Danger as a social construct

Dr. Vicente B. Malano, Pagasa’s OIC administrator since June, must be one of the unhappiest public officials in the country today. Although the agency he heads performed an excellent job in providing clear advisories about Supertyphoon “Yolanda”—from the time it took shape as a band of threatening clouds over the Western Pacific to the moment it made its first landfall on the coast of Eastern Samar as a Category 4 typhoon—the public failed to anticipate the massive number of dead people and the comprehensive destruction that came in the wake of this killer cyclone.

Pagasa’s weather scientists, drawing from initial information shared by the region’s weather monitoring centers and confirming this with data generated by its own network of cutting-edge Doppler radars, were able to arrive at accurate measures of the typhoon’s speed and strength and the precise path it would take. Unfortunately, they gave the public no hint whatsoever that the principal danger would come from the storm surges. This is not to say that they did not know that Yolanda could cause storm surges. They did.

And this is all so ironic. For, if there is anyone in the country today who could speak with authority about storm surges, it would be none other than the soft-spoken Dr. Malano himself, the head of Pagasa. He wrote his doctoral thesis on this very subject. Yet, the warnings about storm surges appeared as no more than little footnotes in the advisories that Pagasa issued on Yolanda.

In a report posted on Rappler last Nov. 14, Pagasa’s assistant chief for weather services, Ma. Cecilia Monteverde, admitted that the threat from storm surges had not been emphasized: “We weren’t able to tackle that. We were more focused on the signals and in delivering the forecasts and warning to the public. But the storm surge was not explained there.” She was quick to point out, however, that all the primers that Pagasa regularly distributes to local government units during information and education workshops conducted by the agency contain references to storm surges. Deflecting criticism, Ms Monteverde added: “Filipinos don’t follow unless they experience the disaster… even if we already gave the warning. When it floods, that’s when there’s forced evacuation.”

I don’t think it is just miscommunication and/or the proverbial stubbornness of Filipinos that prevents them from appreciating the reality of danger. Neither is the issue rooted in the failure to translate technical scientific information into layman’s language. I believe it is more complex than that.

Danger is a social construct. Human consciousness has no direct access to the reality out there. The information we have about the world is unavoidably a product of the specific ways in which our minds process the data provided by our senses and by whatever instruments we use to extend these senses. And that processing is largely shaped by self-contained social systems of communication by which we make sense of and communicate with one another about the world.

In hindsight, observers are now saying that, instead of being told in general terms about storm surges, people should have been explicitly warned about the danger from “tsunami-like waves” that could cause killer floods in coastal areas. That is indeed true; the number of fatalities could have been less. But, at that point, would anyone have been able to confidently say that Tacloban was the perfect site for such deadly sea surges? Why did the storm surges occur in Tacloban but not in Guiuan, where the typhoon made its first landfall?  Clearly it wasn’t just the wind factor.

I asked my son, CP, an environmental geologist and professor at the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS), if he expected storm surges to engulf Tacloban. He said no. The kind of information one needs to be able to use data about natural phenomena to create a hazard map is complex.  It was precisely for this purpose, he said, that the government, a few months ago, commissioned Pagasa and the UP NIGS to undertake a joint “surge modeling project.” Nature, however, overtook the project.

He sent me a preliminary note about storm surges that I am lifting from here. Apart from its wind speed, he said, the size of the typhoon is a critical factor. Size seems to determine the length of time storm surges will affect a given area.  Apart from these, the “geometry of the coastal area” may also decide how far inland the seawater will go. “A coastal area with a very gentle slope is more prone to storm surges, in contrast to those with steep ocean floors.” There are many other factors to consider: Coral reefs and rocky shores as well as mangroves and wetlands, not to mention manmade seawalls, can block and slow down storm surges. We don’t know to what extent Tacloban has these defenses, but this hapless city will definitely be a crucial case study for life-saving storm-surge research in the future.  The deadly confluence of factors this event exemplifies is awesome. “Typhoon ‘Yolanda’ may have pushed the ocean water from San Pablo Bay into its narrowest part, San Juanico Strait, where Tacloban is located.”

We are not really strangers to storm surges.  National Artist Virgilio Almario, the chair of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, reminds us that the Tagalog word for storm surge is “daluyong.”  But, over the years, the term has been used more in its metaphorical sense, and appears to have been stripped of its original association with physical danger. As in the case of “lahar” and “habagat,” the word’s elemental links to peril are now coming back to us.

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