Risk Management Reflection on the Subject of Superstorms and Mega-Earthquakes

Super Typhoons

According to world historical record, the top five strongest tropical cyclones in miles per hour (mph) at first landfall are the following: 1) 195 mph: Super Typhoon Goni, 2020-Catanduanes, Philippines, 2) 190 mph: Super Typhoon Haiyan, 2013-Leyte, Philippines, 3) 190 mph: Super Typhoon Meranti, 2016-Itbayat, Philippines, 4) 185 mph: Great Labor Day Hurricane, 1935-Florida, U.S., and 5) 185 mph: Super Typhoon Joan, 1959-Eastern Taiwan (Madarang, C.R., 2020, PhilStar).

One does not have to be a keen statistician to decipher that three out of five occurrences mentioned occurred in the Philippines.

Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana)

Relatively weak but prominent typhoons such as Ondoy (International Code Name Ketsana) is also deadly. It triggered massive flooding and landslides across the country in 2009 when it dumped 455 millimeters of rain within 24 hours (ibid). That is utterly massive!

It was the second-most devastating tropical cyclone of the 2009 Pacific typhoon season, causing $1.15 billion in damages and 921 fatalities, only behind Typhoon Kiko (International Code Name Morakot) earlier in the season, which caused 789 deaths and damages worth $6.2 billion. Ketsana was the sixteenth tropical storm, and the eighth typhoon of the season. It was the most devastating tropical cyclone to hit Manila,[1] surpassing Typhoon Patsy (Yoling) in 1970 (Wikipedia, 2020).

Super Typhoon Haiyan (2013)

One of the most powerful typhoons on record slammed into the Philippines on November 7–8, 2013 (shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2). It has recorded sustained winds of 235 kilometers (145 miles) per hour, and gusts up to 275 kilometers (170 miles) per hour. According to remote sensing data from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, sustained winds approached 315 kph (195 mph) just three hours before landfall, with gusts up to 380 kph (235 mph).

According to the Philippines’ National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), the death toll from super typhoon Yolanda (International Code name Haiyan) had reached almost 6,000 by 11-Dec-2013. On that date, there were 27,022 people reported injured, while 1,779 were still missing. The disaster had reportedly affected some 2.6 million families, or about 12.1 million people in more than 12,100 villages in 44 provinces. Some 870,000 families were displaced, equivalent to around 3.9 million residents. Of those displaced, about 22,000 families, or some 94,000 people, are staying in the 386 evacuation centers.

The reported estimated damage to property was thirty-five point five (35.5) billion pesos or (825) million US dollars. This includes 18.2 billion pesos (US$ 423 million) in infrastructure and 17.3 billion pesos (US $402 million) in agriculture. The estimated damage to infrastructure included 1.2 billion pesos (US$ 27 million) in health facilities. The super typhoon destroyed at least 594,000 houses and damaged 598,000. Relief assistance of only 1.1 billion pesos (US$ 25 million) was provided to affected families as of the aforementioned date (GMANews, 2013).”

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Figure 1 – Typhoon Haiyan as Seen in Outer Space (NASA, 2013)

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Figure 2 – View of Haiyan before Landfall (Samenow, 2013)

Haiyan’s diameter was an estimated 600 kilometers (Figure 2). It practically covered the entire Philippines archipelago (Samenow, 2013). There was absolutely no escape from its path. It is too large not to hit a good part of the country.

Haiyan’s Aftermath

Risk factors such as ethics, political will, planning, coordination, execution strategy, monitoring, and effective control, as well as many others, determined the extent of the Haiyan devastation (Figure 3)

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Figure 3 – Devastation (Gilbeaux, 2013) (Measham, 2013)

While the government and other relief organization scrambled to save the living, the dead just had to wait. Many complained about the rotting corpses of their loved ones. This is a tragedy within a tragedy. Survivors expressed disbelief that assistance had not come sooner, and they feared the spread of disease. To allay the fear of the survivors, the World Health Organization declared that the bodies of victims of Typhoon Haiyan did not pose a public health risk and were not a priority. The picture in Figure 3 showed utter devastation by Haiyan (Gilbeaux, 2013) (Measham, 2013).

“The health risk to the public is negligible,” the Canadian Red Cross’s manager of public health and emergencies said to CBC News. “It is a myth actually. Unfortunately, there’s a misunderstanding about the actual impact of dead bodies after a natural disaster” (Hildebrandt, 2013).

Philippine Earthquakes

The number of earthquakes occurring in the Philippine area of responsibility is from one point five (1.5) to three (3) per year. These occurrences have varying intensity and shock distribution. This would make any thinking person rightfully conclude that the risk of an earthquake is 100% certain on a yearly basis.

Again, we can only contemplate that the factors in our control are the consequences and impacts. A Philippine seismic and earthquake map (Figure 4) shows seismic activity distribution from 1990 to 2006 and the existing fault lines in the region where it lies, is called the ring of fire (USGS, 2012) (Topinka, 1997). As was described, the cluttering of seismic activities in the archipelago is quite dense.

“Since the 1600s, there have been 106 earthquakes in the Philippines with a magnitude of more than 6.0 (Rappler, 2015).”

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Figure 4 – Philippine Seismicity & Earthquake Map/USGS, 2010/1997 7.7. Probability and Consequences of Natural Disasters

Relief Assistance

The delay of relief assistance at a time of grievous need, as described in the previous paragraph, underscores the prevailing risk management quality of the responsible government agencies. This is true for all, not only for a third world country like the Philippines. It is a no-brainer that the Philippines will always be a recipient not only of storms but also earthquakes. There has to be a better strategy to prevent and mitigate high death rate and destruction.

The country is in the center of it all. In view of that, the Philippine government should develop an effective and viable response plan that everyone understands. They need to manage the probability (degree of certainty) and consequence (or impact) of risk to a certain extent.

As these two natural disturbances were one hundred percent (100%) certain within a year’s time, the responsible government agencies must try to mitigate the impacts by using the existing breadth of national experience as a resource. The question should be, “How can we reduce the impact or maybe, even prevent some from happening, given the information already in the national archive?”

The technocrats who make decisions should then look at all the givens, while seriously considering the time element affecting all possible impacts during assessment, recommendation, planning, scheduling, and implementation process. It might easier said than done, but the government has to use all its intellectual and professional resources to prevail. A status quo approach is not acceptable!

Disaster Management must employ Risk-based Management

A project manager (or any other manager) has to understand the fundamental and mandatory integrative approach to risk management processes and knowledge areas. The long years of national experience on natural disasters are enough to convince any logical person that disaster management is also about risk management.

Looking towards the future knowing that there is a next big one is the start. Mitigating threat or enhancing opportunity consequences are main areas of control in cases where a risk practitioner has no influence on probabilities.

Underlining the connections between primary risks, secondary risks, residual risks, issues, and problems helps people realize the importance of cause and effect analysis in successfully determining the root causes and potential consequences of any event.

Sharing all these interesting principles with other professionals and disciplines should lead to more awareness, knowledge activation, and effective risk management. An excellent risk manager is able to differentiate risks, facts, issues, and problems.

The Philippine Situation

The Philippine situation is a case that merits some study. Do you know that around 19 tropical cyclones enter the Philippine area of responsibility each year, give or take? Out of the 19 storms, about six to nine make landfall.

In terms of earthquake occurrence, the country experiences frequent seismic and volcanic activity. This is because it lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire. Much smaller magnitude earthquakes occur very regularly due to the meeting of major tectonic plates in the region (Sexton, 2006). Taal is among dozens of active volcanoes in the Phillippines seismically active regions in the Pacific (Figure 5).

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Figure 5 – Tall Volcano Eruption-Philippine Airlines pilot Avelino Mendoza took this amazing photo above the clouds (9News, 2020)

According to Wikipedia, eighteen (18) major earthquakes, as high as seven point five (7.5) on the Richter scale, have damaged the country from 2001 to 2014. This is exactly equal to 1.5 earthquakes per year, with an average intensity of 6.44 (Wikipedia, List of Earthquakes in the Philippines, 2013). Stronger earthquakes were registered decades ago, like the Moro Gulf earthquake at 8.0 in 1976 and Luzon Island earthquake at 7.8 in 1990.

The Philippines is a country prone to the primary risks of damaging natural forces such as typhoons and earthquakes. There’s no doubt about it. The grave consequences are inescapable (Figure 6).

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Figure 6 – Earthquake Aftermath (Mungin, 2013)

Knowing that the probability of a typhoon or earthquake hitting the Philippines in any twelve-month period is 100% certain, it is no longer a risk but a fact. In the same vein, a realized risk is already an issue.

With all weather related risk events, where influencing the probabilities of occurrence is not possible, mitigating the consequences must be the means of control. This tells all concerned that to manage the risks, there should be comprehensive, complete, workable, and effective contingency and response plans in place.

With the government modeling its contingency to satisfy the possibility of its biggest historical disaster is prudent and wise. Response and relief funds must be flexible and transferable. It does not matter where the earthquake hits the hardest in the more than 7,100 islands comprising the Philippine archipelago. There is no need to remind that it is the same country. The pain of the little finger is a pain of the whole body!With the government modeling its contingency to satisfy the possibility of its biggest historical disaster is prudent and wise. Response and relief funds must be flexible and transferable. It does not matter where the earthquake hits the hardest in the more than 7,100 islands comprising the Philippine archipelago. There is no need to remind that it is the same country. The pain of the little finger is a pain of the whole body!