Remembering Ondoy: Lessons from the Past

By Caroline J. Howard, ABS-CBN News Channel

Posted at Sep 26 2010 02:28 AM | Updated as of Sep 28 2010 08:25 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines, a country often battered by storms, and prone to landslides, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, has been tried and tested by natural calamity many times over. But while the country should've been used to anticipating or dealing with the impacts of acts of God, a year ago today, it was caught unprepared for what experts say were the unexpected impacts of climate change.
   
On September 26, 2009, flashfloods submerged communities as tropical Storm Ondoy dumped 455 millimeters or a month's volume of rain across Luzon for 6 hours. Pasig and Cainta, Rizal were among the cities turned into virtual "water worlds."

All agenices involved in disaster management now have a space in the Office of Civil Defense operations center.

The hapless picture of a country drenched and swept in a deluge was exceeded only by the desperation of stranded residents looking for speedy rescue, and the misery of a nation looking for someone to blame.
   
Figures from the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) show 464 people were killed, 529 injured and 37 unaccounted for. A total of 15,798 families or more than 70,000 people were driven from their homes by massive floods.  Damage to agriculture was estimated at P6.669 billion, while Ondoy's wrath caused P2.617 billion worth of damage to infrastructure.    
   
But more than the death and devastation, Ondoy exposed the lack of infrastructure and emergency measures for the country's disaster response.

"We never expected Ondoy to hit that heavily," says Defense Secretary and NDCC Chair Voltaire Gazmin.
   
"It was massive.  Everybody was requesting for rescue, and we bungled on that because we were simply overwhelmed," recalls Maj. Gen. Benito Ramos, administrator of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD). "We have our capabilities but we have our limitations, we were prepared not at the level of Ondoy."
   
A veteran of military rescue operations with the special forces in the Cabanatuan College following the July 1991 earthquake, relief operations in Baguio when the earthquake destroyed the runway, and following the rescue in lahar-affected areas following the Pinatubo eruption, Ramos remembers Ondoy's devastation vividly.
   
"The Marikina River and Pasig River can't contain that water. At a level, it can drain to the Manila Bay, it went to the Laguna de Bay.  All 15 municipalities were inundated. It couldn't contain the volume from San Mateo, Montalban and Antipolo.  No matter how prepared Marikina is, all the siltation coming from the hills of San Mateo, Montalban, Antipolo can all go down, and if the Marikina River is silted, the water will spread to the town centers" Ramos says.

Past laws

There had been many efforts to lay down disaster mitigation efforts, but each time, every destructive natural calamity threatened to lay those measures to waste.
   
On June 11, 1978, then President Ferdinand Marcos signed Presidential Decree 1566, a law strengthening disaster control capability, and established the national program on community disaster preparedness in the country. It also created the NDCC as the highest policy-making body for disasters in the country.
   
Considered antiquated by 1999, the Office of Civil Defense began stepping up efforts to promote community-based disaster risk reduction efforts and develop a broader national disaster response policy.  It saw the need to draw up intensive and extensive information on the existence of natural hazards.
   
Two years after the Quezon tragedy, government line agencies have been mapping out hazard risk areas in the Philippines.  They've also been taking steps to strengthen the capability of local governments to prepare and respond to disasters via a "pre-event" prevention mitigation preparedness plan or the "READY Project".

"When the tragedy happened, Phivolcs [Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology] had the REINA project (Real, Infanta, Nakar were the areas worst hit by landslides) strengthening their capabilities to respond to disasters assisted by the UNDP [United Nations Development Program].  We were able to map out hazards existing in the area, teach people how to appropriately respond to the hazards, and realize that the government of Infanta used the data we provided them. They provided alternative livelihood for Infanta," says Lenie Duran-Alegre of the Project Management Office of Office of Civil Defense Planning Division.
   
Before the advent of a new law on disaster risk management, government developed the READY project, which, with the assistance of funding agencies like the UNDP, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank, identified 27 provinces where geo-hazard mapping was done in areas prone to disasters.
    
"We recognize that we lack community monitoring and hazard warning system for all hazards.  READY is being implemented by the OCD, we have practically reached 18 provinces. But for hazards mapping, we have covered 12 provinces.  In terms of preparation, 70% is reasonable but that's still optimistic. We don't know far-flung barangays in communities if they are really informed of hazards in the area," Alegre says, adding line agencies are helping spread the word.
   
While, in the past, government's response to calamities were reactive at best, today, disaster officials say, the country is ready with an integrated and multi-level approach to mitigating and responding to disasters.

SNAP: Streamlining agencies

Its holistic approach begins with the Strategic National Action Plan (SNAP), a program that streamlines the capabilities and roles of concerned agencies.

SNAP is part of Republic Act 10121 or the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act of 2010, a law that envisions a comprehensive approach to all types of disasters from over 40, from the current 19, member-agencies. Then President Gloria Arroyo signed the measure into law on May 27, 2010.  Today, its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) is awaiting the signature of President Benigno Aquino III.
   
"Because of the SNAP plan, there is a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive," Ramos says.  "Before we were concentrated on response, but because of this new law to mitigate the impact of disasters and calamities, we have programs now. The framework for action is mitigation, preparation, response, recovery, rehabilitation and development that we assign to the different line agencies of government."   

"One of the highlights is to integrate the efforts," Ramos says, as manifested by the physical set-up of the operations center intended to have all agencies in one room once operations are set to work.

"Magulo yung sa Ondoy, di natin alam kung paano i-organize. Ibig sabihin, hindi organized yung efforts. Kagaya ng DSWD: kung bumagyo ulit, alam na nila kung saan identified ang evacuation center.  444 lahat [ng evacuations centers] sa Metro Manila. Kung saan naka-imbak ang food at non-food pre-positioning, lahat identified ng DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development]," notes Ramos.

He adds that lessons from Ondoy, as well as typhoons Pepeng and Santi, have prompted the coordination of the national government, local governments, as well as civil society. in efforts to deal with calamity. 

"The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act of 2010 envisions doing a comprehensive approach to all types of disaster, man-made and natural calamities. nationwide. There's such an effort from this government for capacity building of all line agencies.  They have to integrate in all their actions disaster management," Ramos says.

Ramos and Gazmin say they are also setting to work pre-emptive evacuations of affected populations to identified safe evacuation areas.
   
"Pre-emptive, yung aim ay zero casualty. That's an ambitious objective for us. I know our people will respond to our efforts so we minimize the impact of any calamity," Ramos says.
   
"We have adopted a very good framework since 2000, the National Disaster Risk Management Framework. Prior to this law, we already followed this framework. We will be enhancing this framework in harmony with the Climate Change Commission and the Climate Change Adaptation Framework after the signing of the Implementing Rules and Regulations," Alegre adds.

Better prepared

A flash flood hazard map

"We are better prepared now. The Technical Working Group has been on their toes, inspection, training. We have been listing our assets, pre-positioning assets where they will be needed in times of calamity," Gazmin says.    He adds that the pre-positioning of government assets include military assets in areas authorities feel are prone to disaster.
   
Today, disaster officials’ efficient information dissemination is key.
   
"The most important thing is communication. We have redundancy of communication so that down to the lowest level, we will be able to inform these people. We are preparing ourselves for the worst that may come but which we hope will never come," Gazmin says.
   
However, they admit that successful disaster prevention and response efforts depend on the coordination of national and local governments and the cooperation of all stakeholders.
   
"There's a need to do more. Local government units are very essential. They're the first line of defense. They're supposed to educate their people," Alegre says.
   
"There should be a political will.  People shouldn't build houses along the Marikina and the Pasig River," Ramos notes. "People should be educated on this because there are ordinances on how to respond."
   
"We need a very responsive government and the involvement of all agencies concerned.  This is not the problem of the NDCC alone. All stakeholders are expected to do their part in order to prepare for disasters were expecting. Without the cooperation of one or the other will mean failure," he says.