Are Filipino communities prepared for a tsunami

In the event of a disaster, communities should ‘act as one,’ says Ishmael Narag of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology

are the philippines' coastal communities prepared for a tsunami
PREPARATIONS. Are the Philippines’ coastal communities prepared for a tsunami? Shutterstock image

— MANILA, Philippines – The deadly tsunami in Palu, Indonesia, which took more than 2,000 lives, can be attributed to several factors, including the country’s topography, vulnerable communities, and a less-than-robust early warning system.

Are the Philippines’ coastal communities prepared for a tsunami like this?

In the Philippines, tsunami warning systems are regularly maintained, according to Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Undersecretary Renato Solidum Jr and Ishmael Narag, officer-in-charge of the Seismological Observation and Earthquake Prediction Division of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs).

But beyond having the right tools, Solidum and Narag said it is as important to ensure that communities know how to use these in case of a threat.

Spreading information

Aside from tsunami warning systems, the DOST has also made available hazard maps to aid communities in disaster planning.

According to Narag, the maps and the tsunami warning systems serve as part of their “decision support tools” to help Phivolcs decide whether to release a warning or a cancellation.

“Currently, we would issue a warning if the wave is one meter or higher because that’s already capable of going over the debris and going farther inland,” Narag said. “But we’re reviewing this because there are industries along the shoreline that could already get affected by lower waves.”

In terms of cancellation or allowing people to return to their homes near the shoreline, Narag said circumstances are different in the national and the local scale. “When the national level issues a cancellation, it means there are no longer major waves entering the Philippine area of responsibility,” he said. “But it doesn’t say (anything) about the activity of the waves in a specific place, such as an enclosed bay.”

With this, other agencies such as the Philippine Coast Guard and local government units (LGUs) can decide when to allow residents to return. For their part, Narag said Phivolcs waits for at least two hours after the arrival of the last wave of a tsunami before recommending a cancellation. “We’d rather err on the side of safety,” he said.

However, this chain of communication, which is most vital during disaster response, is nowhere near perfect. Allan Tabell, director of the DILG Central Office Disaster Information Coordinating Center, said in a phone interview that there needs to be a more effective way for different government agencies to coordinate with each other.

“I think it’s one of the biggest institutional problems,” said Tabell of the lack of coordination. “I’m looking and hoping for the day when all of these agencies can be put in just one roof.”

Assessment, planning, drills

One of DILG’s programs geared toward disaster risk reduction and management is Oplan Listo, part of which is the Listong Pamayanan, described as “capacity development interventions that started from LGUs and to be cascaded to the community.” Through this program, Tabell said they’ve been going to vulnerable communities since 2016 to spread awareness about disaster preparedness and to help LGUs craft or improve their evacuation plan.

“We’ve run the tsunami evacuation preparedness in more than 5,000 barangays along the eastern seaboard…from as far north as Cagayan to as far south as Davao Occidental,” he said. They first check the level of awareness on tsunami of families living in coastal areas before informing them how to utilize the available tools for preparedness.

“Hazard maps are just indicators of what type of hazards are present in certain areas,” said Tabell. “The LGUs are the ones who know about the risks because they know how populated their areas are.” He explained further, “If more people are present in hazardous areas, the risk becomes higher.”

Once risks have been identified, the next task for LGUs is to create an evacuation plan, which includes relocating residents living in highly susceptible areas. The plan, Tabell said, must be “sellable” to the communities for them to participate and cooperate.

According to him, some LGUs already have their own evacuation plans, which the DILG continues to help improve. For LGUs that are yet to create one, the DILG provides a template. “There are information or data necessary for the evacuation plan that they know best,” said Tabell. Among these are the number of people at risk and the construction materials which the houses are made of.

“We provide them the template, work on developing their community tsunami evacuation plan, and then we guide them on how to do the simulation exercises,” he said. The DILG, through their regional and provincial offices, partners with the Local Government Academy and the Philippine Public Safety College in coordinating with LGUs and in conducting the drills prepared by Phivolcs and DILG.

What’s lacking?

According to Narag, Phivolcs has created a tsunami scenario database with more than 30,000 scenarios they expect could happen once a tsunami hits the country. Factoring in the epicenter and magnitude of the earthquake, the model assumes worst-case scenarios with the wave height along the shoreline and the arrival and travel time of the first wave.

As part of the response, Solidum again stressed the importance of community-based preparations, especially for those living along the coast. “Even if there’s no monitoring warning, we advise them to evacuate to elevated ground once there’s an earthquake.”

Narag said the ideal evacuation plan is to go farther inland, which is called horizontal evacuation. “Usually, our coastal roads are established parallel to the shoreline,” he said. “It’s still a challenge to convince people to make even a dirt road that will lead farther inland to a specific evacuation area.”

Asked if he thinks the preparations are enough, Narag said no. For one, similar to what Tabell said, he reasoned that not all LGUs have crafted and tested an evacuation plan. Narag added that testing the evacuation plan starts with knowing the source of tsunami and the arrival and travel time of its first wave. “They have to beat the arrival time which could be within 10 to 30 minutes or even less.”

Both Narag and Tabell also said that one of the biggest problems when it comes to community preparedness is the “lack of appreciation” for the risks and hazards, leading vulnerable residents to ignore the warnings.

Among other things, Narag proposed a sit-down in communities to make sure everyone is well-informed, having alarms along shorelines, improving the roads to evacuation centers, and a larger participation in better crafted drills.

Lastly, he emphasized the value of having a sense of community. “It’s important to improve the social capital and establish a community,” he said, “so that in the event of a disaster, they would act as one.”

by Renzo Acosta |