Typhoon Haiyan: a perfect storm of corruption and neglect

Typhoon Haiyan is an unnatural disaster. EPA/Dennis M. Sabangan

Now that Typhoon Haiyan has passed through the Philippines we can turn to the question of why the storm wreaked such havoc. In a country that sees 20 tropical storms every year, it would be natural to expect some form of planning for such disasters. But estimates of over 10,000 dead suggest this wasn’t the case. A neglectful government distracted by political chaos meant Filipinos received little warning of the coming storm.

Typhoons a fact of life

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has tracked tropical storms since 1948. Between 1948 and 2012, about 1250 typhoons have landed in the Philippines. This translates to an average of 20 typhoons or tropical cyclones a year, with at least nine strong storms concentrated in the middle of the rainy season between September and November.

In the past tropical storms have wreaked havoc on eastern coastlines of the country, spanning from the Batanes Islands in the north, south through Quezon province, to the Eastern Vasayas islands of Samar and Leyte.

The residents of Samar, Leyte and neighbouring islands are used to annual typhoons. Tacloban has always been hit by typhoons, and records of the city’s founding in 1770 have been destroyed by previous storms.

But Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) was unprecedented. Locals were unprepared for wind gusts up to 274 kilometres an hour, and a storm surge up to six metres. The magnitude of this storm completely overwhelmed the people of Tacloban and surrounding towns and islands.

Warning systems failed

Typhoon Haiyan may have been more intense than normal, but the danger was increased by an inaccurate early warning system. The typhoon came in three hours earlier than warnings suggested, with a unexpectedly high storm surge of six metres. It appears local government units failed to mobilise officials for forced evacuations to higher and safer ground, out of the way of strong winds, storm surges and widespread flooding.

Government at all levels have been distracted by a senate hearing into corruption by government officials, which included the plundering of over 10 billion Philippine pesos (over A$245 million) from tax and government funds.

This political disaster contributed to the neglect of disaster risk reduction, such as evacuating people who live on low-lying urbanised coastal areas of islands such as Leyte. That these areas were under threat was clearly mapped by PAGASA. Based on my conversations with residents in Tacloban, the 221,000 inhabitants weren’t given sufficient information or logistical support to move to higher and safer ground. The deaths of over 10,000 people could have been avoided if the risk reduction initiatives had been put into place and implemented.

You could expect some form of disaster risk reduction programs in a place that sees 20 typhoons every year. But even with a strengthening of disaster management in 2010 and further funding for climate change adaptation, the Philippine government continues a reactive approach to disasters. The government has failed to come up with guidelines for allocating adaptation funding, which could prevent future disasters like Typhoon Haiyan.

Elected government officials only opt for relief distribution immediately after disaster events. Critics say this is because relief offers more photo opportunities, which I’ve personally witnessed, as politicians distribute bags of food and relief with their faces printed on them.

Disaster mitigation preparedness and risk reduction measures need to be incorporated into land use planning and zoning guidelines if we’re to have any hope of preventing disasters like Haiyan.

What lies ahead?

As I write there are thousands of people in hundreds of coastal communities in the small outlying islands of the eastern Philippines that have been hard hit by Typhoon Haiyan. We don’t yet know the extent of devastation.

Some lifeline facilities such as hospitals are not functioning because they were destroyed completely, or damaged because they were constructed along coastal shores highly vulnerable to storm surges.

Inland residents have been overwhelmed by the flow of injured people, and poorly constructed roads make it difficult or impossible to bring food, water and medical assistance to where it is needed.

People are wondering what their government officials will do for them now.

Meanwhile, another tropical storm is forming in the lower latitudes of the western Pacific Ocean. It is expected that it will pass through the same typhoon alley, and hit other islands that were also recently devastated by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake.

The incorporation of disaster management initiatives is more pressing than ever before. When will the Philippine government officials learn?