Waging War against Nature: Battle Plan

OceanWavesandSeaWall-long goodbyeI wrote a long and somewhat pedantic blog the other day entitled “The Philippines: The Most Dangerous Land on the Planet“.

The article was essentially JoeAm talking out loud as he mulled the weak Philippine preparation and response to natural disasters. The article poked here and there, rambled a little, and began to crystallize some ideas about what can be done to improve the nation’s battle plans.

Characterizing this effort as a war is step one. It is the attitude you take toward it. The commitment. A military point of view inspires a clear determination to do more. To do it hard, to do it now, to work to win. To defend the Philippines.

The first article concluded by suggesting the following actions:

  • A national publicity campaign to place responsibility for preparedness with the people. For trash disposal disciplines and awareness of evacuation steps.
  • A deep discussion for what “safe distance” in the national building code means, with stringent standards applied consistently across all municipalities.
  • Separate the building code particulars from the national Law so that it can be flexibly revised and strengthened without returning to Congress for amendments. Enforce the code rigorously.
  • Develop a national standard for the required level of flood protection:  against 100-year flood? 500-year flood? I’d say minimum, 300-year flood.
  • Develop a national zoning code. This should require restrictions on construction along the coast, or on vulnerable river banks and hillsides.
  • Introduce mandatory evacuation orders to be implemented when storms approach. Establish safe, well-stocked evacuation centers. Enforce orders with fines.
  • Relocate vulnerable informal settlers whether they like it or not.
  • Dedicate ships, helicopters and medical gear to the battle, on standby 24/7.
  • Continue to learn and build rescue and rehabilitation resources and skills. Compile local playbooks and issue commands. Committee consensus is not required.

Well, these ideas are well and good, but they don’t really follow JoeAm’s advice. They are not expressed in terms of individual accountability. They don’t hit hard and clear.

So let me take this to step two and assign some accountability, as if I were expessing this on behalf of the “bossman” of the Philippines, we the people.


President Aquino

Give Defense Secretary Gazmin overarching accountability for defending the Philippines against Nature. His authority should enable him to enlist the resources of other agencies when this is vital to success. Secretary Gazmin will therefore need to defend against three major threats: (1) domestic rebels, (2) China, and (3) Nature.

  • Establish a National Disaster Response Battalion under the Department of Defense. Equip it with at least one large hospital ship and at least three Chinook medical and supply helicopters (or comparable aircraft). Establish a repository for medical supplies, stand-by doctors, and emergency food supplies along with procedures to the keep the inventory fresh. Develop greater depth and breadth of capability among disaster response military personnel. Make sure military vehicles and troops are always prepared to be moved to the front. Acquire emergency response equipment (e.g., light CAT bulldozers for airlift). Approach each storm as a battle requiring sound defense and a quick, precise, hard-hitting response to attack when it comes. Respond to each earthquake as a surprise attack.
  • Work with DILG Secretary Roxas to develop a “playbook” prototype for cities and municipalities, with one section for storms and another for violent events (earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis). The playbook should be a checklist of actions to be assigned to various offices and people. It should totally eliminate the need to sit about in a committee meeting to ask “what should we do now?”.
    • The playbook should  provide the authority needed to align AVAILABLE resources quickly to need, not defer response because the right resources are not on hand.
  • Work with Tourism Secretary Jimenez to develop a public accountability campaign to focus on raising peoples’ awareness broadly as to the responsibility citizens have to help fight storms by: (a) disposing of trash properly, (b) knowing where their evacuation center is, and (c) cooperating with local authorities, for instance, to evacuate to assigned storm shelters.


Senate President Drilon and House Majority Leader Gonzales should first express a feeling of personal accountability for the weak Philippine preparation against natural disasters. That is, look inward and not cast blames. Then get determined to do something about it. Put the Legislature to work on lawmaking:

  • Amend the Natural Disaster Relief Act to: (a) mandate that local governments impose a consistent national level of flood protection (e.g., against a 300-year flood),  and (b) firm up evacuation requirements (orders, requirements for shelter, and fines for disobedience).
  • Amend the National Building Code in two ways: (1) define “safe distance” (from homes to streams and other potential dangers) in specific terms, and (2) remove building construction minutia and put them into a separate Building Code book to be maintained by DILG under Secretary Roxas.
  • Write a National Land Use Code that preserves drainage channels free of occupied structures, restricts clear-cut logging, mining and similar uses, and and protects natural areas for water absorption


The Mayors are the generals manning the defensive lines until such time as they are subordinated to the national effort (operating regional units of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council) during battle. Accordingly, they should be building protections, arming and training their troops.

  • Enforce building and land use codes.
  • Relocate the most vulnerable residents.
  • Help develop and understand the disaster response playbook.
  • Run practice drills for government officials at least twice a year. Simulate a raging flood. Simulate an earthquake. Make sure people know their authorities and their objectives.
  • Build retaining walls and evacuation shelters.
  • Run an annual community test drill to simulate a major emergency. So the People become aware of their need to be informed and are able to understand what would happen in a real emergency.

I was mightily encouraged by the statements and acts of Neil Sanchez who heads the Cebu branch of the Disaster Council in recognizing that Disaster Councils in other provinces must cover for one another, because those located in the heart of the disaster may not be able to function at full force. The proposal will be advanced that a Visayas network of Disaster Council units be formed, each able to support the other in the event of calamity.

It is also encouraging to see Secretary Roxas get angry at local government officials who are accused of trying to use disaster relief supplies to curry political favors. He is absolutely right to be peeved at the smallness of those who would rip off suffering innocents for personal gain.

Perhaps there will be a very valuable side benefits to this kind of earnest, ambitious, honorable work.

People will believe their country is for them, and they are a vital part of the country.

Perhaps if we can get corruption and all the personal favor-trading out of the way, the Philippines will start to work purposefully with and for her people as a unified community.

That is, as a NATION rather than an argumentative, self-serving collection of vested interests.

Cover Photograph from: http://4.bp.blogspot.com 

10 Responses to “Waging War against Nature: Battle Plan”
  1. Hi Joe, Thank you so much for writing this article. I hope the Filipinos,political leaders and citizens alike will listen to this wake-up call. The biblical Noah did the same but nobody listenened. I look forward to more organizing efforts among the Filipino people perhaps starting with the barangays. Please, keep the conversation alive..

    • Joe America says:

      Thank you Myrna. I have always wondered if the barangay structure is good or bad. We don’t have it in the U.S. I can see it as being very good . . . the front line . . . in better defense against storms.

  2. Raul B. Abad Santos says:

    Hi Joe. Great article. I am a first timeIf Kagawad in Blue Ridge-B Quezon City.There is an area in our Barangay occupied by 80 informal settler families situated very close to the West Valley Fault Line and also a perennial flood prone area which often requires evacuation just like during Ondoy and the Habagat last August 2012.

    As head of the BDRRMC, I initiated a disaster mitigation project that involved the relocation of the mentioned families. Together with the Quezon City Hall, the Urban Poor Affairs Office and the National Housing Authority we succeeded in getting the job done. And not only that, it was a peaceful and orderly relocation process. In fact, it was so unusually peaceful, the actual relocation came out on TV Patrol news and TV5 News.

    Now these families own their own homes at NHA’s relocation site in Rodriguez, Rizal and San Jose del Monte, Bulacan at a cost of only P200 per month payable in 30 years.

    I was surprised to know that there is such a government program. All one has to do is to harness and apply the program. If the other Barangays with a similar situation like ours can emulate what we did, injuries and fatalities can be greatly reduced during calamities.

    • Joe America says:

      Wow, Raul. Thanks for stopping by to share that accomplishment. Very instructional and uplifting. You demonstrate the way the barangay can be so very important in the battle against nature’s forces Congratulations on the success of the program, and thanks for the inspiration.

    • pussyfooter says:

      Wow! Thanks for sharing your invaluable personal experience Mr. Abad Santos. I don’t know if there really are more peaceful relocations than violent ones and the media just doesn’t report on it decently, or if your situation is the outlier. If you have the time, it would be great if you could share (here and/or in the appropriate government forum) tips or insights into what helped. What I keep hearing instead (and I’m just the average dabbler in current events, I think) is that relocations tend to be wildly controversial because the usual relocation areas (including, perhaps, Bulacan and Rizal) are considered too far from Metro Manila jobs and sometimes lack basic infrastructure too.

      • Raul B. Abad Santos says:

        Thank you for your comments pussyfooter. Just like you I do not know if there are more peaceful relocations than violent ones. I just based my assessment on what I read and see in the media. What we did was a long process. It took almost 2 years to get it done. It included site visits to the relocation sight, continuous dialogue with informal settler families and of course the bureaucratic documentation process.

        Transportation cost for example to and from the relocation site to Cubao is PHP70. So far, from what I have observed, those that we relocated are able to manage the commute to and from their work. There are public schools in the relocation sites. There is water and electricity. And I must say that living conditions in the relocation site is far more better that in the slums that the settlers came from. Just imagine that now they have their own toilet and bath.

        What helped me convince the settlers to relocate is the hazards of living on their location. With enough persistence I was able to convince the city government to declare the settlers area into a danger zone. That was how I started to get the ball rolling.

        We know for a fact that there are a number of informal settlers living in danger zones. And the primary reason on why they are not being relocated is the lack of political will. Be it the Barangay officials, councilors, congressmen and the like. They use the settlers as their bailiwick of votes come election time. These officials would rather distribute relief goods to affected families during calamities rather than find a permanent solution to the problem.

        I would be glad to share my experience in an appropriate government forum if given the chance. And the same if invited by a Barangay. But I doubt very much the latter since there are Barangay officials who are informal settlers themselves and live in identified hazzard and sanger zones.

  3. David Murphy says:

    Joe, I like most of your ideas, although I recognize in you a certain tendency to get carried away by possibilities and fail to account for the limitations of human nature. (Or I may just be projecting my own faults onto you.) I’m thinking of your discussion of the responsibilities of the local mayors. At this local level there are so many factors, such as interpersonal relations, cultural norms and such that interfere with a rational approach to solving problems. At this level in the smaller jurisdictions you’re not dealing with government you’re doing family counseling. It’s a tricky business. At the same time I recognize the inefficiencies and impracticalities of attempting to impose uniform standards on local situations, which often have unique requirements. It’s reminiscent of the OSHA rules implementations that are intended to decrease risk but which sometimes impose rigid requirements that would in certain specific situations require unjustifiable expenses for no practical benefit. It seems I want it both ways, regional autonomy and national standards. Perhaps the solution lies in defining goals and desired results rather than specific means of achieving them. Thus a ‘safe distance’ might be defined not in terms of meters but in terms of risk, as you proposed with your 100-year or 400-year flood levels but perhaps taking into account other factors which experienced engineers or civil planners might suggest. Or perhaps ‘safe distance’ might be replaced by a measure of risk involving predictability of an event, the amount of time available before the danger is recognized and appropriate response completed, the ease of evacuation, the number of people involved and similar factors. If this sounds confusing, and I think it does, it’s because I’m not entirely clear on what kinds of alternative standards might achieve the same results while still providing for local considerations. Perhaps the most practical approach is to accept the limitations of imposing rigid standards as part of the price of increased safety. But I hate to accept that.
    I can tell that you are very much taken by the idea of a “Hope” type hospital ship. I wonder if it might be more practical to establish more adequate regional hospitals that could serve the population all the time, rather than only during disasters. In that situation on-site medical care might be provided most efficiently by the use of MASH type hospital tents and teams and the helicopters that you envision might be used to transport those patients who require more extensive or prolonged treatment to the fixed regional hospitals.
    I am influenced in this approach by a recent experience. A young lady, the daughter of a former maid, died in childbirth. What I think I know of the incident is that she was unable to deliver vaginally, the infant died in utero but was not evacuated and the mother subsequently died of sepsis or organ failure because of the decomposing fetus. I suspect that the issue was that they lacked the funds to pay for a Casarean section, a tragic loss of two lives for want of a relatively small sum of money. This happened shortly after the issue of corruption involving the “pork” allocations became public and I associated the two. One trillion pesos could have funded regional hospitals all over the provinces. If a regional hospital had been available and funded to the extent that emergencies such as this could be treated without advance payment, both mother and baby would be alive now.
    I am so appalled by this situation that I would like to propose that those convicted of stealing of government funds should also be charged with homicide for the preventable deaths of mothers in childbirth, of children who failed to receive basic immunizations or who died from complications of malnutrition or lack of access to safe water, of women who died of metastatic cervical cancer that could have been detected at an early stage by a simple PAP test and treated, the list seems endless. The number of deaths that could have been prevented by the money that was stolen dwarfs that of the number of deaths in the Maguindanao massacre and those responsible for the thefts should be held accountable for the deaths as well. It will never happen but it should.
    End of rant.

    • Joe America says:

      There are critics who are negative, and enthusiasts who are positive, and realists who are well-grounded in knowledge from experience. I agree I have not had enough of the full-blooded Filipino experience and remain naive in some respects. Readers are good enough to fill in my weaknesses a lot of the time. I also admit that I went through a conversion of sorts about a year ago when I accepted Philippine culture as legitimate and neither good nor bad. An element of that culture is a tendency to be negative, to nit-pick, to generalize from isolated incidents. I’ve decided I don’t have to participate in that aspect of culture because it is a part of what I consider to be dysfunctional.So I lean a lot toward the positive and consider that, if it is naive, at least it is pushing the right direction.

      I fully agree with you that medical care here is woeful. I settled on one ship over a lot of hospitals because it can be done quickly at reasonable expense, and is not subject to the vulnerability a land-based hospital might encounter (no electricity or fuel for generators because of storm or earthquake). And you could presumably staff it with surgeons who may not be available locally.

      I agree cause and effect are not connected by the crooks here, or by the justice system. I’d elaborate, but I wish to stay calm today. 🙂

  4. Jojo Padilla says:

    Mr. Joe America,
    Thanks. American or whoelse, you are more Filipino (in heart and mind) than many of us perhaps. Love to read your quote, “on behalf of the “bossman” of the Philippines, we the people.”
    Jojo Padilla

  5. David Murphy says:

    Joe, this is intended as a delayed supplement to the proposals you made on dealing with natural disasters. It’s not intended to be complete but only a starting point for discussion.
    Guiuan is an example of the concern that I’ve had from the beginning that all of the media attention and all of the relief efforts in the most recent disaster are directed to Tacloban. As a consequence, many small areas are neglected although they are in equal need even if not equal in the size of the disaster or the number of the suffering.. I’m pretty sure that there are thousands of similar places throughout the Viscayas and your home base may be one of them. Although Guiuan itself is a relatively small and remote place, a man who had come there from an even more remote spot asked, “Why is all the help being given only here?”
    It’s not an easy problem to solve. There are challenges in communication, physical access (In many cases these places are difficult to reach under ideal circumstances.), logistics and personnel compounded by a lack of overall coordination of the relief efforts.
    Looking forward I can only hope that some of that massive aid that has been received will not be pillaged but will go toward developing a national civil defense plan that will prepare to meet any disaster. I would like to see a central coordinating authority tasked with advance planning that should include 1) establishing and maintaining a system of communications with local officials. possibly all the way down to the barangay level, that will work in the absence of power supply; 2) of evaluation of the extent of the disaster, possibly including use of satellite imagery and overflights by reconnaissance planes and/or helicopters, as well as by on-site evaluation by trained teams, probably from the military services; 3) identification of available domestic resources and of available international resources and the procedures for contacting and availing of these resources (I’m thinking here of hospital ships and of warships which have excellent medical facilities, particularly aircraft carriers which have the added capacity for dispatching and receiving helicopters to transport patients.); included in this task would be coordinating the many well-intentioned private efforts which are sometimes inappropriate and result in clogging of ports and airports with low-priority items, delaying the distribution of urgently needed supplies; 4) of a system of communication that will link all of these resources to the central coordinating authority and ideally, to each other and finally, 4) a system of evaluating the results of every disaster relief effort to determine what worked and what needs to be improved.
    A large ship does not make right-angle turns and massive relief efforts do not enter the implementation phase immediately. Advanced planning can ensure that delays are kept to a minimum and that implementation can be as effective as possible. Of course, preventative measures such as you identified must also be instituted to minimize the need for such relief efforts; the two approaches are complementary.
    I grant that creating this authority would be a massive undertaking but past experience indicates that it would be active on a regular basis and that it would justify its existence by its benefits. All indications are that it will be needed even more in the future. The Philippines has an incredible amount of talent and they have the ability, the potential and the pressing need to develop such a system. It is long overdue.
    Hope this finds you and yours safe and well. I’m sure you’ll have some war stories of your own to tell.
    God bless
    David Murphy

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