Sunday, July 25, 2010
When tweets started rushing in about floods across the metropolis, I asked people not to blame Pag-Asa, the country’s besieged weather agency.
The floods are, indeed, not Pag-Asa’s fault. Monsoon season always brings heavy rains. We got a sustained torrent today (or at least, Quezon City did) but hardly on the level of Ondoy. Poor urban planning worsens our flood woes. Citizens also bear part of the blame. We throw garbage anywhere, even in canals and other waterways. Businesses build over esteros and block natural drains. Illegal logging continues in the Sierra Madre foothills that border the national capital region, worsening silt build-up in lowland rivers.
So, yes, Pag-Asa shouldn’t be blamed for the floods. But it can be criticized – and fairly – for failing to warn us about the possibility of floods.
Unlike most folk, I’ve learned to automatically interpret “scattered rainshowers and thunderstorms” as B A A A A A D news.
Admit it, we don’t need more than an hour of a serious downpour to create a monster traffic jam. Metro Manila has a naturally low threshold because of its narrow streets and haphazard parking policies.
Most people, however, interpret scattered literally: “occurring or distributed over widely spaced and irregular intervals in time or space.” (The Google Dictionary)
A 30-minute thunderstorm that moves off to the next suburban district qualifies for “scattered.” To use that term for a full day of a deluge so heavy it limited visibility to two cars ahead is beyond understatement.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer website (www.inquirer.net ) said Pagasa’s 2 pm bulletin reported rain levels six times the normal for the metropolis. But I’d been regularly checking its website http://www.pagasa.dost.gov.ph/ ,which showed its 5 am “scattered rainshowers” forecast until 5 pm, when the synopsis changed to: “At 2:00 p.m. today, a Low Pressure Area (LPA) was estimated based on satellite and surface data at 170 km Northeast of Aurora (17.5°N 123.6°E). Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) affecting the country.”
That was a couple of hours too late for stranded commuters and those who were gripped, for some time, with terror over the possibility of another “Ondoy,” which forced a million people to abandon their homes to raging waters.
The disconnect between Pag-Asa’s alerts and on-the-ground reality may be gauged by this 3 pm advisory sent by Police National Operation Center (NOC):
• Along Agora Brgy NBBS, Navotas City (flooded but passable to all types of vehicles);
• Luna St., Brgy Balon Bato, San Juan, Maysilo Circle; Boni Ave. going to Kalentong, Mandaluyong City (not passable to light vehicles);
• Along NAIA Ave. in front of Pagcor, Pasay City, not passable to all types of vehicles;
• Along Arayat cor Zambales, V. Luna, Mother Ignacia Ave., Mayorn corner Dapitan, Panay cor Esguerra. Banawe cor Retiro, Calamaba (not passable to light vehicles);
• Araneta and Waling-Waling St., not passable to all types of vehicles.
I understand the difficulties faced by Pag-Asa, which is only this year getting a new Doppler Radar System that could help plot rainfall before it hits land. The one in Baras town, more than three times as expensive but also supposed more accurate and low maintenance than the one already in Subic, comes courtesy of P1.6 billion grant from Japan’s aid agency. Two others are set to go up in Aparri, Cagayan and Guian, Eastern Samar in the next two years.
The Doppler system will buy precious lead-time for disaster agencies.
But here’s what’s happening in the here and now: It doesn’t take a typhoon to spawn a disaster in the metropolis and surrounding provinces – Laguna de Bay routinely overflows these days.
If it’s not the loss of lives, it’s the loss of valuable man-hours (families stranded on the roads or kids in schools, business distribution lines screwed up, shipments failing to get to the docks on time, passengers missing their flights or planes unable to take off or land). Imagine the chaos of today’s rain levels fell mid-week.
It’s okay to discuss garbage and denuded slopes and homes clogging waterways. They are real problems needing real solutions. But to focus on them alone is much like insisting our poverty problem will disappear when the corrupt are harried from the face of this earth.
There are other, more short-term approaches for dealing with poverty. There must be other, short-term approaches that could help spare residents of Metro Manila and nearby provinces from the worst effects of floods.
Just offhand (and feel free to add):
Pag-Asa to give advisories AT LEAST EVERY TWO HOURS. Don’t just do the usual fax releases. Flood the air lanes with your warnings. It’s great to have a new (italics theirs) 24-hour hotline (ditto boldface) at 433-ULAN (433-8526).
But given our power outage problems, and the long distances people commute to workplaces and schools, radio and the social network sites are the best ways of reaching the most number of people. (I’m sure the Pag-Asa staff and/or its interns are relative techies familiar with Facebook and Twitter, which now reach people’s mobile phones.)
The National Disaster Coordinating Council should probably not limit its activities to typhoons, earthquakes and the like – and by the way, that’s a really strange name, worthy of the baddest of bad guys! – because we already know that monsoon tantrums are enough to immobilize the metropolis.
For citizens who try to help provide flood and other disaster updates, please be specific. I am sure three-dozen friends will know what you mean by “our village” but the rest of us don’t, and we would be greatly helped by that information. Specify street if possible, village, barangay, or district of a town. Saying Quezon City is under water is not the least helpful.
Schools will probably help create a more systematic disaster-response milieu in the medium and long-term by
a) incorporating in science classes lessons on how to interpret weather websites; and
b) freeing up some hours in those subjects that replaced CAT and CMT for disaster volunteer work– giving preparation and prevention as much stress as rescue and relief – ensuring that students are fielded to their own communities.
These are all the bright ideas I have. If you add to these, we may clobber a meaningful package of doable, not terribly expensive changes – and soon.