The natural course of events

This is about the typhoon Yolanda that struck the Philippines at Tacloban, Leyte, where my parents-in-law live. Fortunately, they have a very sturdy reinforced concrete house that is several stories tall and were able to weather the storm comparatively well (the entire first floor flooded in the storm surge, though; they are only a few blocks from the ocean and a few feet above sea level). Evidently ‘storm surge’ doesn’t convey much to the average person, I have heard several reports that if they described it as a ‘tsunami-like’ rise in water level people might have been more inclined to respect the evacuation notices. The forecasts were all quite clear on the magnitude of the storm surge and the result was pretty much exactly what was predicted, so wind, rain and storm surge were pretty much spot on to the predictions passed at least 36 hours in advance.

However, when people experience a ‘near miss’ in that the predicted bad things happening fail to happen, that makes them less likely to heed warnings in the future. Storm path forecasting can never be exact, there are millions of variables that interact in a non-linear fashion that determine the path of a storm, the severity at landfall, how quickly (or slowly) the power dissipates, etc. When people get jaded by general warnings that can’t be made more specific until it is too late to react, they set themselves up for the inevitable instance when the warnings were spot on. This is clearly a case of that, though I expect those who have survived will no doubt instill a sense of urgency in their children and perhaps grandchildren for decades to come.

Everything that has happened so far (and is yet to happen) is pretty much a script that is executed whenever a wide scale disaster strikes. Those responsible for organizing rescue and relief efforts _cannot_ do anything until _after_ the event has passed, that is unless they want to be part of the disaster themselves. Had the eye passed 50 miles further south Tacloban would not be ground zero so staging material/personnel in advance would have been wasted anyway. Thus, a response _must_ wait until after the event, the only meaningful preparation is to call up the ‘troops’ and get them organized to respond as soon as the storm has passed.

Now, once the event has completed, the first step is to evaluate the extent of the damage. How wide spread is the devastation, is it necessary to call up additional support, can some of the called-up support be sent home, etc. In this case likely more were scheduled to call up, but that can only be decided once the survey has been completed. This, of course, doesn’t happen instantly, it happens over the course of hours. Next, someplace has to be setup for staging the response. In this case it was the Tacloban airport, which was out of commission because of the storm. So, first helicopters need to land so the runway can be cleared (likely manually!) so that some transport can get in to bring larger equipment and to start staging relief supplies. Until the runway is open, relief is limited to helicopters and they are very limited in their ability to respond to a disaster of this magnitude. Indeed, the amount of relief they could provide would seem insulting and they are better used to scout and assess damage. This process takes time as well, so we are probably 12-18 hours before any meaningful response is on the ground. Note that this response is limited to the airport and its immediate surroundings, anyone further than a couple of hour walk is totally on their own.

Now, in parallel, the people who survived the onslaught of the storm are emerging from their bunkers, etc. and doing their own evaluation of their new circumstances. At first in shock, many do things that can easily be called pointless or counterproductive, but that is the nature of people in shock. Then they start to organize somewhat and make immediate changes to their local environment (find and care for the living, recover the dead, clear entrances, etc.). At this point the initial survey helicopters may pass overhead and some people start to get upset that no notice seems to be taken of their plight. People quickly start to realize that they have no power, water, food, etc. are dirty, scraped, bruised and battered (if not worse) and they are surrounded by death. On an extended adrenaline high from the disaster, likely without sleep for many hours, they enter a hyper alert state where minutes seem like hours and the lack of response by the rescuers starts to gnaw on them. The 12-18 hours it takes for planes to start to land at the airport feel like days causing them to start to think very short-term. This the origin of the looting, people are desperate and have lost perspective and start to search for and hoard whatever supplies they can find. Instead of a managed distribution of resources to those most needy (say, the functioning hospitals and clinics) people are now keeping things they don’t need because of this attitude their circumstances have force them into.

Back to the relief efforts. Now that large, heavily loaded transport planes can get in and out of the airport lots of supplies are arriving steadily. However, due to the limits of the weight carrying capacity of the planes, the heavy equipment (trucks, backhoes to clear the roads, etc.) arrives sporadically and irregularly, so it takes quite a while to start to clear the road. The road clearing takes a lot of time because people are searching for relatives in the debris and no one wants to risk killing someone who might be alive but buried under the rubble, so it might take hours to clear just a few hundred feet of road. As the road gets cleared it immediately fills up with refugees who want to be away and see the airport as their only salvation, thus further burdening the road clearing effort. Initial attempts to send resources are generally met with groups of desperate people who, for all intents and purposes, attack the transport and, just like described above, strip the transport of materials even if they can’t make use of it. This slows the relief efforts further, and now we are several days into the effort.

Back in town people are getting very resentful of the lack of response. Nothing can get in from sea because the port is destroyed, nothing can get in from road because they are blocked everywhere and helicopters simply can’t bring enough to make a difference (except, perhaps, by dropping medical supplies), but they can’t see that everything possible is being done. Non-governmental relief agencies are in no better shape than the government and must wait for the government response to clear roads, etc. All these events are pretty much inevitable and the typical course of action. If the relief is well organized then it will begin to accelerate after a few days as slow progress starts along several paths. Some relief can get in by sea, but much like helicopters, it can’t be much, but if targeted correctly can have a huge impact. Surviving local government can start to organize things in town and start clearance efforts from the inside out (most by hand since there is very little that functions), triage the sites that need the greatest response, organize the people who will be evacuated, etc. If there exists a strong (surviving) local government their organization efforts will start to calm people down and reduce their anxiety as they can see small signs of progress. Poor (or totally destroyed) local government can exacerbate the bad situation and when the relief finally arrives, it can lead to even worse outcomes as anarchy reigns. I have seen some small signs of the former and get the impression that the latter won’t be the case, but at this time it is a bit premature to judge the local government and organized relief efforts, they are largely doing all that is possible no matter how well funded, trained or organized.

It sucks a lot, but this is the inevitable result of a wide scale disaster. It is repeated almost exactly everywhere. Where there are slight benefits in a tsunami, for instance, is that it is a very coastal event and there are plenty of roads on the interior that are totally undamaged. Likewise tornadoes are very local and neighboring communities might be totally unaffected. Earthquakes are the closest parallel, but often there will be irregular damage where there will be neighboring communities that are relatively unaffected that can help out. This typhoon is a collection of relatively rare events all piled on top of one another, and it seems to me that everyone is doing what they can as fast as they can.

Author: Tfoui

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