencies for not learning from past events: The Haiti Earthquake or The Japan Quake/Tsunami. Articles alluding to the fact that response agencies are fumbling the ball resulting in delays in the disbursement of aid began as frustrations amongst survivors reached a fever pitch. What is often overlooked is that it's day 5 following a major event with a significant impact not only on the fabric of communities, but on the infrastructure that allows those communities to function on a daily basis. When that infrastructure is disrupted, its restoration and the delivery of aid that follows will take longer than a business week to bring online.

In addition to the push to reconnect supply chains that will facilitate the flow of aid, OCHA has created an action plan, with objectives, goals, dollar requirements, and lead agencies charged with making it happen. So I guess if you come up with a comprehensive plan to begin to bring order to the chaos, you get a pass and can publish infographics whenever you want.

The plan is based on the cluster system being implemented and while the plan will undoubtedly go through revisions, it's nice to read about a way forward, about a plan to deal with the monumental effort of bringing normalcy back to these impacted communities. I hope that the issuing of this plan marks a turning point in the reporting on the event and that news agencies will choose to dig a little deeper and find stories that highlight a way forward rather than to rehash the horrible tragedy that's already happened.
Learning from the past is how we avoid having history repeat itself, but now is not the time for finger pointing or assigning blame. Now is the time to use the resources available to ensure that no further loss of life occurs while laying the foundation for a response to an event that will take years to fully recover from.

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