POSTSCRIPT / September 29, 2009 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Weather bureau’s job is forecasting

ODD ACRONYM: Listening to officials of PAGASA — the weather bureau — explain the extremely heavy rains dumped by tropical storm “Ondoy” on Metro Manila and nearby provinces last Saturday, we think the agency should change its name and transfer its forecasters.

Its crudely contrived acronym PAGASA (for Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration) is not descriptive of what it is mandated to do, which mainly is to deliver correct and timely weather information.

Whoever coined that name must have searched the encyclopedia for weather-related topics to bunch together into an acronym that, by accident, means “hope.” Hope is good, why not, but what is its connection to the weather?

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AFTER THE FACT: The time has come to rename the agency not only because of its unwieldy alias, but also because of its misleading forecasts. Any suggestion from Postscript readers?

Its senior forecasters trying to explain on TV the non-stop heavy downpour (one-month’s rainfall pouring in record-breaking six hours!) sounded like statisticians reporting after the fact.

We thought all along that the main function of PAGASA is to forecast the weather, not to report on what had happened (by Saturday night, drenched people shivering on rooftops already knew what hit them) and then try to explain it.

The top technicians of PAGASA should transfer to the national statistics office where they can continue collecting data and analyzing them to death – as they did after rampaging floodwaters left more than a hundred persons dead and destroyed crops and property worth more than half-billion pesos.

Or, hopefully, they should go back to school to relearn modern forecasting. It is not enough to look out the window, wet thumb held to the wind, and then guess what weather might befall the country in the next 24 hours.

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GLOBAL WARNING: The public wants correct and timely weather forecasts, not all-wet excuses.

Complaining that the weather bureau does not have state-of-the-art equipment is an old sob story. They should ask for what they need during their budget hearings in Congress, not whine about technical handicaps when they fail to do their job.

Note that they have just added a convenient item to their repertoire of excuses. When there is a weather phenomenon (like Manila Bay being dumped, as it were, on the metropolis) that they had failed to predict, they glance a their fingernails and blame it on “global warming.”

(Poor global warming… Reminds us of doctors blaming “stress” and “pollution” when a patient asks why he has symptoms of some ailment and the physicians are too lazy to diagnose and explain them.)

Global warming, sometimes referred to as climate change, is interesting but it is already coming out of our ears. It is cruel for government weather forecasters to slap us with it.

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FAILURE OF GOV’T: Without sufficient warning from the weather bureau, the government fell flat on its face responding to the emergency in the first two days.

The rains started falling late Friday. All of Saturday, government’s assuring presence was nowhere, forcing people to resort to their own devices to survive Nature’s onslaught.

By Sunday, there were still scores of people trapped on rooftops – some of them clutching babies or steadying old folk – without food, water and dry clothes.

It was heart-rending to hear them plead over their low-bat cellphones… as floodwaters swirled within inches of their precarious perch. Some of them endured all that for two days before rescuers snatched them from a watery grave.

But in some cases, help never came. The rescue rubber boats and helicopters arrived too late.

Ondoy put the Arroyo administration to the test, and it failed.

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IMAGE OF NEGLECT: Those people clinging to rooftops in the gathering darkness will remain etched in our minds as symbols of government neglect.

One saving grace is the people’s self-help, showing that Filipinos still care for one another. Individuals and organizations sprung into action – as in EDSA I — without any prodding, without waiting for government.

Radio and TV networks embarked on a non-stop coverage that segued into rescue and relief coordination. The government’s disaster mitigation managers hooked up to private broadcast media in tacit recognition of their valuable role.

Many barangay kagawads, mayors and governors proved to be better prepared than stiff Cabinet officials, including some running for president. (On the third day, however, the national government was catching up on relief operations and reconstruction, hooray!)

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LIKE ANTS: Walking through some parts of Marikina yesterday, we saw again how puny we are against the might of Nature.

Like a colony of ants picking up the pieces after being splashed, residents were scrubbing their premises and shoveling off the clayey mud left by the receding waters. Mechanics were coaxing back to life the cars that had drowned.

Spread to dry in front of houses were furnishings and appliances overtaken by the fast-rising flood. Documents and other delicate items soaked beyond salvage had been swept with the garbage pile.

Workers with heavy equipment were flushing out the mud with high-pressure hoses and suctioning it off. Policemen, less stern this time, were directing traffic to weave among pedestrians who had claimed the streets.

Even without the body count and the psychological trauma, the staggering loss of property alone should jolt us into realizing how costly and foolhardy it is to defy divine law written in Nature.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 29, 2009)

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