By its size and wind speed, the super-typhoon that hit the Philippines on Friday was an epic event in weather history. But as both Filipinos and much of the world respond to the immense devastation and rising death toll, the Philippines itself may be at an epic moment in being better prepared for natural disasters.
Every nation has its own shock absorbers for such calamities, such as proper zoning and close social ties. Filipinos have their own spirit of bayanihan, or neighborly deeds of empathy, as well as a tropical abundance of materials to rebuild houses.
But too many nations still simply respond to disasters rather than prepare for them. The Philippines might be expected to be a leader in such resiliency. It is considered the world’s most disaster-prone area, second to Japan in tropical storms and highly vulnerable to earthquakes. Its capital, Manila, tops the list of world cities struck by floods and similar tragedies. Such disasters cost the Southeast Asian country an average of $1.6 billion a year. This latest typhoon affected 10 percent of the population, or nearly 10 million people.
Yet its Congress passed a “disaster risk management” law only three years ago. And implementation has been largely snarled up in committees and corruption. Some new flood-protection infrastructure has been built. A new warning system, called Project Noah, gives advanced notice of impending floods. And many schools now integrate disaster preparedness in their teaching. But as Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of a key legislative panel, stated last month, such resilience efforts are not being given serious attention.
Compared to most developing nations, however, the Philippines has a high number of people on social media. After Typhoon Pablo last year, the sharing of local information helped to quickly identify places most in need of relief, enabling volunteers to better respond.
Strong community ties are the best preparation for disaster. “The journey toward resilience is the great moral quest of our age,” write Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in a recent book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. “It is the lens with which we must necessarily adjust our relationship to one another, to our communities and institutions, and to our planet.”
The Philippines’s disaster-management law calls on the government to address “the root causes” of the country’s acute vulnerabilities to disasters. More than material preparation, however, the first requirements are the intangibles of character, such as a humility to recognize the need to adapt to risk and a willing generosity to assist others. The late anthropologist Clifford Geertz found that religion helps humans deal with what seem like senseless events. It allows them to reject the notion that “life is unendurable.”
After the outsized tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines may finally reject any fatalism about its natural disasters. Enduring them with a well-planned resilience should now become the new norm.