Yolanda: A wake-up call for Pagasa

By Rosalie O. Abatayo |November 05,2018 - 08:40 PM


The Pagasa-Visayas compound in Mactan, Cebu. | Photo by Tonee Despojo

FIVE YEARS AFTER

(Part 1 of a CDN special report on Super Typhoon Yolanda which hit the country on November 8, 2013)

Five years after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) made landfall on the 8th of November 2013, learning opportunities continue to come out of the disaster that wreaked havoc in many parts of the Visayas region.

The bitter lessons learned from the tragedy provide a barometer for improvement in matters of disaster response and preparedness.

Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) Mactan chief Engr. Alfredo Quiblat Jr. said that while Pagasa’s forecast on the category 5 super typhoon was “perfect” — as the cyclone trailed the very track projected by the weather bureau and caused the same effect they warned about — a mistake on protocol triggered the massive destruction that claimed the lives of over 6,000 people.

“The big mistake in Yolanda before was the protocol, the action based on the warning of Pagasa. It was a reactive response. Kumbaga, tinamaan na sila saka pa sila kumilos (The action came only when the typhoon hit),” noted Quiblat.

Quiblat recalled how Pagasa closely monitored Yolanda even when it was still far from the Philippine area of responsibility (PAR).

“We had identified the intensity that it was. This [doppler radar] station, was the very station that captured the image of Yolanda,” Quiblat said in an interview with Cebu Daily News at the Pagasa Mactan Doppler Radar Station.

Pagasa issued the forecast on one of the strongest tropical cyclones to ever hit the planet at 11 a.m. of November 7 warning of storm surges that could reach seven meters high.

“During the time, it was high tide meaning there was a 2-meter elevation from the normal sea level,” recounted Quiblat.

The effects of Yolanda, he said, could have been minimized if there had been more attention given to Pagasa’s early warning of a storm surge.

“The smallest detail on the storm surge that was not paid (much) attention to was the cause of that massive destruction,” he lamented.

To make Pagasa’s warning system more efficient and to ensure a proactive response during any typhoon occurrence, modifications have since been made from information dissemination to improved technical operations.

Information, Communication and Education Campaign

Quiblat said Pagasa has enhanced its information, communication and education campaign to instill a clear understanding that a storm surge is considered to be the deadliest hazard associated with typhoons.

“Five years before Yolanda, they (Western Visayas) already experienced a storm surge and Pagasa was already educating them about storm surge. But people tended to forget because it did not happen often. But we keep on reminding the people about storm surge,” Quiblat said.

Seminars for local leaders and local disaster management groups have also been intensified so that local government units (LGUs) could properly act according to the information and warning given by Pagasa.

“Local leaders have to be properly educated about the warnings of Pagasa because it is them who will implement the warning of Pagasa. That is where the problem comes in because if they don’t understand the warning of Pagasa, they will not know the right thing to do,” Quiblat said.

“The data will be useless if the public and the LGUs who will act upon it do not understand what it is,” he added.

Typhoon Categorization after Yolanda

As part of a better public information system, Pagasa moved to re-calibrate the categories of typhoons that enter the Philippines.

When Yolanda hit the country in 2013, there were only three categories for tropical cyclones that entered the country: Tropical Depression, Tropical Storm, and Typhoon.

With the typhoon categories applied at the time, Yolanda, in the Philippines, was still considered a typhoon even though sustained winds had reached 235 kph at a point or beyond the 220 kph maximum winds under the typhoon category.

“It was the wake-up period that after Yolanda, we included super typhoon as one of the categories. It was only then in 2015 that we modified our categories and the turning point was Yolanda because after Yolanda, there were many typhoons above 220 kph,” Quiblat explained.

Quiblat said that the new typhoon scales will help people understand, more precisely and accurately, the extent of damage a weather
disturbance could bring.

“It is very significant because it will increase the awareness of the people. You will do something to prepare because we can not prevent typhoons from happening. We cannot dictate where it will hit. What we can only do is to minimize the effect; and to minimize the effect, we should be prepared,” said the chief of Pagasa Mactan.

Improvements in Pagasa-Visayas

After Yolanda, Pagasa Visayas also upgraded equipment and facilities for higher accuracy and precision of data analysis.

“We continue to improve our equipment to monitor the weather. You increase your number of equipment because in the principle of science, the more data you have, the more accurate will be your analysis,” Quiblat said.

In 2015, then President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III signed into law Republic Act no. 10692 or the Pagasa Modernization Act.

The primary objective of the law was for the weather bureau “to upgrade physical resources and operational techniques through acquisition and development of state-of-the-art instruments, equipment, facilities and systems.”

The law also aimed to enhance Pagasa’s capabilities in providing “useful, timely, accurate and reliable weather, flood and climate monitoring, forecasting, and localized warning and information services for use in decision-making in disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation, water resources management, agriculture, transportation, health, tourism and other sectors.”

Back in 2013, Pagasa Visayas only had two doppler radar stations: Mactan and Guiuan, Eastern Samar.

The two stations covered the whole of Pagasa Visayas’ jurisdiction which covers MIMAROPA (Region 4-B), Western Visayas (Region 6), Central Visayas (Region 7), and Eastern Visayas (Region 8).

With Pagasa’s modernization, four new doppler stations, spread across the Visayas region, were installed in Busuanga and Quezon in Palawan, Iloilo and Bohol.

The Bohol station is expected to be completed in 2019.

“If the position of the storm is within the scope of the radar of Pagasa, trust Pagasa, we can determine perfectly the present location,” Quiblat assured.
Pagasa Visayas will soon also mirror the forecasting center of Pagasa Manila as the construction of a new data center in Mactan nears realization.

“One of the goals of Pagasa’s modernization is to equip Pagasa Visayas here in Mactan with Pagasa Manila’s capability – to make this a mirror forecasting center of Pagasa Manila. In case, an untoward incident will happen in Manila to stop their operation, Pagasa Visayas will take over for continuous operations,” explained Quiblat.

The P400-million data center, called the “disaster recovery facility,” will be filled with supercomputers connected to Pagasa Manila’s server.
“There is no room for stoppage of operation in Pagasa,” said Quiblat.

Bidding for the weather center, which will be built within the Pagasa Mactan compound along Airport Road in Barangay Pusok, Lapu-Lapu City, will soon begin.

Careers in Pagasa

Like most specialized government agencies, Pagasa is also in need of more personnel.

“We are requesting DBM (Department of Budget and Management) for additional positions to address the gap of personnel issue,” said Quiblat.

Following the recent retirement of Pagasa Visayas chief, Engr. Oscar Tabada, only 17 personnel, including Quiblat, remain in Pagasa Mactan which has 32 plantilla positions.

Pagasa personnel work either as weather observers or weather forecasters.

Observers gather raw data from weather instruments while forecasters are those who analyze the data gathered on prevailing weather conditions.

Quiblat said observers only need to complete any four-year college course; while forecasters need complete mathematics units and a 5-year engineering course.

Both observer and forecaster aspirants will need to undergo a qualifying exam and training period of six months and one year, respectively before they can be hired.

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