The Long View: Postmortems

The Long View
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:36:00 10/05/2009

I am a great believer in post mortems –  “an analysis or discussion of an event held soon after it has occurred, esp. in order to determine why it was a failure,” according to one dictionary definition – and I believe we have a mixed record when it comes to undertaking these. Disasters tend to be so overwhelming, and the efforts to undertake rescue, relief and rehabilitation become so exhausting, that once the initial emergency’s been overcome few within the ranks of government or the private sector have enough energy left to undertake studies and do something about the findings of those studies.

The studies need to be made, and the effort has to involve as many people as possible. One often hears of community-related efforts requiring consultations with the various “stakeholder” that constitute a community, to foster consensus-building. But it has to be asked whether stakeholders also act as blocs with a veto power over efforts to arrive at a consensus. For example, since the onset of World War II, when the Japanese invasion was met with the merging of all local governments into Greater Manila, and during the Marcos dictatorship, when Metro Manila was created with, in theory, a powerful governor, there have been proposals to view the National Capital Region (another Marcos-era creation) as a single unit.

After the dictatorship, however, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority was purged of its powers, so that today’s MMDA has its hands tied most of the time. Paolo Alcazaren, who worked on Singapore’s flood control infrastructure, in his October 3 Philippine Star column, pointed out that Singapore, comparable in size to Metro Manila, was able to undertake rational flood control efforts because the city-state had a single government. Consulting with local government stakeholders, to address the obvious and life-threatening shortcomings of Metro Manila’s flood-control infrastructure, was doomed from the start: no powerful mayor would even consider diminishing his LGU’s powers.

Perhaps citizens’ groups could challenge the mayors: the national government won’t, dependent, as it is, on the good graces of these mayors.

A similar problem is presented by the equally obvious shortcomings of the national government’s response to the disastrous flooding last week. Let me share with you the following findings, which were culled by blogger Random Salt (Deus Arquera) from the situation reports (“SR”) of the NDCC.

The blogger, in his initial findings, noted “Reportorial errors.” They are “significant if the reports served to drive actions and decisions.” For example, “The Globe hotlines in SR No. 6 are mistyped, and thus could have exacerbated communication problems. The first three numbers each lack one digit, while the last number should be 09175366719, at least starting from SR No. 8. A total 18 hours may have elapsed before corrections were made to the report.”

There was “A discrepancy of 500 sacks of rice becomes apparent upon comparing SR Nos. 7 and 8. Per SR No. 7, a total of 1,100 sacks were released to Region III, with 100 going to the first district of Bulacan, and the rest going to the Bulacan Provincial Disaster Coordinating Council. Per SR No. 8, however, only a total of 600 sacks were released to Region III.”

Next, “Time mismanagement,” in which “There appears to be a significant gap – up to 17 hours – between the establishment of the first Advance Command Post (ACP) in Marikina (see SR No. 4) and the establishment of the other ACPs in Pasig, Cainta, and Quezon City (see SR No. 7).”

The blogger cites SR No. 6, which said “a meeting was held to ‘determine the immediate needs and requirements in the flood-stricken areas in terms of Water, Sanitation, and Health (WASH), medicines and medical supplies, food and non-food items.’ If this objective is taken at face value, should it be inferred that the NDCC is not aware of what flood victims need? Or, if the allocation of supplies was the purpose of the meeting, what does it say about the actual state of coordination when data regarding evacuees was available as early as 0100H?”

Third, there seemed to be “Questionable moves,” in that “There is little evidence that the NDCC and its member agencies were communicating or coordinating with each other efficiently.” For example, “While the DSWD had begun accepting donations as of SR No. 6, it is only in SR No. 7 that specific persons are identified and made accountable for any donations that come in. How donations that arrived in the interim were handled cannot be determined from the reports.”

Next, “The deployment of assets over the critical 48-hour period seems merely sporadic rather than strategic. There are entire blocks of time in which there was very little deployment or, per SR No. 9, no deployment at all.” An example: “The initial number of rubber boats sent out was a paltry 12. It seems the majority of the rubber boats used for rescue only became available after the Manila and Subic Yacht Clubs lent an unspecified quantity to the NDCC on the afternoon or evening of September 27 (see SR No. 7).”

And “The Philippine National Police (PNP) was recorded as having mobilized significantly only on September 28. Why was it not able to do so earlier, despite its apparently significant resources? Consider that the Special Action Force of the PNP is based in a 368-hectare camp in Baras, Rizal.”

You can find the whole report, “Uncoordinated disaster: The first 48 hours of Ondoy” and also join Prof. Kenneth Cardenas’ discussion on zoning and other issues in FaceBook.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

5 thoughts on “The Long View: Postmortems

  1. Doesn’t “post mortem” literally translate as “after the death”? From the Latin words “post” meaning “after” and “mortem” meaning “death”? Reminds me of an autopsy. Also of that Tagalog proverb that says: “Aanhin pa ang damo, kung patay na ang kabayo?”.

    Anyhow, autopsies provide teachable moments. If we learn from them.

  2. The national government will never be prepared. The solution then is more permanent flood control structures and maintain the existing ones. The Paranaque spillway should be built alongside C-5. Divert the upper part of the Marikina river towards less populated areas of Rizal. Dredge the Manggahan floodway and Laguna de Bay.

  3. I want to congratulate Manolo for his efforts towards coordinating donor action thru this blog. It was observed by one analyst by the name of Steven Rood from the Asia Foundation how that his efforts and that of other bloggers were able to respond quickly to the call of the times. Because of these “one man aid agencies” as I call them, expatriate filipinos like me were able to channel more than our prayers to the victims.

  4. Under the Fire Code ans Safety Code of the Philippines, there must be a safety unit for the private and government institutionas to develop an emergency response plan and with a corresponding emergency response team and incident command system.In reality these are all paper organizations. For any disaster preparedness system to be effective there must be a coordinated, organized and periodic drills or mock responses to a particular scenario. Unless these periodic drills are conducted the response will not be adequate or worst a total failure. New laws and new plans will not work. Only by conducting actual drills can any deficiencies in all aspects be corrected. In any disaster response scenario there is no perfect score. There will always be rooms for improvements.More drills, more effective response. Leass drills, less effective response. No drills, No effective response. This is the case for Ondoy and Pepeng.
    Failure in planning, wrong development, relocation etc are long term engineering solutions. The need for now is to conduct drills how our pwple will respond to a specific scenario.

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