Hard lessons from the storms

The three consecutive severe tropical depressions that battered Palawan during the holidays put to test the baseline capability of our local government units and our communities in responding to climate challenges. On a positive note, it is to the credit of the provincial and city disaster and risk management bodies that the entire province including Puerto Princesa City endured Agaton, the last of the triple whammy, with zero casualty – that is, insofar as latest reports indicate.

Vinta was far more devastating, accounting for over 30 deaths and over 50 still missing. All came from a single place – the isolated island barangay of Mangsee in Balabac which was directly hit by Vinta when it made landfall before Christmas.

The main adaptation strategy that was pursued by the local government units was voluntary evacuation. Anticipating possible flash floods, landslides and storm surges, the LGU policymakers made sure they had set up pre-designated evacuation centers and that the communities were aware of the impending risks. Most of the coastal communities were evidently aware of the impending threat and many moved to the schools and barangay centers that had been set up as temporary shelters.

By the account of Vice Governor Victorino Dennis Socrates, Mangsee Island sustained so much human damage because many of its inhabitants were not aware of the impending Typhoon Vinta when she came and the fact that they were right smack on her path. The provincial government explained that this was because real-time communication between the mainland and Mangsee island is almost non-existent. That island community of over 8,000 residents rely mainly on a faint telecommunications data signal they can access from mainland Malaysia and is almost completely cut off from its mother town of Balabac in terms of digital communications. The local stores don’t sell Smart or Globe sim cards, they only have the Malaysian telco cards. The same applies to basic products, and they are mostly smuggled goods from nearby Kudat province of Sabah.

Urduja was all about red rain, strong winds and flash flooding. Vinta was the same but more devastating. Agaton fizzled out a little bit before crossing the mainland but did significant damage in the coastal zones of Puerto Princesa City.

The three storms exposed the decrepit condition of the city’s post-colonial sewage system, flooding low lying areas until presently with affected residents having no but recourse but to wait for the water to find its own exit and drains. Many had no better choice but to remain in evacuation centers and rely on government relief assistance.

There is evident sufficient capability from both the city and provincial level disaster risk reduction and management offices to churn out the lessons from the recent storms and come out better prepared for the next one. The provincial government has already rolled out plans to put up radio communications facilities not only in Mangsee but in other isolated areas as well. The city government has tasks to do cleaning up the waterways and putting up catchments in low lying areas, even as it has yet to address the long-term need to invest in a strategic sewage facility.

Some more lessons can surely be learned through open consultations and dialogue with the various sectors affected by the storms. One aspect that media, in particular, had to grapple with is in quantifying the damage done by the storms, an important piece of information that is not just needed by the public at large but by policymakers themselves to help them in the task of recovery and rehabilitation.

As PAGASA chief Sonny Pajarilla warned, the storms nowadays are not typical of the weather pattern that was considered normal when there was still a myth that Palawan is seldom visited by typhoons. These storms are our new normal. In this age of climate change, the bigger challenge facing all of us is the challenge of adaptation and response.

Palawan has set its baseline, no thanks to Ursula, Vinta and Agaton. We need to rise up to the occasion and mark our targets too in the immediate coming days, preferably before the storm that starts with the letter “B” following Agaton comes knocking again on our doors.

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