Thursday, June 26, 2014

Man-Made Disasters

For a whole week last November, everyone in the world was suddenly made aware of the place in the world where I live - the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, the location in which the most powerful tropical cyclone (typhoon) in recorded history made landfall. By the time all of the media attention turned away to other "newsworthy" matters, the city of Tacloban, near the beach where General MacArthur made his promised return in 1944, was facing a death toll of more than six thousand and the stench of unburied dead bodies hung in the air.

Having lived long enough in this calamity-ridden country, I am more than ever convinced that, in many ways, the impact of the super typhoon was a man-made disaster. Two years before the disaster in Tacloban, I published a piece I called "Calamity Prone," in which I examined the effects of a recent flood in Mindinao, a Philippine island in the south of the country. I pointed out something that is painfully obvious to the people of this country - that calamities of one kind or another (typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, floods, even volcanic eruptions) are practically endemic, and not always because of the geographic disadvantages of living here - of being stuck smack on the Pacific "Ring of Fire," where two tectonic plates collide, and in what is known as "typhoon alley," a zone through which tropical cyclones typically travel on their way to mainland Asia.

As I wrote in January 2012: 

". . . these disasters are practically self-inflicted, since infrastructure development in the poorer provinces of the Philippines is notoriously neglected. Where there is highway or bridge construction, corruption ensures that the money initially provided for the construction gets siphoned off: contractors pass the job on to sub-contractors, and the resulting roads and bridges are washed away every few years. Nothing gets fixed here until it breaks."

Once it became obvious that Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) was going to be a major storm and was going to strike the east coast of the Visayan region, the government should've taken steps to evacuate people, at least from low-lying areas near the shore. But there simply isn't a system like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to which the Philippine government can resort in times of national emergency, since there is no money allocated for any such thing and no political will whatsoever to create one. 

Even if there had been a plan last November to evacuate thousands of people, expecting all of the agencies and personnel needed to carry it out to show up and perform their duties is sheer fantasy. When mobs descended on a shopping mall in Tacloban after the worst of the typhoon was past, the police who were stationed there to protect the property had already abandoned their posts and gone to help their own families. The mall was picked clean as a bone in a city where the haves and the have-nots exist side by side - but with a high wall between them.

One more reason why so many people died in Tacloban is because there is no building code in the Philippines. When one considers that 25% of the country's population is desperately poor, there simply can't be any such thing. All over the country, there are communities in which houses are constructed with whatever is at hand - bamboo, grass, and plywood are often used as building materials. You don't have to be familiar with the nursery rhyme of "The Three Little Pigs" to know how a house made of straw or sticks will fare when a typhoon huffs and puffs its way through these islands.

I often want to tell some of my American Libertarian friends that their utopian vision of a country devoid of government interference in people's lives has been realized in the Philippines. But some people who believe that such things as building codes infringe on their liberty don't seem to realize that, if such codes existed - and were enforced - in the Philippines, there would be far fewer deaths the next time it rains, or the wind blows, or the ground shakes. 

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