Thursday, November 14, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda): 
Having to point out the obvious because people just don't get "it".

"It" being the real situation.

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Mood: Randy is being analytical - analyzing the mindset of some people I have observed.
Audience: Everyone.

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First of all, I am reposting a news story from The New Yorker. I don't often do this, but this was too good to pass up.

 (Fig 1: Concrete, 2 story building with the lower levels busted open, presumably by the storm surge)

I was born 30km north of Manila. I remember as a kid, Typhoon season was just that: A time when multiple typhoons may hit, some more powerful than others. Like the article said, Filipinos shrug it off like nothing. Preparations? Hell yeah! An oversized overstocked pantry of canned goods and rice (a staple for good reason - bread can get stale and moldy while grain can last for months if not years). We would also fill barrels upon barrels of water for both drinking and cleaning in the kitchen and bathroom. We'd have an overstock of batteries for flashlights and radios, rechargeable devices topped up, candles for activities that can be done by candlelight, and the vehicles and jerry cans topped up with fuel. Whatever method of


...method of cooking people may do for these emergencies, they would double up on those supplies, be it LPG, Kerosene or some other oil burning method. Outdoor wooden campfires are always an option for those with backyards. Finally, those who can afford it even have generators, and the creative gadget fan may play around with car batteries and inverters to achieve 220V (the outlet voltage in there) and never lose the luxuries of modern civilization. 

These are common practices more than they are not. Everyone I knew growing up there, always prepared and readied themselves for up to 2 weeks without power and water. And those who were foolish enough not to prepare? To be honest, they never really seemed to exist. I cannot recall anyone, in all the friends, family and acquaintances my folks had, who did not do the least bit of preparation for an upcoming storm. In fact, "preparation" is perhaps the wrong term - storing extra food, water, and supplies tend to be done year round, and are just part of most households over there, as necessary a fixture as furniture.

If anything, having moved here in the prairies of Canada, I would say that far fewer people here ever do minimum precautions for similar disasters. I certainly don't. Of course, we can afford to be complacent here: What's the worst that could happen? Ice Storm? Really bad Snowstorm? Floods, like what happened just June of this year? Not in any of these was the power ever really down for any longer than a few hours where I now live. To be honest, I've experienced more power interruptions due to a nearby community being constructed in this ever expanding Albertan city.

But the average working and professional Filipino? They might as well be doomsday preppers, man. Speaking of which, I forgot to mention, anyone there with something to protect, will be armed. Unfortunately, those with a desire to take what you're protecting, WILL also be armed. Canadians often critique Americans for being gun crazy. I guess they just haven't seen Philippine gun culture...
(Fig 2: This is the kids' rifle. It just gets bigger from here on...)

Indeed, the tendency is to hunker down. And why not? Our houses there were built like above-ground bunkers: Steel reinforced concrete, with the hollow spaces of the "hollow blocks" as they call it, also poured with concrete. Solid doesn't even begin to describe it: Our house was storm proof, and at one point, proven to be earthquake resistant. The weakness, if there is one, is in the roofing. The common practice there is to have corrugated galvanized steel roofing, with wooden rafters. I have, however, heard of more expensive houses being built with steel, girder-like rafters. Nonetheless, with all the storms our old house there weathered, we've never lost a panel. In fact, no one I know ever lost their roof - in my mind back then, it's always something that happens to someone else. That is: Someone else with a poorly constructed house. I would therefore bet that the average Filipino house is quite overbuilt for the average typhoon.

The key word being "average".

By all accounts, Haiyan (Yolanda), is far above the average typhoon. There is argument about how strong it truly was, and where in the grand scheme of things does it belong in the scale of strongest Typhoons/Hurricanes/Cyclones ever recorded. Personally, I find it kind of moot. What's real is the devastation and destruction it caused.

(Fig 3: Tacloban Airport's buildings. Roofing and windows blown out.)

I was watching CNN - the actual catalyst for me making this post - and Erin Burnett's show imagined a "what if" scenario: I
f something like Typhoon Haiyan had hit Florida, it would pretty much have engulfed the length of the state, sunk the low lying areas in their coastlines, inflicted more property damage because more of Florida is apparently built up and built expensively at that, and displaced millions. In short, no one would not be completely fucked. A record breaking storm is a record breaking storm. They also said that Filipinos are used to Typhoons, perhaps moreso than Floridians or anyone living in Hurricane battered parts of the US. The only reason this destroyed so much and killed so many is that it was THAT powerful.

Now, why did I find this important? And why did I think, "good on CNN for pointing out the obvious!"  ?

Because the assholes who... well, I don't know if they are closet racists or just incredibly callous... always come out of the woodwork chastising Filipinos for "being in a third world country and living in wooden shacks". What dipshits! Talk about blaming the victim! The wooden shacks of course get shown internationally by the cameras most often, but even the concrete houses had their roofs pretty much peeled off and windows blown out. The pressure Haiyan exerted is unprecedented! And for those that bore the brunt of the storm surge, even their walls were knocked down (see figure 1 from The New Yorker). You'd have to be a ridiculously disgusting human being to think "your fault for existing" as the first reaction to a someone's misfortune.

As I started off in this post, not everyone there lives in a ramshackle house that's easily knocked off by Typhoons. If anything, the average construction technique there is far stronger than in here!
I know I shouldn't think too much about the comments of internet goons, but these types of remarks seem to be occurring so much that even CNN decided to humour these people. I'm not even talking of the genuine racists who welcome this as punishment to Filipinos and the Philippines in general (like in here, here and here) I'm talking of people who would consider themselves "rational", justify their position, and explain their musings as mere logic at work. Yes, because being in the way of 400km wide storm is so totally those people's fault.


Then, there are these comments scooped verbatim from a CTV news story.

Wanda: "
Canada is sending over DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) for millions of dollars... this is a known region for these types of storms and they weren't prepared for it again. It gets very ridiculous when it happens over and over and the local government hasn't got its act together and wants the world to bail them out. Instead of wasting money in saving them every year they could actually put a support infrastructure together and build more storm resistant buildings."

It would be a valid question were it not so ignorant of the facts. Like I said: Filipinos already know the drill. They overprep and live in overbuilt houses. Haiyan's winds and storm surge were just THAT powerful that no one, not anyone, was spared. There is only so much one can prepare for.

Furthermore, I find the "they weren't prepared for it again" as well as the "over and over" remarks a bit odd considering this is perhaps the first time ever that the Visayas region of the Philippines is dominating the international news for having been storm ravaged by one of the most powerful storms of all time. And who exactly are "they" in this case? Is Wanda lumping the people of Samar and Leyte with the victims of flooding in Northern Mindanao - an area NOT often hit by Typhoons, yet suffered torrential rain, flooding and landslides late 2012, early 2013? Or maybe she was talking about the recent floods in Manila?  Can't quite tell... Bottomline: It's hard to give the benefit of the doubt that this person understands the situation fully when it reeks of the "you people" statement that often preambles insulting general remarks heaped upon a population to put them all down. Eg. "YOU people always ask for OUR help! Weren't you just in the news recently about some other storm!?" ....which is kind of like saying "How stupid of Calgary to have built in low lying flood areas! Manitoba floods all the time! Didn't they learn!? Canada's all one place, right? Everyone there is one and the same, EH?"

Same country, different disasters in different regions.

Hell, even in the semi rational replies, there are still those who, in the tradition of the underhanded compliment, give out what I would term, "Underhanded Defense" of the victims.

Patrick: "This storm was the 3rd strongest storm in recorded history. A modern country such as the U.S. would still be ravaged by 190mph winds. This is a third world country. Would your tool shed hold up to such winds? That's what these people call their homes."

Kudos for quoting the apocalyptic windspeeds. Thumbs down for suggesting everyone there lives in toolsheds. Sheesh. That generalization makes me cringe...
(Fig 4: Where all Filipinos live, according to Patrick.)

Yes, indeed, the ramshackle shanties were first to go. But that's pretty much par for the course! And I know this may sound so elitist, but bear with me here: The poorest of the poor always suffer the brunt of any storm. I'm not saying that's ok - I'm saying that is what tends to happen, and it is indeed unfortunate. However, as long as the rest of the City/Municipality can still function and be on the road to disaster recovery as soon as the waters and winds subside, then it may not have become an international issue. A lot of the storms which pass by that country don't even get a short blurb on CNN or BBC. In my fifteen years of having lived away from that country, my rule of thumb goes like this: No mention = moderate to severe, but localized and contained enough that CNN and BBC may not care; Some mention = somewhat severe that it's enough of a human interest story to be mentioned; Widespread Coverage = the Apocalypse.

It's hard for us here in Canada, where every death and accident is a tragedy, to really grasp how often that place is battered by natural disasters.

When Haiyan's storm surge came in, it destroyed EVERYTHING, even the bunker-like houses of the average working, middle class, professional folk. Suddenly, your disaster preparation is swept out to sea. Even the people you expect to be the primary responders and or rebuilders were left with NOTHING. Even the Mayor of Tacloban had to hide out in the rafters just to escape the rushing waters. This was so unprecedented that it just overwhelmed everything and everyone, all at once. So what you now have is a recovery effort upsized hundred-fold.

The fault lies then, perhaps at the national level - the Philippine Government itself - of disaster preparation. And believe me, there is no shortage of such critique coming from Filipinos themselves. They already KNOW that their government and leadership may fall short (and in fact, has fallen short so far). This is why people there are pleading for international help. Over there, there is more trust for international NGO's than the government. Over there, the USMC may be seen as a more trustworthy force than their own PNP-SAF, PMC, or their Army. The word "Disillusioned" doesn't even begin to scratch the surface - in no small way, this is why Filipinos are quick to emigrate and settle elsewhere.

But back on topic: Not to open old wounds, but lets not forget that the Bush administration was also super slow when it came to Katrina - that kind of response is something you don't expect from the world's primary superpower, yet they still kind of fell short of expectations. From our positions of safety and comfort, it's very easy to criticize. At least make an effort to make sure the critique is founded on a real awareness of the situation. This is a nuanced subject that, to be fair, I don't expect anyone to know the specific details and technicalities of the subject. But I also will not stand for assumptions, so lets stop blaming the victims and stop catastrophizing the relief efforts... please?

Check out the Sequel: Philippine Typhoon Naming Conventions

(Postscript: There may have been a misunderstanding of semantics with the user who commented as Wanda on an above-linked CTV news story. She said "the local government". In Philippine English [I divide myself between Canadian English, Philippine English, and Tagalog], "local Government" likely means municipal/city level. Like I said, what the storm surge did was destroy whole regions, leaving municipal/city governments largely ineffective. But Wanda may have meant the Philippine Government. If so, I stand corrected - I agree, they are woefully unprepared and it is disconcerting when this happens every year in that country.)

(Post Postscript: I think the outpouring of support and love from the rest of the world proves there is hope for humanity. Like I said, it's just the select jerk few who use this disaster as an opportunity to get their 15 minutes of fame by saying something infuriating - "trolls" in the common parlance of the internet.)

(Post Post Postscript: There's this discussion going around the Filipino blogosphere, twitterverse, praising CNN, BBC and other international news agencies' coverage of the situation - they actually have people on the ground and are trying to really fully understand and experience the situation... which cannot be said of some Filipino news channels, unfortunately. A lot of Filipinos are accusing their own local celebrity anchors of grandstanding, and their President for failing so hard.

(Post Post Post Postscript: Thankfully, I do not have family or friends in the stricken areas. Like I said... I was born, and I lived, 30km north of Manila, the capital. What really shook me up about this calamity, is that, had I still been living there, and had it struck my hometown, I would have either been one of the casualties, or at least now left homeless.)

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