Disaster management as political risk

Largely because of the scale of the human tragedy caused last year by Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” disaster management has become an increasingly politicized activity. Every calamity has become an occasion to judge the government’s suitability for public office. Every decision made by public officials has become a test of their electability.

Finding themselves in the front line of disasters, they are hard-pressed to show they are on the job and are making decisions appropriate to a developing situation. Yet, their actions are measured by standards of rationality that are increasingly almost impossible to operationalize in practice. Consider, for example, the simple act of deciding when to order a suspension of classes and offices.

The law assigns this prerogative to local government officials and heads of schools. Taking into account weather advisories pertaining to their jurisdictions, they must calculate the risks posed not just by strong winds but also by flash floods caused by heavy rainfall. They must consider at what point the extreme weather will actually start affecting their localities and decide at the precise moment—meaning, neither too early nor too late—when to call off classes and offices.

One can begin to imagine the complexity involved in this decision-making process when, as in the case of Typhoon “Ruby,” three weather agencies posted three slightly varying scenarios of its likely path. One of them, the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center, in its early reports, placed Metro Manila squarely on the path of the powerful typhoon. The metropolis frantically scrambled to prepare, and later took the safe option of closing schools and suspending work even if, as it turned out, it wasn’t really necessary.

Politicians prefer to err on the side of prudence than take the risk of being blamed later for not taking the necessary precautions against anticipated calamities like the ones wrought by Tropical Storm “Ondoy” and Yolanda. This is understandable from a political standpoint. No politician will ever be forgiven for putting his or her constituents in harm’s way by misinterpreting weather advisories and failing to issue correct orders. But, no one has ever been rejected at the polls for merely being too prudent.

Still, one cannot discount the losses and inconvenience caused by an unnecessary disruption of schedules. Countless travelers missed their flights. Trucks failed to make their deliveries. Hotel and restaurant bookings had to be canceled. Teachers and students had to reset their classes and exams. Conferences and meetings had to be called off. And workers paid on a daily basis earned no income. But, in the midst of all these, only the most contrarian will pin the blame on public officials for being too cautious.

Apart from the weather scientists at the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa), perhaps no other public official has borne more pressure during times like these than Interior Secretary Mar Roxas. As the front-line official in charge of coordinating government response to disasters, Roxas has had no choice but to be publicly visible. This is the only way to counter recurrent criticisms that the government has been remiss in its duty to protect citizens against harm.

Proof of this neglect has tended to come in the form of casualty reports, which is why the number of fatalities due to Ruby has recently become a particularly sore point between the government and the Red Cross. Indeed, the effectiveness of government response is now primarily measured by the extent to which lives lost during a disaster could be brought down to zero. The operative principle is that there is no reason for people to die inside their homes. For, in the end, the single most important tool that the government could use in the face of disasters is forced evacuation.

But, poor Secretary Roxas seems unable to do anything correct in the eyes of people who have made up their minds about his suitability for higher office. Rather than view his presence in Borongan, Samar—the site of Ruby’s expected first landfall—as a public official’s gesture of responsibility and solidarity with the affected communities, his critics opted to see it as a cheap ploy aimed at raising his political profile as a potential presidential candidate. This undeserved harshness became magnified when he unfortunately tipped over on a borrowed motorbike while he was rushing to reach the town of Dolores in Samar before dark on roads strewn with debris. Instead of appreciating his zeal, social media began bashing him for riding without a helmet! It is a risk that every politician has to contend with. “One need only name a value that in given circumstances is only unsatisfactorily met—and in the case of risk policy this would constitute ‘safety,’” wrote Niklas Luhmann, “and a topic is born.” How true!

Last night, I asked my son, CP, a geologist who works with the Department of Science and Technology’s Project Noah, what new lessons we have gained from our experience with Ruby. His pithy reply intrigued me: “I think the public was overwhelmed by an oversupply of information.” That was a scientist’s view, obviously, not a politician’s.

Perhaps what bothered him was not so much the oversupply of information as the excess of verbalism—the torrent of talk that proceeds from, and is provoked by, the government’s pained effort to demonstrate the rationality of its decision-making in the face of a danger that, in fact, no one can precisely calculate.

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