Typhoon Haiyan: A perfect storm of corruption and neglect

In a country that sees 20 tropical storms every year, it would be natural to expect some form of planning for such disasters. But estimates of over 10,000 dead suggest this wasn’t the case. A neglectful government distracted by political chaos meant Filipinos received little warning of the coming storm.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration or PAGASA, has tracked tropical storms since 1948. Between 1948 and 2012, about 1,250 typhoons have landed in the Philippines, an average of 20 typhoons or tropical cyclones a year, with at least nine strong storms concentrated in the middle of the rainy season between September and November.

In the past, tropical storms have wreaked havoc on eastern coastlines of the country, spanning from the Batanes Islands in the north, south through Quezon province, to the Eastern Visayas islands of Samar and Leyte.

The residents of Samar, Leyte and neighbouring islands are used to annual typhoons. Tacloban has always been hit by typhoons, and records of the city’s founding in 1770 have been destroyed by previous storms. But Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) was unprecedented and locals were unprepared for wind gusts of up to 274 kilometres an hour, and a storm surge of up to six metres.

The magnitude of this storm completely overwhelmed the people of Tacloban and surrounding towns and islands. Typhoon Haiyan may have been more intense than normal but the danger was increased by an inaccurate early warning system. The typhoon came in three hours earlier than warnings suggested, with an unexpectedly high storm surge of six metres.

It appears local government units failed to mobilise officials for forced evacuations to higher and safer ground, out of the way of strong winds, storm surges and widespread flooding. Government at all levels had been distracted by a senate hearing into corruption by government officials, which included the plundering of more than 10 billion Philippine pesos (more than US$228 million) from tax and government funds.

This political disaster contributed to the neglect of disaster risk reduction, such as evacuating people who live on low-lying urbanised coastal areas of islands such as Leyte. That these areas were under threat was clearly mapped by PAGASA.

Based on my conversations with residents in Tacloban, the 221,000 inhabitants were not given sufficient information or logistical support to move to higher and safer ground. The deaths of thousands people could have been avoided if the risk reduction initiatives had been put into place and implemented.

You could expect some form of disaster risk reduction programmes in a place that sees 20 typhoons every year. But even with a strengthening of disaster management in 2010 and further funding for climate change adaptation, the Philippine government continues a reactive approach to disasters.

The government has failed to come up with guidelines for allocating adaptation funding, which could prevent future disasters like Typhoon Haiyan. Elected government officials only opt for relief distribution immediately after disaster events.

Critics say this is because relief offers more photo opportunities, which I have personally witnessed, as politicians distribute bags of food and relief with their faces printed on them.

Disaster mitigation preparedness and risk reduction measures need to be incorporated into land use planning and zoning guidelines if we are to have any hope of preventing disasters like Haiyan.

* Dr Doracie Zoleta-Nantes is a research fellow in resources, environment and development at the Australian National University. She has conducted research into the management of natural environments under high level development pressures and the impact of such on societies in the Philippines and Vietnam. Her PhD focused on the historical geography of flooding in Metro Manila and she has further researched forced migrations and flooding scenarios affecting agricultural and fishing communities in central Vietnam.

* A longer version of this article first appeared in The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.