Sunday, November 17, 2013

Some Thoughts on Typhoon Haiyan

Unlike the earthquake last month that preceded Typhoon Haiyan (local name "Yolanda") , there was ample warning by several days regarding the path and intensity of the approaching storm. So I wonder why more supplies and emergency personnel including the military weren't pre-positioned in or near the locale where it was expected to--and in fact did--make landfall. This obviously would have saved time and lives  instead of having to wait for aid to be transported later into the affected areas under impossible and impassable conditions which prevailed after the typhoon struck. It's true that in the case of Tacloban City, the unexpected storm surge that accompanied the typhoon may have wreaked more havoc than anything else in this disaster. Yet, again, given the advanced data regarding the unprecedented  strength of  Haiyan, "forewarned" should have resulted in a better "forearmed".

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the national cultural  trait of family narcissism is a detriment to Philippine society. This is especially the case in situations such as the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan where the excuse for looting not motivated by understandable desperation from starvation and / or thirst is "I have a family". The fact that  victims of such a crime may also have families doesn't register with the perpetrator who is oblivious to anyone outside his circle of interest.

In a twist on this obsession here with family, especially nuclear members,   Michael Tan of the  "Philippine Daily Inquirer" gave an account of one of his staffed members who dropped everything to go one of the most storm-devastated towns to try to find her mother. Travel would be very difficult, and what little money that she was able to bring for her mother,and her own personal expenses might be stolen by desperate refugees, so she herself might wind up a casualty.  Further, she and others like her who are searching for family members might just get in the way of rescue operations being conducted for the community at large.   The employee ignored Tan's advice to wait a few days until conditions were more settled and thus her chances of learning her mom's fate would be improved.  As of Nov. 15, Tan has not heard further from her.


As a Jewish humanist  and permanent resident of the Philippines. I was interested to see the extent to which these sources would step up to the plate in assisting the victims of Haiyan. The answer was not long in coming. Several such groups are coming through. Among them are  Jewish Federations of North America, Union for Reform Judaism and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Jewish Association of the Philippines is also pitching in with donations and a project for repacking relief goods.  The State of Israel has furnished 100 tons of supplies and senior medical personal, and has set up a set up a field hospital in TaclobanHumanist Charities and The American Humanist Association are coordinating relief efforts through PATAS (Philippine Atheist and Agnostic Society). PATAS itself is seeking various donations from local contributors for this project.

Nov.19 Update: Humanist Charities has raised $25,611 in just one day in behalf of  PATAS for aid to the typhoon victims. 


Finally, as I mentioned above, government preparations for Haiyan were inadequate. But worse was the delay and bottlenecks before rescue efforts and supplies began reaching  the decimated areas after the storm  and which are now finally getting through to their destinations. President Aquino has taken  a lot of criticism for this debacle, and taking command responsibility into account, that was bound to happen. Moreover, effective leadership is essential at a time like this, and according to "Analysis: Hero to zero? Philippine president feels typhoon backlash", Aquino may well indeed have dropped the ball.
Yet in all fairness, based on the history of disaster responses both during and before Aquino's administration as well as  onespecially onPhilippine culture the botched response to the Haiyan was almost a foregone conclusion. Almost every time  there's a calamity in this country, there's a hue and cry about how casualties and damage could have been prevented, who's at fault,  and declarations by officials that such lack of preparedness and inadequate response must never happen again. But the fact is that due to a combination of such factors as  institutional inefficiency and corruption at almost every government level and locale, as well popular fatalism, it can't help but happen again and again. So will this time be any different? Will Filipinos finally demand improvements in disaster preparedness and response as intensely as they have, say,  to the pork barrel scandal?  Or will they eventually let the issue slide just as they have in the past?  If this happens, then next time there's a failed government response to a natural catastropheand given the Philippines geographic and geological particulars, there's bound to be a next timethe people will have no one to blame but themselves.