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The habit of preparedness

by Senator Manny Villar

THE United States, as I write this column, is bracing for the devastation of a mammoth hurricane in the state of Florida. Hurricane Irma has already caused damage to the Caribbean and has led to massive evacuations in Florida. A week before that hurricane Harvey swept through Texas and caused damage estimated to cost $180 billion.

In Mexico, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake has killed at least 61 people and injured over a dozen (casualty count as of Sept. 9, 2017). It initially triggered a tsunami alert to affected nations including the Philippines.

I do not need to list the number of disasters that have devastated the world and in fact the Philippines. Ondoy and Yolanda is a very recent examples still etched in our memories. More so I presume to disaster victims.

The Philippines is a disaster-prone country. This dubious distinction of being one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world is primarily due to our geographical location as we are in the Pacific Ring of Fire. But it is also because of our vulnerabilities due to gaps in preparedness and our capacity to cope and adapt to these hazards.

In other words, we know we are prone to disasters but are we prepared to cope with them? We are a nation at risk.

But the situation is not hopeless. We need to pull our resources together – government, the private sector and citizens – to make sure that our communities are ready to respond to natural and even manmade hazards.

The first thing that we need to focus on is education. Communities need to know if they are sitting inside a disaster zone – whether their communities are smack on the fault line or susceptible to storm surges. To prepare is to educate, that is the key. Here government agencies can take the lead especially our public school system.

In Japan, their school system has integrated preparedness in basic education. The Japanese know what to do in case of disaster. The business sector also needs to cooperate by educating their employees and making sure their establishments are prepared for any eventuality.

We also need to invest in sustained capacity building initiatives. This means more trainings, simulations, and drills. I am glad that government has taken this seriously by conducting, for instance, earthquake drills in Metro Manila and other vulnerable urban areas.

The point of these drills and simulations is not just to increase knowledge and skills in terms of responding to disasters but more importantly to develop habits.

Habits take time to develop which is why we need to make sure that drills are conducted in a sustained and regular manner. Here, as citizens, let us take them seriously.

I know it is difficult given that sometimes these drills get in the way of work but in the long-term this will definitely save lives.

Disaster preparedness needs to be community-based. This means that while the national government can take the lead in the overall effort, local communities need to be empowered so they will have the knowledge, authority, and capacity to prepare for, and respond to, disasters.

After all, the first responders are, in most cases also victims. Families, barangays, schools, local organizations and local governments need to work in sync before, during, and after disasters. Local peoples know their communities, the terrain and more importantly the people. They should have better capacity to respond to disasters with the help of the central government.

This brings me to an important last point. We need to identify and capacitate partners on the ground. This means that we need to develop coordination systems. For instance, do we have communication equipments and systems that would allow local partners to coordinate with the military or the Department of Social Welfare and Development when disasters strike?

All these involve a lot of resources from government and other stakeholders, but I think this is a wise investment in order to save lives. Being a disaster-prone country, we need to develop that habit of preparedness to such a level that we will not be caught off guard if and when disasters strike.

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