FOR as long as it has been around, one of the biggest challenges any government has to face is the aftermath of a natural disaster. In the wake of climate change, stronger typhoons have become the norm, making it more imperative for a government to make sure that it hits the ground running as lost time can translate to lives lost.
Most private citizens are continually frustrated at the pace of government response to natural calamities, and the earthquakes that struck several parts of Mindanao have given occasion for these questions to come up once again.
There are typically three phases as far as government is concerned when it is faced with an impending natural calamity. First, preparation. In cases where a strong typhoon has been monitored, government usually has four days lead time to ensure that preemptive measures have been undertaken in areas that will be affected by storms. This includes evacuating those in low-lying or flood prone areas, and ensuring that the local government unit concerned has made sufficient plans for relief and rescue (prepositioning relief goods, adequate personnel on duty, etc.)
Second is the actual rescue and relief stage. Some relief operations take less than a few days, and some, weeks on end. The challenge varies with the extent of the damage sustained by our communities. The first few days post-calamity is usually devoted to making sure that help reaches those who need it the most, including making sure that all areas are covered. This can mean covering several barangays in one day, or in the case of Super Typhoon Yolanda, several provinces.
Depending on the magnitude of the calamity, even getting relief supplies and distributing these to hard hit areas can pose a challenge for government workers. There is also the unfortunate but necessary task of identifying the dead; a task that is seemingly simple to the ordinary observer but is replete with legalities on the side of government. If you’ve ever wondered why the death toll as reported by media always seems to be quicker than the official figures released by government, it’s because the authorities have to go through a process of identification and verification before a death is pronounced to be in relation to the calamity. For example, should the remains of a person be found in a river in the aftermath of a typhoon, authorities must determine two things: the true identity of the body (a family member or someone familiar with the deceased must be on hand for this) and that the cause of death is related to the calamity. Should an autopsy find that the person sustained gunshot wounds, then the death cannot be attributed to the casualty count.
Third, and perhaps the most contentious stage is the rehabilitation. Administrations past and present continue to grapple with this phase, given the complex legal issues that are involved when it comes to implementing a successful rehabilitation of a damaged locality.
Building new homes may seem as simple as putting brick and mortar together, but there are many challenges to be hurdled before one can even break ground. Some questions that arise: where do we build? Are there readily available tracts of land owned by the local government for this purpose? Is the proposed location a safe one? Of course, the tedium of bureaucratic compliance should always be tempered with the urgency of the need of our people who have been victims of tragedy. The perils of government rehabilitation are so many that perhaps it is time for our legislators to put their heads together and come up with a legislative solution to make the process faster and more responsive to the needs of victims.
Lastly, a note on politicizing calamities—this is the worst thing anyone can do in an ongoing calamity, or in the wake of one. Throwing politics in the mix makes government bureaucrats all the more wary of moving swiftly in one direction, to the detriment of those who have been affected. Responding to politicized situations also take precious time and effort away from the focus of the situation, making it a lose-lose situation all around. While accountability is key, there is always a better time to start that conversation, preferably when urgent needs have been met, and not while people are crying out for help.
Our thoughts are with our brothers and sisters who have been affected by the series of earthquakes in Mindanao. If you are able, do find a reputable organization doing relief work in the quake-hit areas and donate what you can, be it time or resources.