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Disaster Response Put to the Test: Lessons from Typhoon Yolanda

December 18, 2013

More than one month after typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan), known as the world’s biggest typhoon, struck the Philippines, authorities now estimate that over 14 million people have been affected, including four million displaced.  The estimated death toll is at 6,069. The government is now on the hard road to recovery and reconstruction, allocating a total of 100 billion pesos in the 2014 budget for recovery and rehabilitation.

Disaster response put to test

Give the size, scope, and severity of Typhoon Yolanda, addressing the emergency that it caused to life and property would have been a challenge to any government.  Indeed, even in a disaster-prone country like the Philippines, the magnitude of Yolanda tested the national government’s disaster management response system. Local governments – historically the first responders in disaster-prone communities in the Philippines – were so overwhelmed by the destruction and loss of lives that just following regular immediate response procedures was challenging at best, and impossible in those hardest-hit areas.

Haiyan Relief

Typhoon Yolanda took the country’s disaster management system back to the drawing board, with many experts and practitioners calling for a central, stand-alone disaster management agency. Photo/Flickr user IOM 2013 (Photo by Joe Lowry)

Five days after the typhoon struck, journalists began commenting that there was a lack of clarity on who was in charge from the national government. One government official answered back, “next time the response will be perfect,” and another admitted that there was a breakdown in the “system.”

In fact, the Philippines has in place specific disaster risk reduction and management policies: the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management (National DRRM) law and its Implementing Rules were passed in 2010.  The law highlights the role of local governments in disaster mitigation and preparation through the DRRM Councils at every tier of the government, including barangays (villages), municipalities, provinces, and the national government.  The law states that each local government must allocate 5 percent of their national internal revenue allotment for disaster preparedness.

However, the complexity of large-scale disasters such as Typhoon Yolanda undermines existing policies and structures. In the immediate aftermath, there was confusion in some areas on which government official was in charge of managing relief. We are now witnessing an embryonic practice of post-disaster governance where the local governments primarily, and the national government secondarily, are struggling to coordinate all sectors to effectively manage the disaster.  Three days passed before President Aquino declared a national state of calamity to focus relief and secure the affected areas. There was a controversial video where the secretary of the Interior and Local Government asked the mayor of Tacloban City six days after the disaster to issue a resolution allowing a national government take-over of the local government.  One official said this exercise is required in the national government’s crisis management operations manual document. However, the law clearly states that national government intervention immediately takes over if there are two or more regions affected by disasters.  In the case of Yolanda, there were almost four regions affected.  An immediate humanitarian response, instead of a narrow focus on the danger of interagency overlap, should have been prioritized.

A stand-alone disaster management agency

Typhoon Yolanda took the country’s disaster management system back to the drawing board, with many experts and practitioners calling for a central, stand-alone disaster management agency.

Efficient coordination of tasks, immediate response, and clear decisions were needed at the onset of disaster, but what transpired instead was a series of plodding consultations during a national emergency. Given the huge devastation, the national government’s slow and cautious response seemingly followed the limited role and capacity of a coordinating council and its secretariat. The Office of the Civil Defense’s (OCD) budget has declined significantly from 1 billion pesos in 2012 to 650 million in 2013. There were accounts of shortages of tents and satellite phones in the first few days after the disaster, which the NDRRMC sourced from other agencies such as Public Works and Highways and the Philippine Navy.  Having a more pronounced leader in the OCD and the Secretary of the Department of National Defense (DND) may not complete the equation, especially in large-scale disasters. A strong leader can be effective and efficient if he or she is institutionally armed.  After Yolanda, OCD and DND cannot be expected to lead in everything, including reviewing national and local government’s land use and disaster contingency plans, orchestrating emergency drills across agencies, and gearing up on needed equipment and infrastructure.

Toward recovery and rehabilitation

One of the most pressing concerns and opportunities now is in disaster recovery and rehabilitation.  On December 6, President Aquino signed the appointment of former Senator Ping Lacson as Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery, with cabinet rank.  Dubbed as the rehabilitation czar, Lacson will manage rehabilitation efforts, unify stakeholders’ efforts, and monitor recovery and rehabilitation efforts by the government. Many people lauded this appointment, as there will be a face to lead recovery and rehabilitation on a full-time basis, signaling the national government’s serious commitment to improving disaster management. Doing the math on damages and losses brought by Typhoon Haiyan and the cost of relief and rehabilitation leads us to invest in and improve mitigation and preparedness.  Below are some investments worth pursuing.

Better information and disaster preparedness

The people of Tacloban and at nearby areas never expected the gravity of such strong winds and storm surges.  An official with the DOST-Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Services Administration (PAGASA) admitted they weren’t “able to explain” its magnitude in press briefings and information materials. The mayor of Tacloban City said more lives could have been spared if the nature of storm surges would have been described as being more like a tsunami.  Some have suggested that simple illustrations be included in future storm signals advisories and weather terminologies.

Review of disaster contingency plans and quicker response

The DRRM law requires local governments to have DRRM plans that designate evacuation centers and articulate contingency protocols.  There were reports of floodwaters swallowing some evacuation centers, which tragically led to drowning among children and the elderly. Local governments should seriously take into account disaster risk in designating evacuation centers.  The national government should also strengthen its quick response plan in crisis situations through a system called Damage Assessment and Needs Analysis.  The plan should outline the worst-case scenarios and back-up plans to ensure immediate response.

Settlement planning should better integrate DRRM informed land use, zoning, and building codes.  The majority of our evacuation centers are schools, churches, and hospitals – institutional facilities that need retrofitting and improvements to withstand large-scale disasters.  Given the immensity and frequency of tropical cyclones and storm surges in the Philippines, safe areas for settlements should be designated.  It’s also high time for local governments to enforce no-build zones and for the national government to review and monitor compliance.

Kriszia Lorrain Enriquez is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. She can be reached at kenriquez@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Zenaida Flotildes:

    My concern are for the victims that were left homeless and had not received any aid or relief since the typhoon strikes. Those are my relatives who lives on the path of the typhoon in capiz. The baranggay Sta. Cruz, Sta. monica and Sto. Rosario Dumalag Capiz remained in a desperate situation. They have no food , water and shelter. We kept hearing about the aid coming from other countries yet nobody had even given them food. I have helped some of my relatives with few pcs. of galvanized metal to cover them from bad weather but thats all. They need some nails and wood to build their houses. I wish you can give some attention to these villages who are not the center of the government nor the media’s concern.

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