When I first saw the initial reports about Tacloban and Leyte on Saturday morning, I found myself crying and I could not stop for more than 30 minutes. I am not a scientist but I have seen many of these disasters all over the world, either in person or academically. And it was clear from the description of what happened to Tacloban, that the news would get worse by the day as communications and transportation links are restored. Still, I thought it would be maybe 3-4 thousand and not the ten thousand casualties that have been mentioned in Leyte alone. And, as of Sunday evening as I write this column, news from the other islands are just beginning to trickle in. Of course, I am still hoping that the estimate of 10,000 casualties in Leyte is erroneous and we will in the end have a much lower number.
There were personal reasons for crying about Leyte, including for deep regret for promises not yet kept to reach out to relatives from my father’s side in that province. I cried too out of anger and frustration, for the lost opportunities in the last ten years of preparing better for this and for bad land use and environmental decisions that has made our islands more vulnerable. I think that, starting from Reming and Milenyo in mid-2000s, the handwriting was clear already but we delayed in taking decisive action. It was only after Ondoy when Metro Manila was hit that our national decision-makers started paying attention and began supporting the scientific work needed to lay down the foundations for better preparations. But it takes a generation before the science can have a significant impact on decisions. This is because, to quote the visionary and world-class class UP Professor Mahar Lagmay (head of Project Noah), you need an army of disaster scientists – especially at the local level – to make that happen. Now we have to fast track that and I am afraid that the current system is not up to it. And this will happen again.
In disasters like this, the usual (and right) paradigm of local governments taking the lead is inapplicable and the national government must take over. That is why we must create a national disaster management and risk reduction agency headed by a cabinet level official with a permanent and not just a contingency budget. While I praise Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, General del Rosario of the Office of Civil Defense, and the staff of the DSWD, DILG, DND, and all the national and the local government officials (who are victims themselves) for the tireless and tremendous work they have been doing, they would have been better served if we had an independent agency that did the disaster planning and response for the country.
I also cannot help but connect the aftermath of Yolanda with the ongoing corruption crisis. Dr. Diane Desierto, former UP Law professor and now Professor at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, in a piece she originally posted in Facebook, reflected on what the funds lost to corruption means: “What galls the rest of us from this seeming Congressional cabal of corruption orchestrated by specific elites is how particularly predatory this is on the tremendous, but ultimately limited, reserves of Filipinos’ and Filipinas’ resilience and faith. We know these disasters will come every year, we know what it would cost to have the best technologies already available in the world to mitigate the disasters and ensure swift reconstruction and remediation, but we DON’T take these steps because we can’t afford them, we don’t prioritize them, and we look to these acts of nature as force majeure beyond the realm of human ingenuity or intervention.”
Prof. Desierto continues: “Every political platform makes the grandiose promises to the electorate of ridding corruption – pointing to Marcos and his cronies as if they had the monopoly of this privateering enterprise – but not a single administration has ever committed to making an integrated natural disaster prevention, remediation, and reconstruction system our country’s highest national security priority.”
Diane ends her note with a call for accountability and I echo that: “Corruption, much like these natural disasters, may be inevitable – but they are not beyond human intervention, ingenuity, and resolve. While it may take generations and several lifetimes over to deal with both, Philippine resilience and faith doesn’t mean that we have to stand by silently and take all of this as an inevitable expectation of futility – NOT when we elect, empower, and enfranchise our governors with the highest mandate to lead and to act for the Filipino people everywhere, at home and abroad.”
This week in Warsaw, Poland, as we have done for the last 19 years, the countries of the world will gather to discuss what the global community can do to mitigate and adapt to climate change. All eyes will be on the Philippine delegation as we carry the burden of what Yolanda has done to our country. All of of us will be sad, heartbroken, frustrated, worried, and even angry. But these raw feelings from Yolanda might be good if it helps us make the world listen and act. Because failure means what happened last Friday in the Visayas will become a permanent occurrence and will never be able to rise up from that.