Reporting on Typhoon Matmo as it swept across the nation on Wednesday last week, CNN praised Taiwan for its sturdy infrastructure, which it said prevented the typhoon from wreaking avoidable destruction. At the same time, one weather forecaster said that only one-third of the nation’s cities and counties were subjected to weather conditions severe enough for people to be given the day off work and school, and that even those places barely met those conditions.
The forecaster was talking with the benefit of hindsight, since the storm had already left Taiwan, and based his judgement about whether people should have had the day off on wind speed data alone. From a disaster prevention point of view, these comments are highly unprofessional. As well as being of no help in improving the government’s disaster prevention efforts, they send a bad message to the public.
Government departments responsible for weather forecasting and response should impose a penalty on, or at least issue a warning to, the weather expert in question, in accordance with the Meteorological Act (氣象法), to prevent improper comments about disaster prevention from being spread repeatedly.
A wake-up call came quickly and without mercy at 7pm on Wednesday last week, as TransAsia Airways Flight GE222 crashed in Penghu County, causing a major disaster in which weather conditions were certainly a factor. Although the Civil Aeronautics Administration said after the crash that the meteorological data available at the time had indicated that the prevailing conditions met the established standards for takeoff and landing, it is obviously not possible to confidently forecast the power of the tail end of a typhoon.
Stormy weather is notoriously unpredictable and it is all the more important to bear this in mind when considering disaster prevention in Taiwan, with its highly mercurial island climate. Underestimating the uncertainty of weather forecasts, or taking that lightly, on this occasion led to an aviation disaster and irreversible tragedy.
The nation is often battered by natural disasters such as typhoons, floods and earthquakes. Of these, typhoons are often the ones which engulf the whole of Taiwan proper and cause considerable economic losses year in and year out. From the point of view of natural disasters, typhoons — no matter if they are classified as strong, medium or weak — are the main external force contributing to disasters, but the eventual extent of the damage they cause has to do with the disaster response capability of the administrative authorities in each area and the quality of the infrastructure there.
That is why, when comparing the extent of disasters arising from various typhoons that have struck Asian countries recently, CNN’s experts could conclude that the good quality of Taiwan’s infrastructure had, to some extent, reduced the scale of damage.
Allowing employees and students to not attend work or school during a typhoon is one way for the government to optimize its disaster response capabilities. The institution of typhoon holidays teaches people that the best thing to do when a typhoon strikes is to stay put. It reminds everyone that staying at home is a good way to avoid becoming a disaster victim.
When the authorities decide to announce a typhoon day they must do so before the storm arrives, with only the weather forecasts to go by. That being the case, they must take the attitude of never underestimating the enemy. It is not wise to indulge in too much unnecessary commentary about the decision to announce a typhoon day after the event.
If people are exposed to strong wind and rain, it is more likely that disastrous situations will occur. The more people are out and about in typhoons, the harder it will be to prevent accidents, because every outdoor activity has the potential to result in problems.
The power of nature is beyond human resistance. When faced with a possible natural disaster, prevention is always better than cure.
Considering the high degree of uncertainty involved in weather forecasting, it is unreasonable for anybody working in disaster prevention to probe the accuracy of predictions made by meteorological experts before a storm, based on wind strength and rainfall data that can only be known for certain after the storm has passed.
Similarly, nobody should judge decisions made beforehand about typhoon days based on actual wind strength that is only known afterwards. When it comes to natural disasters, an attitude of criticism with the benefit of hindsight is not in keeping with modern science and technology.
Disaster prevention requires the fullest possible cooperation between the fields of meteorology, civil engineering, firefighting and many others. Only if everyone involved learns from nature to the best of their abilities can the occurrence of regrettable events be kept to a minimum.
Even though airplanes flown by several carriers landed safely on Penghu before TransAsia Airways Flight GE222 crashed, some planes that had been due to land there turned back because of the rough weather. The tragedy that took place on Wednesday last week might well have been avoided if only people had borne in mind how unpredictable nature and weather really are, and viewed them with the awe that their power should rightly inspire.
Johnson Kung is chairman of the Engineers Times, published by the Taiwan Professional Civil Engineers’ Association.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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