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Sep 28

The Explainer: Bayanihan

That was a YouTube video of the raging torrent that was Katipunan Avenue at the height of Typhoon Onyong’s floods. All of us have been affected by this typhoon; some have been luckier than others, in avoiding its worst effects. But it is during times like these, that the Bayanihan spirit tides us through whatever nature and our fellow humans decide to dish out.

Join us tonight as we’ll examine an unlikely source of not just hope, and community compassion, but useful disaster relief and management: the Internet, and how it’s on the verge of becoming an essential tool in disaster management and response.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.

 

I.

 

Everybody had somebody to worry about once the deluge began. Three years to the day that Typhoon Milenyo wrought unforgettable damage with howling winds, Typhoon Onyong did its worst by means of dumping tons of water.

By all accounts, two basic facts stand out: this is the worst flooding Metro Manila has experienced since 1967,

and the amount of rain that fell in a matter of hours was comparable to the rainfall that submerged New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

PAGASA announced a month’s worth of rainfall fell within only six hours. Yesterday afternoon, the authorities estimated that 25% of the metropolis was still underwater.

The typhoon inundated places that had never flooded before; sites like this, of an underpass in the heart of the Makati Business District underwater, were unprecedented.

Or take a look at this view of the outside of the Araneta Colisseum. Never have so many places flooded so quickly, and so deeply, as they did Saturday afternoon.

If you recall, in the morning, people even pooh-poohed the weather, and most people went about their normal business expecting yet another seasonal downpour; by mid afternoon people were marooned, and the devastation was well and truly underway.

Even large vehicles found their ability to travel impeded; and services like electricity started to conk out or were shut down. While parts of the metropolis are used to being flooded,

Many areas, like this photo of Wilson Street, San Juan, experienced floods for the first time and on a scale that was simply unbelievable.

Take a look at this picture of Katipunan Avenue, Quezon City, underwater for the first time. Here and elsewhere, vehicles bogged down, were in many cases, abandoned; people took to fleeing by foot.

Areas that normally flood there, like Park 9 Alley, where the Barangay Hall of Loyola Heights is located, turned into something out of an end of the world movie.

In De La Salle University, as in the Ateneo de Manila, students got stranded, and institutions turned into impromptu refugee centers.

Take a look at the Burgos Circle at Fort Bonifacio,  also undergoing its first major flood, ever.

The horrifying reality for tens of thousands of people was that their ordeal was just beginning; even as homes with a lifetime’s accumulation of possessions were ruined in a matter of hours, people began to worry not about their things, but their lives.

As the video blogger Coksiblue recounted in his blog, with phone lines and electricity conking out, and people struggling to find safety, we all realized how utterly dependent we are on text messaging and cellphones. And something remarkable began: in the Great Flood of 2009, the Internet came of age as a tool in disaster management.

Tools like Twitter were harnessed by officials, including National Disaster Coordinating Council Chairman Gilbert Teodoro Jr., to keep the public informed of what government was doing –and to send and receive information. At first, this effort was a token one, but as the hours unfolded, Teodoro, for example, assigned a staffer to man his Twitter account as it proved a reliable way to get public feedback.

Journalists like ABS-CBN’s very own Julius Babao used their twitter account to keep the public informed, and to be informed by the public of what was going on. His work became particularly useful when cellular networks bogged down and people found no other way to transmit appeals for help and rescue.

ANC’s very own Ron Cruz, whom we’ll be talking to later tonight on the Explainer Dialogues, also pitched in, receiving Twitter updates from the public and sending them the way of the authorities. He also helped confirm or deny information as rumors started spreading.

RockEd’s Gang Badoy took to the airwaves, proving what a powerful, and useful, combination old and new media can be in a time of great anxiousness. People had a focal point: they could call, text, Tweet, e-mail JAM 88.3 to look for missing loved ones, update on the status of their localities, get information on blocked roads, and later, appeals for relief goods and volunteers were made on a timely basis over the airwaves.

The Philippine National Red Cross, always first and at the forefront of volunteer responses to disasters, was able to channel the desire of people to help by means of receiving donations via SMS, and people looking to volunteer could look up their nearest chapter. One person online expressed frustration over going to the Pasay Chapter of the Red Cross on Sunday, only to find it closed. Via the web, his frustration was answered: having served eight barangays overnight, the exhausted volunteers had gone home to rest; but the volunteer was informed the Pasay Chapter was reopening at 5.

BlBloggers, too, pitched in, serving a threefold purpose. First, they became a conduit of information for Filipinos at home, frantic for news about their relatives. Second, it helped people who were safe and sound, to find out where things were bad; third, it gave people a means to find out how they could help.

When we return, we’ll zero in on some truly remarkable and useful initiatives that could only have been possible on the internet.

 

II.

 

Let me share with you some experiences as people online tried to help. The first was, the tremendous need to have emergency lines –both established ones and ad hoc efforts by various groups- posted for reference.

The second was, public frustration with the authorities and even the media, because free TV for example on the whole maintained normal programming in an abnormal time, which meant even people who were OK were frantic trying to find out what was going on; even people with cable in many cases found their cable conking out.

So for a few crucial hours, aside from AM radio, which is good at reporting events but isn’t a handy source of reference, blogs like Sour Politics, put up by Bong Ong, whom you’ve seen on the Explainer Dialogues, took up the slack as government websites went offline or crashed, and normal communications channels went on the blink.

Bloggers like Random Salt who put up information were also able to receive feedback from people: many help lines went unanswered, for example.

And, as is normally the case in emergency situations, even network rivalries were forgotten as people used creative means to link up with each other. The other network, for example, put up a very handy FaceBook page, where people could post information and make inquiries. But let me point out what I believe were two truly outstanding online efforts.

There were Serge Gregorio,Franklin Naval,Thomas Pestano, Gisela Santos, Kaye Domingo, Jun Verzola, Eric Pestano Smith, Vince Yamat,and Jordana Calit. Together, they saw that so much information was being shared, but that it wasn’t being collated in one place. Together, they established a Google Map (their “Ondoy situation map for Metro Manila”) pinpointing reports from all over the metropolis, so that rescue workers, relief organizations and volunteers, the media and officials could have a reference point to figure out what, exactly, was happening –and where. Eventually, their efforts would be recognized by Google itself, which helped establish a page with volunteers from around the world, to continue and expand this initiative.

There’s Edwin Soriano, and others who established another Google document  (“Rescue InfoHub Central”) that allowed people to list cases of people requiring help and rescue (an SOS subpage); to the extent that cases could be evaluated (a Missing/Found People subpage) regarding the threat level to life and limb represented by each case, and the progress of rescue efforts tracked, too.

With so many people in so many places requiring help, concerned family members and friends could focus their energies on reporting cases, while volunteers could identify where and how they could effectively help (Emergency Numbers and Where/How to Donate/Help Pages).

The appeals people made on radio or via text, could then be echoed by Twitter users, and bloggers, to ensure they reached the authorities; more importantly, these cries for help could be collated and organized into databases.

And as the rain subsided, the public, which had been hunkering down, could then begin rescue and relief work. With phone lines and cellphone networks bogged down or jammed, people could efficiently organize themselves.

The toll the flooding took on infrastructure and resources meant that anything from tips on how to restart drowned vehicles, to medical advice on potentially unhealthy flood waters, to reporting missing and found loved ones, could be sent around.

On a case to case, neighborhood by neighborhood basis, appeals for useful items like jetskis, could be made. And the typhoon began to become one of the perhaps best-documented disasters in recent memory.

Communities began to get a clearer idea of –literally- the depths of the disaster; and of heroic tales, such as the dragonboat team putting its boats to good use rescuing people, the rowers braving submerged power lines and other dangers. And heroism tinged with tragedy, such as how Army Private First Class Venancio Ancheta saved 20 people before drowning himself.

We learned of the tragic deaths of loved ones; we learned of the loss of lives of rich and poor, the known and those who will forever remain anonymous.

Chilling scenes such as this one have only really begun to enter our consciousness, as the reality in places like parts of Pasig, Marikina and Cainta, remained unclear; and where so many remained stranded awaiting rescue by an overwhelmed disaster management effort. Journalist Raissa Robles would report SMART top honcho Mon Isberto telling her, of a Marine Colonel practically in tears in Cainta, because he could find no local officials with which to coordinate rescue and relief.

And even as exhausted reporters bring the stories to the people, it’s also mainly online, that people are doing the difficult task of evaluating, of thinking –of surveying where things went wrong and how they can be improved.

And there is Deng Silorio, who’s helped chart a path forward, because the time to begin planning for how to cope with the next emergency begins now. She identified the Sahana FOSS Disaster Management System, a web-based collection of disaster management applications that our officials, rescue and relief workers and volunteers, media, and ordinary citizens should examine so that it can be properly implemented in the future.

This is where we’re going to focus later tonight. Join us on The Explainer Dialogues as we examine how the Internet has begun to carve out a useful and even crucial role, in disaster management.

I’m Manolo Quezon and this has been The Explainer.

 

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