Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It means nothing unless people act.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Typhoon exposed limits of Warning System." In the article it talked about a new LIDR system that will replace the existing Doppler radar system in the Philippines used to do the same thing: forecast an incoming storm, but do so with added bells and whistles that will enhance early warning capabilities.

I find it strange that in the midst of ongoing recovery efforts, the government continues to invest in advanced weather forecasting technology, as if it were a limitation of technology that caused the loss of life and not a failure of the framework designed to prevent it. From everything that I've read and from the reports that have come out, the warnings weren't the problem. Days in advance of Yolanda making landfall, there were warnings from the government and PAGASA indicating that this wasn't going to be your average storm, and implored that people respond by evacuating. While the article acknowledges that community action based on the forecasts is needed, it feels like the upgrade to the LIDR system is spending money and resource on addressing something that wasn't broken to begin with, while failing to acknowledge where the real vulnerability lies--in connecting with and empowering communities to take action once information is known.

How is it that a country that averages 20 typhoons a year not know "the drill"? Leading up to Sandy's landfall, people didn't leave because they didn't believe the warnings would match the dire reality forecasted. After communities weather 1,2...or 20 storms, complacency, or hubris can affect their attitude towards the real danger these storms represent. However, it wasn't until I saw this video report from the Wall Street Journal that a new aspect of why people didn't heed to warnings as they should have came to light. As part of the warnings that came from PAGASA, the term "storm surge" was used to describe the tsunami-like wall of water that did so much of the damage; something many Filipino's didn't fully understand. One gentleman in the video goes as far as to call the term "english" and ignored the reality it represented.

While I have no doubt that confusion and unfamiliar terminology surrounding the most deadly aspect of Yolanda's impact played a role in the massive loss of life, I wonder why, given the history Filipino's have with enduring typhoons and the dangers they represent, more widespread proactive action wasn't taken as a precautionary measure.

As recovery gets underway, many are looking to understand where the breakdown occurred and why more action wasn't taken at the local level. If warnings were issued, and a storied history of Category 5 Typhoon's hitting the Philippines known, with Typhoon Bopha hitting last December, why wasn't more done to move people out of harm's way? And why is a technological upgrade seen as a move that will help mitigate loss of life when the reason people failed to leave had more to do with protection of personal property than skepticism surrounding Yolanda's forecasted impact?

Technology is a tool. Higher resolution maps are great, early warnings with higher probabilities on storm impacts and locations are even better; however (insert broken record here) if the people who stand the most to gain (i.e. not die) from the information that these newfangled systems provide are not paying attention or don't care, then you might as well not have any warning system at all. The problem hasn't been the ability to forecast a storm--it's been communicating it in such a way that generates action and interest amongst the people who it will impact.

In Mississippi and Louisiana, people didn't leave when Katrina was bearing down because they didn't believe it was going to be as bad as the forecasts warned. In Galveston when Ike hit, people didn't believe that the island would be all but washed away. In New York, people heeded the warning when Irene blew ashore and when Sandy came, pushing a significant storm surge, people stayed and payed the price. In each of those instances we knew; we knew because history told us, the Army Corps of engineers warned us, and because modern day meteorology showed us where, when, and how severe. To continue to say that advances in severe weather forecasting are mitigating the loss of life and helping people be better prepared, at least where Typhoons and Hurricanes are concerned, is a load of crap. The technology currently used to forecast is sufficient, it's the ability of those whose responsibility it is to turn that information into action at a community level is where the challenge lies. While it's easy to point the finger, I recognize that motivating any large group of people to act is no small task...but when you have history, science, and the blunt trauma of reality on your side...I have to believe that more can and should be done.

Advanced systems and fancier graphics are great but when the dust settles and it's up to friends, neighbors, and search and rescue teams to shoulder the grim burden of counting the dead, the flashy 3D modeling doesn't mean a thing.

If disaster preparedness and risk reduction initiatives can't take hold in the Philippines, a country continually rocked by Earthquakes, Volcanic eruptions, and Typhoons...why would Anytown, USA devote one dollar more than was absolutely necessary to Preparedness if they haven't experienced a disaster in recent memory?

The unfortunate circumstances that have brought us to this moment are tragic...but lets not let this opportunity to champion the preparedness cause slip through our fingers. We need to be able to point to a success be able to show the value in investing in education programs and Disaster Risk Reduction, if there is any hope of it taking hold in vulnerable communities around the world, especially those in our backyards.

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