Friday, November 15, 2013

Typhoon Yolanda And A Call For A New Focus In Disaster Planning

It is now a week since Typhoon Yolanda struck and decimated parts of the Philippines with a savagery unequaled in history. At this time over 3000 people have been confirmed dead, 12,000 injured and hundreds of thousands now in conditions so miserable that some have voiced envy for those that have died. Food and clean water are practically non-existent in many towns. There are no medical services. People have been forced to shelter in the open air amid piles of rubble and the decaying bodies of their loved ones scattered nearby.  Such are the images and stories we have received just from the city of Tacloban, one of the many areas that bore the brunt of Yolanda's savage winds and accompanying storm tide. One could imagine that if  the citizens of Tacloban  receiving worldwide, 24 hour attention  are in such dire straights what could be the situation in the the hundreds of towns and villages also devastated by the storm but unheard of up to now?
 It is in my opinion that this event should be awake up call for governments and officials when creating and implementing "disaster" plans, the operative word here being "disaster". You see, most countries do have disaster plans in place. They are rigid, thought out, incredibly intricate and complex attempting to cover every aspect of disaster response. A central part of these plans rely on something called Mutual Aid, where agreements are signed between local towns, cities, etc, where they all agree to come to the aid of each other in the event a locality is impacted by a disaster. It's a case of "I help you, you help me". Most of the time these agreements work pretty well, perhaps even in the Philippines. The thing is, what happened in the Philippines was not a disaster. It was a catastrophe. In a catastrophe there is destruction to such a wide extent that Mutual Aid becomes non-existent as contiguous towns and cities sustain damage and destruction that leaves them unable to help themselves, never mind sending resources to neighboring locations. Damage to critical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges over hundreds and hundreds of miles around serves to hamper response efforts to an incredible degree. Unaffected localities cannot assist even if they wanted to. Wide spread destruction to farms can wipe out an entire harvest leading to famine that in many cases could cause more deaths and misery than the inciting event. So what is the crux of the situation now facing governments worldwide? It is the reliance on disaster plans that become more or less useless during catastrophic events.
Many will say "you can't plan for everything" and to an extent that is true. Plans that are written trying to cover every aspect of disaster response often become unwieldy and terribly rigid allowing no room for flexibility in the event of unforeseen situations and circumstances. But  I believe that  Emergency and Disaster planners need to rethink the whole notion of Emergency and Disaster planning and begin to lend some focus to planning for catastrophic events such as Typhoon Yolanda. As it has been made terribly clear in the Philippines catastrophes are qualitatively different and much worse than disasters and it's time for officials to realize that and plan accordingly.