Opinion

Why is no one listening to Dr. Mahar Lagmay?

He gave fair warning of Yolanda's rage, but did anyone listen? And now, we're killing off his department.
IMAGE Edric Chen
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Dr. Mahar Lagmay could not get any sleep. It was a few nights before Day Zero, and he was monitoring the super typhoon and its perfectly formed, 30-kilometer-wide eye swirling its way across the Pacific at 300+ kilometer an hour. Yolanda was an unprecedented storm; there would be unprecedented damage. The usual battening down of the hatches would not suffice this time, not with wind gusts as powerful as a jet engine. As the captain of Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessments of Hazards), it was Dr. Lagmay’s duty to sound the alarm. An active social media user who, under the name @nababaha, posts hourly rainfall data, necessary storm alerts, and the odd joke, he turned to the Twittizens.

Wednesday, Nov. 6, 9:30 p.m. he tweeted to some 25,000 followers: “Details of the storm surge levels for #YolandaPH - visit noah.dost.gov.ph and go to weather stations and select Yolanda storm tide levels." This was retweeted 27 times. A following post, 20 minutes later, was more specific: "Pre-dicted storm surge height for coastal areas of Ormoc City on 8 November 2013" with an attached graph of a wave hitting 5.028 meters. This got 87 retweets. Half an hour later, growing a bit more anxious, he called out to Anne Curtis, Isabelle Daza, Solenn Heussaff, Megan Young, and Vice Ganda, celebrities who collectively have more followers than the population of Finland: "Kailangan ko kayo. Tulong sa pag-retweet ng tunkgol sa #YolandaPH." This was barely heeded.

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He continued in this vein, pushing his team to churn out information that was exacting and accurate before releasing it into the world. He tweeted not with the aim of reaching individual fishing villagers in Leyte who were doubtfully on Twitter, but to attract the attention of the media, from AM radio stations to the major TV networks. PAGASA remains the official weather warner; Project NOAH, as a research and development arm, provides supplementary information that the scientist also tries to widely disseminate on his own. Still, Dr. Lagmay, the self-fulfilling prophet who tried to save the living creatures, felt like he was alone in his ship.

On Nov. 7, things started moving. An updated list of 68 areas with storm surge and tide height predictions, generated from a simulator, was posted on the NOAH website. Several news agencies and blogs picked it up; indeed it was widely circulated on the net. That day, Dr, Lagmay also gave a presentation at the DOST, showing the same surge simulation he posted online. Secretary Mario Montejo grabbed him as he was walked out and said, "The President needs to see this." Early that night, President Aquino gave a televised speech warning of the “grave danger” specific areas would face with the onslaught of five-meter waves.

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The excuse "we don't know what a storm surge is" cannot ever again be used.

Dr. Lagmay is deeply burdened by the criticism that has been flung at his office. When we meet him on Day 6, the normally jovial disaster scientist had the eroded look of being the only man who knew what was coming. Though the world was also keeping track of the super typhoon and its evil eye, the satellite image people saw was still a distant cloud projection beamed to us from outer space, a gathering of forces happening somewhere else. Then, a bit before schedule on Friday, Nov. 8, Yolanda made landfall, barreling through coastal towns in the Visayas, whipping down everything in its path.

In the disastrous wake of the typhoon, amid the bickering, the bashing, and the too-easy blame game, one of the questions being tossed around is: was there adequate warning? From endless news coverage and first-hand experience, it’s been established that relief was slow to come, and that whatever preparations the government had in place were no match for the wrath of the storm. Now that climate change has ushered in this “new reality” of Category 5 typhoons, the way forward requires weather-proofing Filipinos through intense preparedness, like how the Japanese are trained for earthquakes from the day they are born. The excuse "we don't know what a storm surge is" cannot ever again be used.

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It could be argued that it is not an excuse now, but that would be pouring salt over the thousands of wounded. The mayor of Tacloban and his wife, a city councilor, chose to stay in their seaside resort, belying a sense of urgency that was translated to his constituents. (The resort was pounded by the five-meter wave, and footage of its ruins was accompanied by a dramatic recounting of the Romualdezes survival on CNN). Many residents had been preemptively evacuated—but, as it turns out, not enough.

Perhaps “grave danger,” five-meter waves,” and “storm surge” just didn’t register in many people’s minds. There’s a lot of quibbling going on about which words are considered jargon and which ones would really cleave to the hearts and minds of the people. All these armchair analyses are after-the-fact, pre-validation. Dr. Lagmay refuses to point any fingers back and will wait for the charged emotions to dissipate. “Right now people are angry,” he acknowledges, on the eleventh day after the event. “The tendency for people during an accident or disaster is to find blame. If you see a car accident, the first reaction would be to find out who’s at fault, who the driver was, and get revenge. The situation right now is like a large-scale accident. There are many deaths, and people need to blame someone.” He had held off his necessary data-gathering trip to Tacloban, possibly fearing for his safety in the immediate aftermath.

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Dr. Lagmay is a popular expert who is often called on talk shows when it comes to weather and other catastrophes, but he doesn’t recall being interviewed this time ahead of Yolanda, not even with this new storm surge character coming into play. Those who work for Dr. Lagmay speculate that the media, and hence the public, were still hung up over the Napoles scandal to pay attention to the details. He likens the distraction to the other storm surge incident, the one caused by Typhoon Pedring in 2011. Three DPWH officials were Photoshopped badly over a picture of the pile of rubble that a surging Manila Bay wrought. Achieving meme status, the thing went viral and people outright ignored the significance of the pile of rubble that was the Baywalk.

Those who work for Dr. Lagmay speculate that the media, and hence the public, were still hung up over the Napoles scandal to pay attention to the details.

Should he have called it by any other name? Dr. Lagmay was virtually waving red flags all over the Internet, short of causing widespread panic by using the T word. He is, after all a scientist, and must maintain dignity and credibility. That was why he could not say that it was a tsunami, or that it was even like a tsunami. "It's not going to be the last time we experience this. We're going to have storm surges again," he explains, not for the first time, and definitely not the last. “We can’t confuse the terms, because the mechanism for evacuation could be different. We need the people to know what they are, and that kind of awareness is developed long before."

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In the event of a tsunami, which is caused by an earthquake, people would have around 15 panic-stricken minutes to haul ass, say if it happened in La Union. A storm surge, on the other hand, is caused by the strong winds and low pressure of a tropical cyclone, a totally different process. With Yolanda, we had hours, even days of warning, adequate time to relocate to safety—but only if the thought and the process have already been embedded in our psyche. The stunning example of Tulang Diyot in the Camotes Island is a perfect test case of how years of drilling and disaster education resulted in no lives lost despite the almost total destruction of their homes.

“It could have been much worse,” Dr. Lagmay concedes, citing examples of similar catastrophic climate activity that swept hundreds of thousands away. The unnamed super typhoons of 1897 and 1912, which followed almost exactly the same trail, killed a greater portion of Leyte and Samar’s population back then. Put into perspective, with the communication lines down, the roads blocked, and the first responders incapacitated or killed—it could have been way worse. “My stand is that it shouldn’t be called something else. Had we called it a tsunami on Nov. 6, people could have already died on Nov. 6.”

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He has other experts on his side. Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, a geologist and environmental scientist from the University of Illinois, went on ABS-CBN and supported the weather authorities’ actions.

It’s obvious to the scientists, but those “on the ground” are clamoring for more layman terms, more pop sci, more in-the-vernacular. Alas, the disconnect must be addressed by other stakeholders. The responsibility cannot rest completely on the shoulders of those discovering the science. “It’s a community effort, and everybody needs to plan ahead,” Dr. Lagmay says. He’s devastated by the tragedy, but the rational, factual side of him seems to temper his emotions, lest he say something that can be construed as insensitive or controversial. He states plainly that the LGUs are mandated to know the lay of their land and all its hazards, and how to take action and educate the people: “It’s actually written in the Disaster Law.”

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Yolanda hit before Team NOAH made significant headway with the Storm Surge Project they were working on. They had barely gotten approval and funding for the program, which will map the geo-hazards of the entire country’s coastlines and create models that will simulate how far inland the water form a surge will go and where, when Yolanda put all their resources to the test. By the end of next year, we should have a complete visual storm surge warning system that will be as quotidian as the Doppler images on our weather apps, or as familiar as the terms daluyong or humbak were to our ancestors.

“When things settle, there will be a good discussion on why it was not called a tsunami, what words could have been used to make communication better,” Dr. Lagmay says. With each passing day, his resolve is further strengthened, and doubts fade away. He does not bring up the idea of handing in a courtesy resignation anymore, at least not the last time we spoke to him. He is a scientist, after all, and he stands by the facts. “It was a hard lesson learned, and we don’t want to repeat the same mistake.”

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And because of this, he now gets ready for his data-gathering trip to Tacloban, for which he and his team are drafting a masterplan to rebuild the city, smartly. “Let’s wait,” Dr. Lagmay says. “Let’s help out first. People in Tacloban need it.”

This article was originally published in the December 2013-January 2014 issue of Esquire. Minor edits have been made by the EsquireMag.ph editors.

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Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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