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The danger of being too technical

Local officials, during interviews and legislative hearings after the onslaught of super typhoon Yolanda, complained that they encountered difficulties in making their constituents understand the danger from storm surges, which the weather forecasters said could be created by the strong winds of the super typhoon.

Senator Manny B. VillarI heard a mayor from Eastern Visayas saying that he and other officials knew about the strength of the winds coming their way, and even the possible height of the waves from the storm surges, but not how far those waves would travel inland and how massive the resulting floods would be. Other stories from supposed eyewitnesses told of the water receding far from the shores of Tacloban in the morning of November 8 before rushing back as giant tsunami-like waves, destroying buildings, submerging houses and drowning thousands of people.

Some Internet weather bloggers observed that even the local weather bulletins concentrated on the strength of Yolanda’s winds, but the storm surges were allegedly mentioned near the bottom of the bulletins, that that meant the super-strong winds, to which most Filipinos are familiar with because we are visited by about 20 typhoons every year, rather than the storm surges, which most of us are not familiar with, received most attention.

For those in Metro Manila, storm surges were the waves that damaged the breakwater along Manila Bay and flooded Roxas Boulevard and nearby streets. The worst results were the flooding of the ground floors of offices along the area, including those in the reclamation area, and the traffic.

Nobody died in those storm surges. Nobody even thought that storm surges could be as high as a tsunami, and I’m not sure how many people know that the only difference between a tsunami and a storm surge is the cause: a tsunami is caused by an earthquake, while a storm surge is caused by just that, a storm or typhoon. Regardless of the trigger, the result is a wave. Perhaps, the other difference is that a tsunami is usually a giant wave, while a storm surge could even be smaller than the waves that flooded Roxas Boulevard.

Are we getting too technical in issuing public warnings about forthcoming typhoons and other disasters? Would there have been fewer fatalities if the people of Tacloban were able to understand that the storm surge that Yolanda would bring would be like the tsunami that hit Indonesia and Japan?

This is not to blame anyone, but to highlight what I think should be part of the current efforts to improve our disaster preparedness. Disaster preparedness should first mean disaster awareness. Developing understanding and awareness does not require huge investments in hardware, just consistent and simple information dissemination and public education.

As the saying goes, anything that looks like a duck and walks like a duck is a duck, regardless of how we call it. In the same manner, a giant and destructive wave is a wave, whether we call it a tsunami or a storm surge. If we really want to be technical, then why not call it “Tsunami A” or “Tsunami B?” Tsunami, by common usage, is already included in the Filipinos’ vocabulary. On the other hand, I could not find a common translation for storm surge.

Perhaps, our scientists could conduct consultations with language experts, not necessarily language “purists,” to come up with simple translations of technical terms. We can turn to the Department of Education’s K-to-12 program, one of the features of which is the adoption of local languages as medium of instruction, at least in the primary grades. The rationale behind that principle is that the use of the local language makes it easier for children to learn about different subjects.

Even local officials will know better what to do if they understand the kind of disaster that is coming their way. Preparations will be suited to the type of impending danger. Typhoons require different sets of measures compared to volcanic eruptions. Earthquakes, which are unpredictable, require another set of measures, which mainly focuses on the preventive, based on maps of earthquake faults.

We must remember that the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters. We should then strive to be one of the most prepared for disasters, and adopting understandable, simple terms is a good way to prepare for disasters.

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