Typhoon “Basyang”:  The latest of a never ending wake-up call


History repeats itself.  Barely ten months have passed since  typhoon Ondoy inundated many parts of Metro Manila and Luzon, killed hundreds of people, displaced more than fifty thousand  families and destroyed billions worth of crops and property. 

Ondoy exposed for the nth time how vulnerable we are to natural calamities due to our persistent refusal to learn lessons from past disasters and our inability to handle and manage disaster response and mitigation.

Much has already been said and written by both experts and lay people explaining why such a deluge of biblical proportions could happen to the only Christian nation in the Far East and what ought to be done to prevent the recurrence of so much destruction and the tragic loss of so many lives.  But because we tend to have a short memory, we were again caught unprepared when disaster struck on July the 13th. 

A disaster waiting to happen At 5 p.m. of July 13, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Administration (Pagasa) issued a public storm warning placing Metro Manila under signal No. 1 (winds of 30-60 kph within 36 hours).  Pagasa said that typhoon Basyang (international name: “Conson”) was heading straight for Central and Northern Luzon.

Metro Manilans went home from work that late afternoon looking forward to a cooler evening and a good night’s sleep since Pagasa did not say that Basyang would hit Metro Manila.

By 12 midnight (!?), Pagasa officials later claimed, storm signal No. 2 (winds of 60-100 kph within 24 hours) was raised over Metro Manila.  But by then Basyang was already battering Metro Manila for over an hour with howling winds of over 100 kph, causing widespread power blackouts that lasted for days and cutting a path of destruction to Luzon.  Basyang also left 65 people dead and 89 others missing.

At a hastily arranged meeting cum press conference of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) the following morning, a visibly sleepless and irritated Pres. Aquino gave Pagasa officials a public dressing down for their wrong forecast of the direction of Basyang which caught Metro Manila residents and disaster management officials by surprise.

The public was also treated to a rehash of age-old disaster management problems, from the antiquated equipment used by Pagasa to inadeaquate public fund for typhoon victims to the usual “whys” and “wherefores”.  Yet this country is visited each year by an average of 20 typhoons SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL.

To be forwarned is to be forearmed Nature is of course unpredictable and weather forecasting is never an exact science.  But typhoons, like most airplanes, can be tracked by appropriate radar equipment, hence the possibility for monitoring and “approximating” the trajectory, movement speed, wind velocity and amount of rainfall of an approaching typhoon.

These critical data can save lives and damage to property and business if and when communicated to the public IN ADVANCE.

Pagasa officials have been asking for updated equipment FOR YEARS, including Doppler radars for storm tracking, to improve their forecasting capability.  Years of persistent funding neglect by the government has reduced Pagasa to making the most out of old equipment that can be considered primitive by today’s standard.  This is sad (and tragic) for an important agency that could literally save thousands of lives and billions in damage to infrastructure and agriculture.

We could have modernized Pagasa for a fraction of the billions spent by past administrations on questionable big-ticket projects.

Public investment in effective “early warning” capability is not only critical, it also makes perfect sense. Each year killer typhoons claim dozens if not hundreds of lives and destroy crops and property worth billions.  Power and business interruptions cost billions more.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  We all know that typhoons hit the country during the monsoon season months of each year, WITHOUT FAIL.  We all know too that flooding, landslides, rough seas and other natural calamities usually occur during the monsoon season.  This “common knowledge” gives us ample time to plan ahead and prepare for the onset of the season.

We need not rely on the government or outside help to come to our aid when preparing for bad weather.  We can brace ourselves and our family for the stormy weather by initiating simple but useful preparations.

For instance, storing candles (inexpensive rechargeable battery lamps are even better and safer to use), lighter or matches and batteries for flashlight and transistor radio comes handy and useful during power blackouts. House roof maintenance or repair during the summer months protects our household belongings from rain water and ensures dry living space for our family.

Proper disposal of our household trash protects the environment and saves our waterways and drainage system from getting clogged up with debris that will impede the flow of water and cause flooding.

There are many other helpful if not life-saving preparations that we can “initiate” to secure our home and family from foul weather,  if we only take the time to make a checklist of things to do, to buy or to gather before the onset of the monsoon season.

The thing is, we can help ourselves by, well, helping ourselves.

On a larger scale of preparation, a national event for disaster awareness and preparation should be organized and held annually.  Such an event can be better set in place and “institutionalized” through legislation.  The event, when institutionalized, can help develop a generation of Filipinos that can cope up with and respond better to natural calamities. 

Those of us who lived for a number of years abroad, particularly in countries with four distinct seasons, have experienced how the citizens of such countries  “instinctively” follow established practices and preparations for the changes in season and weather condition.  A culture of weather adaptation and disaster preparedness permeates the societies of these countries.

It would do us good to emulate and “localize” such a culture.

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 24 July 2010

 Basyang“-related images 

Satellite image of typhoon “Basyang 

Parents fetching their children from a primary school after classes were suspended

Flooded main thoroughfare causing huge traffic jam and stranding thousands of commuters

 Downed power transmission post

Widespread power interruption caused by  “Basyang” in Metro Manila and many parts of Luzon for about a week 

Capsized vessel and damaged wharf in Mariveles, Bataan

 Residents wading through a flooded street

Destroyed houses

Stalled passenger jeepney being pushed by residents

Downed construction crane

Flooded residential and commercial area

Pres. Benigno Aquino III (in black shirt) distributing relief goods to typhoon victims in Manila

Satellite image of a typhoon

   A Doppler weather radar station 

 A Doppler weather radar on a steel tower

A weather radar dish

A weather radar on wheels