The Philippines are known as a lovely place on Earth, several locations often compared to Paradise on Earth, but the downside of its location is that yearly we have a wet season with an abundance of tropical storms. That abundant that in poor seasons there may be a typhoon every week.
Due to the seriousness of many typhoons, and the remoteness of many locations, it is primordial that the Philippines have a solid disaster plan in place. Also to prevent further catastrophes as experienced in the last decade with murderous typhoons Ondoy and Sendong.
Both typhoons not only ravaged parts of the country, but each also claimed more than 500 lives, Sendong becoming the natural disaster claiming most calamities in 2011.
Both typhoons had devastating impact on the country, also in the mind. And not in the least because local organizations failed to properly react and respond. During Ondoy dams were opened at the height of the typhoon. Sendong struck during night and people were not sufficiently aware of the upcoming threat and stayed at home overnight, only to rudely awake knee-deep, or higher, in water.
And thus the Philippines got ready for the 2012 wet season. With a national information system, and campaign, to weather disaster.
Just like traffic lights.
Important when running those campaigns is that every demographic is covered and that the warning levels are simple to understand and also prepared for every medium. Pagasa opted for a simple, three stages warning level. Optimized to be broadcasted via all possible mediums: TV, radio, print and digital media as well as via cell phone alerts.
Red, Green and Yellow are the three different alert levels. Simple enough anyone will say. Just like traffic lights.
Except that it isn’t that simple at all.
As the above chart shows, thought was put in making sure that the colors are highly contrasting and can easily be copied everywhere. One quick look at a badge on a website, in a newspaper or even on TV immediately let’s everyone know what alert level we are living under. Even visually impaired people are covered, thanks to the simple enough approach of ‘background color + warning level in big type’.
But there’s a little detail, which is very hard to oversee. The color order.
The problem is that, just like with traffic lights, the color green is used in the wrong order. Or shouldn’t have been used at all. Green is a calming color, also known to instill a level of safety. If the traffic light is green, it is safe to proceed, cross. Green means ‘it’s safe to go’.
It’s safe to start packing because the situation may escalate over the next hours, resulting in alert level RED.
The official text accompanying the GREEN weather warning:
15-30mm (intense) rain observed in 1 hour and expected to continue in the next 2 hours
Flooding is threatening(1).
Response: ALERT for possible evacuation
When official channels don’t help, due to inconsistency
After lots of grumbling about poor color choices, the usual social suspects, accepted that those decisions once made are difficult to revert. Also due to the large scale distribution and campaign needed to raise awareness and have everyone get to know to three different warning/alert levels.
Green warning over NCR. GREEN. Green = intense rain continuing for next 3 hours at least, with possibility of evacuation. Got it? GREEN.
And with the next storm, all official warnings were promptly retweeted and shared, on our own accounts across social media platforms. Further debating the choice of colors serves no purpose anymore, instead we opted to make sure everyone was made aware of the seriousness of the color. Especially when we reached GREEN WARNING, shortly after 10PM.
As expected the situation continued to deteriorate and many homes had flacky electricity at several moments. Social media quickly filled with users wishing others to stay safe.
And then the sh*t hit the fan. But not literally. Only according to the warnings.
At 12:30AM Pagasa raised the disaster warning to the loathed RED ALERT level. Over Metro Manila. The complete Metro, an area consisting of 16 cities, inhabited by almost 12 million people according to the last census in 2010.
But it wasn’t a real level RED. Rather Green. And green is what most people would refer to as Orange. Get it?
@dost_pagasa Do you mean ‘Evacuation’? Isn’t RED more than 30mm and ‘response: EVACUATE’?
— franky (@franky) July 29, 2012
As can be seen in the official @dost_pagasa tweet, the alert level was raised with a rain level of 15.5mm. The lower end of the GREEN WARNING level.
When people should start getting prepared to possibly evacuate. Start packing to possibly leave.
A reaction we should had around 10PM already. When level GREEN was reached. Gren as in ‘GO’.
What a Mess!
Aside from the very confusing color coded alert system, we are not helped when official channel trigger the most critical alert level. In doing so literally tell us that Metro Manila should evacuate.
All while providing us additional information that the rain was at the lower range of the medium alert level. Needless to say that barely anyone took the RED ALERT serious. And most people went safely to bed.
Just like during Sendong.
Luckily, we were spared and no severe flooding threatened the Metro over night, or actually happened.
As for Pagasa, and the Government? Well, they clearly showed us that Ondoy and Sendong weren’t enough a lesson. And such organizations are becoming ever more difficult to trust if they fail to properly assess the impact of their actions. One tweet, triggering the RED WARNING, AKA EVACUATION, level goes immediately to more than 2,5 million followers and is retweeted several thousand times. Even way beyond midnight.
Luckily the tweet did NOT imply that the whole Metro Manila area suddenly started to evacuate. Because there was no reason for. But it was what should have happened under condition RED.
Result: Luckily typhoon Gener claimed only 3 fatalities so far. And the Metro did not evacuate shortly after midnight. Luckily typhoon Gener can be used as another warning signal to Pagasa, and other official organisations, to clean up their act and prepare for better. Because their actions, their inconsistencies, can have a fatal outcome. Despite having a simply, only 3-color level warning system.
- The grammar pedant sat next to me at the table thinks ‘Flooding is imminent would’ have been a better choice of words. I may not entirely agree, and think ‘flooding’ is poorly chosen due to the importance of the term ‘threatening’, but approve that imminent would have been better(↩)