Philippines: Bridging the information gap

31 May, 2013
January 2013, Mindanao, Philippines: Typhoon Bopha was the 2012's deadliest storm. It killed over 1,000 people and affecting 6.2 million across Mindanao. Credit: OCHA/Eva Modvig
January 2013, Mindanao, Philippines: Typhoon Bopha was the 2012's deadliest storm. It killed over 1,000 people and affecting 6.2 million across Mindanao. Credit: OCHA/Eva Modvig

When Typhoon Bopha (known locally as Pablo) hit the southern Philippines in late 2012, many communities were caught off guard. Post-disaster assessments carried out by OCHA found that a lack of accessible information and unfamiliarity with disaster warning systems may have contributed to the loss of lives.

Typhoon Bopha hit the east coast of the island of Mindanao on 4 December 2012. It killed more than 1,000 people and affected an estimated 6.2 million. Infrastructure was destroyed and homes were demolished by the force of the storm. Agriculture, responsible for 80 per cent of employment, was devastated.

Although the Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, the storms that strike the country each year rarely stray south to Mindanao. For some affected communities, Bopha was their first experience of a typhoon.

“Some people were simply caught off-guard,” said Mel Schmidt, the head of OCHA’s Typhoon Bopha response. “Worryingly, a number of community members did not move to the safety of evacuation centres when they didn’t receive the information because their barangays (villages) are so remote, or because they misunderstood the severity of the impending typhoon.”

During the assessments carried out in the weeks and months following the storm, OCHA and other humanitarian partners found that many people misunderstood the storm warnings and assumed that ‘Signal 5’ – a warning that should have sent them running for safety – was the weakest level, when in fact it is the strongest.

“Understanding the warning systems could have reduced the number of deaths and allowed people to better prepare and to protect their goods and livelihoods,” said Schmidt.

Humanitarian agencies did not have to look far to see how important familiarity with dangerous weather and warning systems could be.

For the people of Cagayan de Oro City (known locally as CDO), on Mindanao’s northern coast, Typhoon Bopha was the second serious storm to strike in less than 12 months. When Tropical Storm Washi struck CDO in December 2011, over a thousand people perished. In less than one hour, the water levels in some rivers rose by three metres. It was the first time in many decades that CDO experienced such torrential rain. When Pablo struck the same city one year later, there were zero casualties.

“What I learned here, I will share with my family”

Post-Bopha assessments found that affected communities were anxious to gain a better understanding of the weather systems that might affect them in the future, and the warning systems that could save their lives.

OCHA, working with local meteorological offices and the local government, is running a series of community workshops to help people access this information. The first event was held in the barangay of Lambajon, in Davao Oriental province on Mindanao’s south-east tip.

More than 60 people attended, including residents, barangay officials, and members of the local disaster team, as well as teachers and representative of a women’s group. A second workshop was held in Andap in Compostela Valley province. Flash flooding triggered by Bopha had claimed many lives in Andap. Emiliana, one of the survivors, took part in the meeting.

“I never experienced anything like Pablo, it was really devastating,” she said. “This orientation really helps us to have a deeper understanding of the weather so we can prepare if this happens again.”

Another participant, 32-year-old Mercy, agreed. “I am really happy to receive this information,” she said. “What I learned here, I will share with my family.”

More of these events are planned over the coming months to ensure that people understand what they need to do during a disaster, and to make sure that the information is then shared with family and friends.

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