|Severe Tropical Storms Preparation and Response - Case Study Text (DHA/UNDRO - DMTP - UNDP, 1991, 58 p.)|
|Part Two: Disaster and Response|
In reality, very little action was taken at the Provincial and local level in response to the warnings. Some efforts were made to activate the Provincial emergency operating centres in the main towns along the coastline. Hospitals and clinics were placed on alert by a member of the Ministry of Health emergencies team who had watched TV weather broadcasts and taken the initiative to call in at the Meteorology office forecasting centre. Staff at hospitals and clinics had been instructed to move essential equipment to protected areas, and to check radio equipment, generators, and fuel stocks. Informally, hospital administrators began restricting admissions to emergency cases only.
The Armed Forces, alerted by Air Force meteorologists, began redeploying fighter and transport aircraft from two bases in Akutan Province to a base in the North. Two Army helicopter units were alerted and put on standby, and three special forces communications teams were moved with their equipment to a base about 100 km outside the expected impact zone. Following an agreed plan, three Air Force helicopters were tasked to transport joint government/UN-Disaster Management Team (DMT)/Red Cross damage assessment teams, formed after the last detailed review of emergency preparedness. A further two commercial helicopters were chartered for the use of a joint WHO/Ministry of Health assessment and surveillance team.
There were no detailed plans setting out a clear policy for actions to be taken during the various stages of the warning period. In the absence of these, Provincial Governors faced a number of decisions, all involving substantial disruption, and most likely to incur expenditures far higher than their statutory discretionary powers. From their perspective, these decisions included:
The content and timing of public warnings. There were no standing instructions on the content of warning messages which could be broadcast on local radio stations. There was also particular concern in some areas that tourism would be severely disrupted unnecessarily.
Decisions on evacuation. Uncertainty about where (if at all) the storm would cross the coast made any consideration of evacuation highly difficult. The population in the forecast possible impact area (over 300 km of coastline, and at least sixty miles inland) was over four million people. There were no detailed evacuation plans. Some Governors felt that a population caught on the roads might be more at risk than those at home.
Decisions on whom to give priority for evacuation. In particular few government staff had any knowledge of the risks of storm surge.
Decisions on where to evacuate people to. The main choice was to move people to schools, and churches. However, few of these had been surveyed and designated, and their were no plans to receive evacuees.
Decisions on protection of government facilities. Movement of records and strengthening of buildings would involve substantial extra expenditure, and would lead to considerable disruption of normal activity. Without authorization from central government, there were no allocated funds to cover the purchase of timber and plastic sheeting, hire workers, or purchase additional generators and supplies of fuel.
Decisions on mobilizing local government staff. Only a proportion of staff in local offices reported operationally to the Governor. Politically, his position to order a major redeployment of staff and resources without reference to central government was not strong.
Failures in the Warning Process
The immediate pre-disaster period was characterised by a general failure of the warning process. Broadcast warning bulletins simply did not reach a majority of the population in the area which was potentially at risk. Many did not listen anyway. Those that did were generally unable to interpret the messages. These failed on three accounts:
First, they did not, in general, describe the likely impact in terms listeners could understand (for example, that most roofs would be at least partially blown off; that winds would make it impossible to move around outside well before the height of the storm; that storm surges could reach two metres or more, last for hours, and carry fast-flowing debris as large as trees; that flood waters could reach three metres or more in places, and persist for three or four days; that wind-driven horizontal rain would penetrate almost any unprotected building; that trees, roofing sheets, and other debris would become flying missiles; and so on).
Second, they did not relate terms such as alert, watch and warning to actions people should take.
Third, they did not specify useful measures people could take. Examples included evacuating named low-lying coastal areas, and other areas susceptible to deep flooding; avoiding moving to steep hillsides in certain areas; at home, securing loose items; stowing away glass items; boarding windows; reinforcing roofs; preparing extra food and water (many will need sufficient food and water for five days spent on a roof); wrapping warm clothes and other personal items in polythene sheeting; and preparing mats or other coverings to crouch under during the storm.
It was suggested later by one international economist that the inadequacy of warning messages led directly or indirectly to at least 200 million US dollars worth of avoidable damage to personal property. Both the Meteorological Department and the broadcasting networks immediately challenged this assertion.
The need for improvised preparations also highlighted widespread prior failures in mitigation. Several hundred thousand people inhabited low lying areas near the coast. Many thousands, in fact, lived in houses built on piles beyond the coastal low-water mark. Housing construction was in general lamentably inappropriate for high-wind resistance, and no effective building codes were enforced in the area. Most of the public buildings in the risk area were highly cyclone-prone, and many evacuees would (it later transpired) also be at substantial risk in schools or churches.
Overall, one of the worst aspects of the warning failure, in human terms, was the inadequacy of warning for fishermen and other seafarers. Although the widespread use of small, hand-held Citizen Band radios by small boat owners had (when combined with rebroadcasting from larger vessels) increased the coverage of direct warning messages, the system as a whole was still dependent on the accuracy and reliability of the meteorological departments warnings. In this case, the text of the messages issued by that department failed to convey the urgency of the situation effectively to the broadcast control centre run for fishermen and coastal seafarers by the Ministry of Trade and Industry. This, combined with the inadequacy of the general weather forecast which was broadcast (often after further editing) by the commercial stations, meant that most fishermen expected a storm they could ride out at sea in traditional sheltered bays and headlands.