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Insights and Analysis

In the Philippines: Texting Tragedy

June 25, 2008

By Steven Rood

The Philippines is often called the “texting capital of the world,” since perhaps the main means of interpersonal communication is sending SMS “text” messages. The average cellular user sends 10 texts for each time a voice call is made, so it is not surprising that the bad news about typhoon “Frank” (Fengshen is the international name) began to spread through text messages.

First, on Friday, messages came from Mindanao ” a friend explained how his school was chest deep in water, ruining everything that couldn’t be moved quickly to the second floor. Bus service was suspended to the capital of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Rice and corn lands in southern Mindanao were inundated. Fishermen were charging 20 pesos (about $0.50, a sizable sum of money for those earning minimum wage) per head to ferry people through the floods.

Then, on Saturday, the drama began in the central Philippines. Writer Gail Ilagan entitled her account “Helpless in Davao,” since she was in that southern Mindanao city while her aged parents were trapped by rising water in Iloilo. “At 3:00, Mom texted to say they broke through the roof to escape the flood. I tried to keep her spirits up by texting her hope, encouragement, and practical survival tips.”

By Sunday, the typhoon had continued north to Manila. A friend in central Luzon texted about her house being flooded ” but, for our Asia Foundation office in Manila, a run of our emergency “text tree” seemed to show that all of our office staff members were safe. By Sunday afternoon, the typhoon had moved far enough north that I was able to text my family from Taipei that I was indeed coming home instead of being stranded at a conference.

There is talk of how this communication technology heralds the “death of distance,” but in fact, that seems illusory. Gail Ilagan’s brother-in-law in Iloilo, while trying to rescue her parents, had to tie himself to an electric post for 5 hours to save himself from the buffeting of surging waters – no text messages from him. More prosaically, since there were widespread brownouts, cell phone batteries began to run down and communications died.

The most ominous dearth of information was about the sinking of the ferry, “Princess of the Stars.” The whole world now knows that it set sail before it was clear how bad the storm would be at its destination, and failed to reach safety (perhaps due to engine failure). At first, all we in the Philippines knew was that an upturned ferry had been spotted by local residents. Gradually, Philippine divers and boats, assisted by U.S. navy personnel and equipment, revealed the awful scope of the tragedy.

After such incidents, and indeed after widespread devastation by a typhoon, there are calls for inquiries and attempts to lay blame. Indeed, President Arroyo, in a televised meeting of the National Disaster Coordinating Committee (NDCC) that she was chairing via videolink from the United States, began to take the Coast Guard to task for allowing the ferry to set sail.

Still, it must be said that the Philippines has a system that functions in these situations – from the NDCC, to the Corporate Network for Disaster Response, to media organizations that cooperate with the government in relief and rehabilitation. With some 20 typhoons hitting the Philippines each year, such a system is continually tested. What was unusual about Typhoon Frank/Fengshen was the sheer geographic scale of the effects ” from the southern Philippines all the way to northern Luzon. Even if disaster management systems were perfect, it would be overwhelmed.

Individuals respond well ” as did Gail Ilagan’s parents who were eventually able to return to the ground floor of their house. In fact, individual talent and perseverance is a hallmark of Filipinos ” which can sometimes lead to micro-managing by leaders rather than reliance on systems. Several years ago, during another typhoon, a Cabinet Secretary stepped out of an embassy reception to communicate with a senator about the availability of rubber boats for evacuating a particular flooded location.

Naturally, she was doing this via text message.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Technology & Development


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