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close this bookSevere Tropical Storms Preparation and Response - Case Study Text (DHA/UNDRO - DMTP - UNDP, 1991, 58 p.)
close this folderPart Two: Disaster and Response
View the documentE. Detection and Warning of the Storm
View the documentF. Characteristics of the Threatened Area
View the documentG. Actions at the Provincial and Local Level in Response to Warning
View the documentH. Primary Impact
View the documentI. Secondary Effects
View the documentJ. Shortcomings in Management of the Response

J. Shortcomings in Management of the Response

Overall, the response period was not well-managed by the government. To those on the spot, the responses of most officials seemed half-hearted, unplanned, and lacking any clear sense of co-ordinated action in relation to clearly recognised priorities and goals. From the local perspective, during the first week, every transaction between individual families and officialdom seemed to end in confusion, frustration, and finally outright anger. Few in authority seemed to be doing anything useful for ordinary people.

Failures in Emergency Planning

The root causes of this were not so much incompetence or venality, but rather the failure of a system of planning, anticipation, and control. In the detailed, but largely confidential analyses carried out by the Office of National Audit, UNDRO, USAID, and a number of NGOs, breakdowns in the relief response were systematically traced back to failures in preparedness and planning. These in turn stemmed from a complex set of problems related to funding levels, the lack of institutions providing effective training, the low level of education and lack of motivation of many junior ministry staff, the lack of “champions” of emergency planning within the system, and the general unwillingness of most people to consider that disasters on this scale would ever happen. ‘

Throughout the government system, there was little prior understanding of who would do what, where, when, and how in different kinds of emergency. There were no adequate databases of personnel skills, buildings, or, available equipment resources, and nobody with the sustained motivation to either build them, or challenge their absence. Few line ministries had tested standard operating procedures, and the Emergencies Department lacked the political “clout” to enforce compliance. Overall management structures for emergencies were ill-defined in both national and local plans. The plans contained few job descriptions or outlines of responsibilities. They contained no clear instructions on how vital supplies and equipment were to be made available.

The outcome when the Cyclone struck was widespread confusion within government over roles and tasks; authority and access to resources were not commensurate with assigned emergency functions; organizations were far too dependent on others for equipment or information; and preparations for handling the massively increased demand for information were very poorly done.

Communications proved to be the most important constraint. The disaster destroyed much of the regional communications system, and the surviving communications network just did not reach those who could have used it best. Existing communications were clogged by calls to higher authority for permission to act. Senior officials were hopelessly overloaded, whether or not they had any idea what was going on. The lack of protection for the telephone system, and the lack of effective substitute civilian communications rendered central government mostly impotent. Confusion over the availability and capacity of military communications ensured that even the surviving channels were not used effectively. The solutions to these problems were largely political, but little was ever achieved.

The subsequent inquiries pointed in detail to other specific shortcomings which in many cases had led to serious loss of life, or massive economic disruption. The early warning system of the meteorological department was criticised for lack of standard operating procedures, and weaknesses in the content of warning messages. The Secretariat of the National Emergencies Committee was castigated for failing to link various levels of meteorological warnings to standard operating responses by the Committee and by individual departments.

Planning for pre-impact preparations (on receipt of warning) received special criticism in the analyses. No detailed plans had been made within the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Provincial governments. Only the health authorities had paid much attention to this issue, although the operations directors of several public utilities were beginning to pay more attention to the requirements. Planning for protection of most critical economic resources during the warning period was non-existent.

Weaknesses in Co-ordination and Assessment

The lack of plans and preparations for activating the national emergency operations centre were also a major factor in the confused response. A central civilian co-ordination centre was not operating until 36 hours after the Cyclone made landfall. The Prime Minister, and other senior Ministers found themselves having to take decisions “blind”, without any real sense of what was happening.

The initial post-impact assessment went better than expected operationally (because of close, detailed planning, and much prior consultation), but then experienced major problems in disseminating and sharing assessment data. This again was mainly a function of the lack of planning in other areas (no one knew who needed data, or for what purpose), but interpretation of results was also complicated by the lack of baseline data. A special weakness also was the failure to link assessment information with the improvised search and rescue efforts of the Navy, several army field units, and a national police special unit. In addition, information on route blockages was never passed on to the NGO groups who were attempting to mobilize convoys of relief items. One final problem in assessment stemmed from the non-availability of video and photographic equipment. It was hard for returning teams to convey an overview of conditions. News footage gathered by ENG teams from the national commercial television stations tended to concentrate on areas of worst damage and gave a very biased picture. Nonetheless, it was this that most politicians, civil servants, and NGO officials were initially responding to.

Key Problems in Relief Provision

The provision of immediate relief suffered from many problems, but two seemed to dominate everything: the failure to organise road clearance, and the inability to distribute fairly. The extent to which deep flooding and fallen trees would prevent access by road was not understood by many planners. It took days to clear roads, even after the flood waters subsided. Much of the clearance was done not as a result of government efforts, but by local people attempting to get out of their villages to seek help. Distributions were described by all as “a complete mess”, with local people milling around road junctions, market squares, and government offices, in search of the latest official or private hand-out. A number of NGO convoys were simply looted, as they halted at some broken bridge or tree-strewn highway. Only the Army, which provided cooked food, tarpaulins, and organized manpower mainly to more isolated rural villages, seemed to achieve what they set out to do.

Shortcomings in the Medical Response

The medical response was probably better planned than other official actions. Emergency medical planning at national level had achieved several key goals, including appointment of a qualified and properly trained emergency advisory committee, development of a realistic basic national emergency health plan meeting international standards, an accurate database of resources, and standard operating procedures for disasters incorporated into routine health activity. Above all, planning was integrated with training, and senior officials took this seriously enough to make it work, even at the local level. Noteworthy in the planning was the emphasis on structural mitigation. Plans for new medical facilities were carefully scrutinized for signs of poor resistance to hazard agents. Noteworthy too was the emphasis on communications development (and protection).

Nonetheless, the medical system still displayed a number of serious problems. First, the impact of population displacement and evacuation were underestimated. The practical problems caused by several thousand people concentrated in one improvised centre were simply not appreciated. There was little provision for detailed supervision of these centres. Lack of information on the location of emergency evacuation sites, and lack of staff, made it impossible in many cases to visit to supervise water and sanitation and to confirm rumoured disease outbreaks.

Second, mortuary provision was totally inadequate in the affected area. Many bodies were taken to clinics (themselves damaged) near the coast. Nothing had been done to prepare for identification of corpses, or to arrange for their disposal. Attempts were made to quickly cremate them, but much of the wood from debris proved too wet to burn.

Third, the medical planners did not anticipate the scale of the requirement for sorting incoming medical items at the main airport. Not enough trained pharmacy staff were designated.

Fourth, the need to produce plans for hospital and clinic reconstruction within weeks had not been anticipated in the emergency plans, and a number of significant mitigation opportunities were lost as a result.