Sunday, May 18, 2008

False Alarm

"U.S. Geological Society predicts a 6.8 magnitude earthquake will hit Philippine plates tonight. Please be calm and be alert. This text message is from Hawaii state emergency preparedness office. Please pass (no harm in being prepared) let's pray that this will not happen."

This was the text or SMS message (reproduced above in its entirety) I received on my mobile phone several days ago. It turned out that thousands of other Filipinos all over the country that very same day had also received the same message. In the Philippines where mobile phone SMS texting is second nature to millions of people, that was like igniting a brush fire in a bone dry forest during the hottest time of the year.

Very soon, everyone was aware of the so called "news" and in many areas of the country plenty of people, especially the more gullible ones, were thrown into panic because of what was apparently an impending calamity of earthshaking proportions. It was only when evening news programs on national television started broadcasting interviews with Phivolcs (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology) officials labeling the text message as a hoax when the general unease and anxiety felt all over slowly subsided.

Perhaps the pictures and videos of the horrific damage left by the massive earthquake that recently hit central China recently made it easier to convince Filipinos that a similar catastrophe is about to happen in the country.

In Lianga, more than a few local residents were indeed taken in by the spurious text message although it never did result in general panic and a massive stampede or evacuation for more safer areas as what had happened a couple of years ago when a similar text message warning of an impending tsunami supposedly about hit the coastal areas in eastern Mindanao sent almost all of the local population running for the hills and higher ground in search of safety.

That fact that that particular spurious text message was sent just months after the massive tsunami that hit the coastal areas of Indonesia, Thailand and other Asian countries gave it plausibility and the local people were more than ready to accept its authenticity at face value since nobody from the concerned government agencies and the local governments did anything to immediately check out the veracity of the message and then inform the local population of the fact that is was a hoax.

In that particular instance, whole families and neighborhoods all along the coastal towns of Surigao del Sur hurriedly packed up their valuables and scampered in panic to spend an entire tense and sleepless night at houses of relatives and evacuation centers located in areas deemed safe from a tsunami attack.

Of course, everyone had a good laugh the next day when it became clear that nothing calamitous had happened and that everyone had all been taken for a ride. But it was also obvious that such incidents which are very disruptive to normal community life and which only serve to cause undue massive panic and general distress should not be allowed to continue to happen time and time again.

What is evident is that the most towns like Lianga have no working contingency plans not only to handle the immediate and efficient flow and distribution of information regarding potential calamities and disasters but it, more importantly, does not have actual and workable plans and programs for addressing the disastrous effects of actual calamities and disasters when they actually occur.

Lianga has no working disaster warning system and inspite of the fact that many non-governmental organizations over the years have urged the local government to come up with preparedness and contingency plans for potential disasters and calamities like earthquakes, tsunamis (very critical for a coastal town), typhoons and hurricanes, as well as fires and civil unrest, it has done little or none at all to act on those recommendations.

So when a false warning of a coming earthquake or tsunami gets around the town, the local folks do have the right to panic and make fools of themselves by loading up their valuables on their backs and running for places where they think they can find safety and refuge. No harm done in making the necessary preparations even if the warning will turn out to be false.

For they know in their hearts that when disaster does actually strike their town, the local government will be just as helpless as themselves. It will always be, as it has been in the past, every man for himself.

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