Nearly 100 people were killed in the Philippines a week ago when Typhoon Rammasun roared through the country, raising doubts about efforts to end the heavy tolls from storms that are only expected to get more intense as the global climate changes.
Yet in Albay province, which bore the brunt of the strongest storm in the new typhoon season, no one was killed, proving that deaths can be prevented provided that there is the will to force people to do what is necessary to save their own lives.
“Tools of leadership are lacking,” Albay Governor Joey Salceda, who has led the province for three terms, told reporters when asked about the tally of casualties in other provinces.
About 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year and recently they have been getting stronger. Meteorologists say that as ocean temperatures rise, storms will get more dangerous.
Late last year, Typhoon Haiyan became the strongest recorded storm to hit land anywhere, killing more than 6,100 people, mostly along the east coasts of central Philippine islands as it whipped up tsunami-like storm surges.
Since the shock of Haiyan, the central government and its agencies have been more active in their risk assessments and recommendations of pre-emptive measures.
Yet Salceda says it is up to provincial governments — not the central government — to use their powers to force people to take steps to save themselves, and if that is to happen provincial authorities have to get to grips with what has to be done.
“Local executives need more training, they are still struggling to grasp what it really takes to make people act,” he said. “It’s a failure to communicate, failure to ensure household compliance.”
Salceda’s efforts clearly work, as his province’s clean sheet on deaths attest, even though the storm destroyed 6.2 billion pesos (US$143 million) worth of crops and property there.
Salceda said he has at times used “shock therapy” to get people moving to avoid the storms that regularly roar in from the Pacific Ocean.
He described the bemused reaction of citizens to his order to close schools while skies were clear, a day before a typhoon was due to strike. He uses relief supplies as a tool, offering residents of low-lying areas emergency rice packs, but only if they move into shelters.
The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction designated Albay a role model for disaster risk reduction in 2012, highlighting its massive communications campaign in preventing casualties.
Salceda agreed that getting word out through every channel available was vital.
“I aired warnings over my Facebook. I probably had 100 interviews over the radio, over and over,” he said of the latest storm.
The province also sends out advisories over mobile phones to about 12,000 village leaders and officials and also has a smartphone app to issue warnings.
Albay has tried to pass on the secrets of its success to other provinces, but officials elsewhere often do not seem to take the lessons to heart. That is perhaps partly because other provinces are not hit by storms as often as Albay, Salceda said.
However, it also comes down to money: Other provinces just do not allocate enough funds for disaster management.
Albay passed a law in 1994 creating a disaster management office with permanent staff and its own budget to sustain its mandate despite the inevitable change of political leaders. The province has seen storm deaths in only two of the 20 years since then, Salceda said.
Provincial governors and city mayors are elected every three years and can serve at most three terms, so setting up a structure that survives leadership changes was vital, Corporate Network for Disaster Response Inc president Ramon Isberto said.
“You’ve got to make it permanent, you’ve got to give it a budget of its own and you’ve got to make it professional,” said Isberto, whose group tries to help businesses and communities prepare for disasters.
“It survives and does not collapse when governors change,” Isberto said of the Albay Disaster Management Office.
He said that in some places, there is just not the political will to save lives.
“Some are not so interested, they are not as committed,” Isberto said, adding that his group has had to drop some communities from its program because their leaders did not care.
The Philippines was ranked the world’s third-most disaster-prone country in the World Disaster Report of 2012 and Isberto said communities had to adapt to climate change.
“What if we had not just one, but 10 Albays in different parts of the country? Or better yet, what if there are 20 or 30?” he told a disaster forum of government, business and humanitarian officials on Tuesday last week. “Wouldn’t the country be a better place?”
Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Erik Dela Cruz
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