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Commentary

Nature’s wrath

“More importantly, because the agency exists exclusively to respond and mitigate damage from natural disasters, it would develop the core competence in preparing the country to be ready for the worse.

Harry Roque

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The volcanic eruption of otherwise scenic Taal Volcano should remind everyone that while mankind is bent on seeking to control his environment, Mother Nature will not have it otherwise. It is a reminder that no amount of development in technology can predict when nature’s wrath will happen, nor do we have the recourse to prevent it from happening. Simply put, we may want to think of ourselves as masters of our destiny, and yet, in reality, it is still Mother Nature that will determine the fate of mankind. What we can do though is to be ready when nature does unveil its wrath on us.

For a country that’s been known as the most prone to natural disasters, be it typhoons, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, we have an ad hoc way of dealing with nature’s wrath. We have the National Disaster and Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC). The problem, as President Duterte had himself observed after a super typhoon hit Northern Luzon not too long ago, is that no one person is in charge at the NDRRMC. In fact, it is an attached agency to the Department of National Defense (DND), but composed of the secretaries of the different line agencies constituting a council. So, when disaster does strike, the council needs to meet to come up with its course of action.

Here, I think the President is right. There should only be one person in charge in times of disasters. This will enable speedier delivery of services needed by those hit hard by a disaster. Currently, disaster relief is still subject to discussion and even debates in the council. Meanwhile, those in need may wallow in helplessness.

As a member of the 17th Congress, I was a coauthor to a bill authored by Rep. Yeddah Romualdez that created a Department for Disaster Resilience. This provides the solution to the problem observed by the President; that is, that there should only be one person in charge in case of a natural calamity. Under the proposed bill, the proposed department will be the lead agency for the national effort to reduce disaster risk and prepare for and respond to national disasters. While the policy making body will still be inter-agency, the specific responses to disasters would be addressed by the agency alone. The bill seeks to end red tape in dealing with responses to disasters and adopts a “whole of government, whole of nation and whole of society approach.”

This bill was actually approved in 2018 but somehow, the Senate failed to act on its own version.

For a country that has since seen the greatest number of natural disasters worldwide, I find it difficult to understand why the measure languished in the Senate. Under the current setup, the NDRRMC as an attached agency to the DND is funded exclusively from a line item in the budget of the department. This means that if the funds intended for disaster responses have been used up, the NDRRMC becomes inutile.

Under the proposed bill, as an independent agency, it will have a higher budget than just an attached agency. And when there is a disaster that requires an extraordinary expense, the President can realign specific line items under the Executive to the proposed department. This would be difficult to do under an ordinary attached agency. More importantly, because the agency exists exclusively to respond and mitigate damage from natural disasters, it would develop the core competence in preparing the country to be ready for the worse. If Japan has been effective at this, I see no reason why we cannot be.

Here is another wish that the 18th Congress enacts the bill creating the Department for Disaster Resilience into law.

Meanwhile, I noticed from a television coverage two nights ago of the explosion that there is a need for networks to train their commentators to be more critical in their bantering in covering natural disasters. While I understand that these commentators need to ad lib given the nature of a special coverage, they should be told that, in doing so, they should be instruments of maintaining calm and order in times of disasters. But no, this female, senior commentator from the country’s biggest network had to be the one to promote panic among the public with such comments as “the local government is nowhere to be found,” and “the public are helpless.” In truth and in fact, as Governor Dodo Mandanas corrected the anchor, all local government units have long planned contingencies, which were being implemented to the letter. I would hope that the media could be counted upon as partners in dealing with disasters rather than be the agents for panic themselves.

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