Observation from the path of Typhoon Bopha

The term “path of a hurricane” is something you often hear in the news, but actually seeing the devastation that these strong winds and heavy rains cause is something you don’t realize until you have visited an area where one has gone through. When that area is a rural area in a developing country, then the devastation is even more than you can imagine. Today we visited parts of Compostela Valley on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, one of the areas that was badly hit by Typhoon Bopha (local name Pablo) last week. We got to accompany one of NetHope’s member organizations, Plan International that is performing relief operations in the area and expects to be running relief and rehabilitation programs here for 18-24 months.

As you visit these badly affected areas it was impressive to see how in the main municipalities, there are incident command posts set up, even when the buildings they are housed in area severely damaged. These incident command posts are where all of the operational action occurs. Relief goods from donors, both private and public, arrive on trucks that then get information from the staff at the incident command post on where to deliver the goods. Everything is tracked and recorded to ensure that the items go where they are most needed. Relief agencies, like Plan, visit the incident command post to get information about where their services are most needed. They share with the incident command post their plans and again everything gets recorded to ensure that there is as little duplication of effort as possible. There relief organizations also get updated information about the situation in the region and about what things were like before the typhoon hit.

This level of organization is impressive to witness, because in many countries around the world that I have visited, there is not as effective disaster management coordination at the local governmental level as one sees here in the Philippines. The reason of course is that in the Philippines over the last decade, there has been quite an investment in training people and putting the incident management system in place. This investment in building local capacity is important, because it allows the relief efforts to be driven by the people that know those affected and the area itself the best.

At many of these incident command posts there is lack of water, electricity and communications. Large whiteboards and stacks of notebooks are utilized to share and keep track of information about the situation. While they certainly do their job of sharing the information to those that visit the command posts, they create an additional layer in the coordination effort. Anyone that wants to operate in the area, must visit the incident command posts to get updated about the situation and to share information about what they are planning to do. What is even worse is that all baseline data, such as where all the water facilities, schools and health clinics is also only available at the incident command posts. Folders containing this information are repeatedly “copied” by response organizations, by taking photographs of the baseline data. Same applies to the situational data. The big whiteboards get photographed again and again. These photographs are then used to recreate the data back in the base of operations for each particular organization.

The initial reaction to this might be, why don’t they use technology to share this. The immediate response you might get to this reaction might be “but they don’t have electricity and connectivity, so they can’t”. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster much of that might have been true. Without computers and electricity it may have been difficult to share that information more widely. But after the first hours and days laptops and generators started arriving and the information in the incident command posts started to be put into spreadsheets, but the problem is that those spreadsheets are seldom shared in their electronic form. In many cases the only place that information gets shared might be “up the incident management chain”. We however also saw in the response to Hurricane Sandy that this flow of information upwards, seldom gets shared widely and ends up being a “black hole” of information, one that constantly requests updates from everyone else, but doesn’t share it back out with the wider public.

We asked people in the incident command posts how badly the mobile networks had been effected by the storm. In the one that we visited one of the mobile networks was back up and running within 24 hours of the typhoon passing over. So data could have been shared more widely through that mobile network. But even if the mobile network was not up and running, then copying that data onto thumb drives and having people transport that on a motorcycle to the next location with internet capabilities on a daily basis would be a simple solution until the network is back up. We often forget that improvised “sneaker networks” can solve connectivity issues in the first few days and weeks and enable us to better share the information needed to more effectively respond to natural disasters like this one.

It is important for us that we fix these information sharing issues and we at NetHope are working on driving forward an initiative related to that and we welcome you to join us in that effort.

Published December 17th 2012 at DisasterExpert