Vac­il­lat­ing typhoon re­sponse in­dica­tive of in­se­cu­rity

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Agov­ern­ing team that is re­spon­sive to its peo­ple must have the con­fi­dence to ad­min­is­ter their ju­ris­dic­tion in or­der to min­i­mize dam­age and the loss of life dur­ing the threat of ma­jor dis­as­ter and not fall sway to pop­u­lar opin­ion.

This week, Tai­wan was for­tu­nate that its gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in the Greater Taipei area (com­pris­ing Taipei City, New Taipei and Keelung) erred on the side of cau­tion. The ex­pected dam­age from Typhoon Du­juan was much lower than ex­pected, and the weather sys­tem quickly re­turned to a partly cloudy day and happy res­i­dents were lucky to have had the day off, de­spite no real threat emerg­ing from the un­pre­dictable weather con­di­tions.

As the sun­shine re­turns, the press is spin­ning the de­ci­sion-mak­ing de­ba­cle at a dizzy­ing pace. Some say it rep­re­sents a break­down of Greater Taipei gov­er­nance as a re­flec­tion of the party dif­fer­ences of its three may­ors. Oth­ers say the gov­ern­ment bowed to the pres­sure of frothy-mouthed pop­ulism rife on the In­ter­net, as hun­dreds of an­gry Face­book posts call­ing for a full day off in­stead of the pro­posed half day tem­po­rar­ily dis­abled Mayor Ko Wen-je’s of­fi­cial page.

Un­for­tu­nately, the back-and-forth de­ci­sion mak­ing that drove the Greater Taipei may­ors to re­verse a de­ci­sion im­ple­ment­ing a half-day off due to a del­uge of an­gry res­i­dents crit­i­ciz­ing the lo­gis­tics of or­ga­niz­ing it in­di­cates that lo­cal gov­ern­ments re­main un­con­fi­dent in their co­or­di­na­tion plans in suc­cess­fully weath­er­ing a po­ten­tial cri­sis. Sup­pose they had bowed to public de­mand in a sce­nario in which ex­ist­ing pro­ce­dures were fore­gone in or­der to pla­cate “po­ten­tially an­gry vot­ers”? Sup­pose such a re­ver­sal were to cause a loss of life?

None of this would have hap­pened if clear and com­pre­hen­sive guide­lines were in place that had al­ready been welldrilled into the minds of lead­ers, bu­reau­crats, busi­nesses, school of­fi­cials and res­i­dents.

Typhoon Du­juan there­fore ex­poses a lack of gov­ern­ment breadth and flex­i­bil­ity in dis­as­ter-preven­tion mea­sures re­flected in a lack of con­fi­dence and hence sway­ing to­ward pre­vent­ing voter wrath.

The les­son to be learned from Du­juan is that breadth and flex­i­bil­ity are needed in or­der to safe­guard res­i­dents dur­ing the po­ten­tial threat of an on­com­ing storm. Breadth in that gov­ern­ment di­rec­tives and SOPs en­com­pass all as­pects of so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion, while flex­i­bil­ity gives gov­ern­ment the abil­ity to deal with rapidly chang­ing sit­u­a­tions, and the dif­fer­ing im­pacts on busi­nesses, school-aged chil­dren and other res­i­dents.

Ar­gu­ments that Greater Taipei gov­er­nance is im­pos­si­ble can be put to rest if we con­sider suc­cess­ful sys­tems that pro­vide clear di­rec­tives and in­struc­tions to their res­i­dents in the event of po­ten­tial nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

The Hong Kong Ob­ser­va­tory, for in­stance, pro­vides the area’s 7 mil­lion res­i­dents (roughly equiv­a­lent to the pop­u­la­tion of Greater Taipei) with three lev­els of rain­storm warn­ings (am­ber, red and black in el­e­vated gra­da­tions of sever­ity) with de­tailed in­struc­tions for res­i­dents. More se­vere red- and black-level warn­ings ac­cord­ing to the Ob­ser­va­tory, trig­ger re­sponse ac­tions by gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and ma­jor trans­port and util­ity op­er­a­tors while the public will be given clear ad­vice on the ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion to take (i.e. whether to close busi­nesses, avoid coast­lines, etc.).

Hong Kong’s Ed­u­ca­tion Bureau has a very de­tailed SOP that com­bines the warn­ing lev­els with the pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures needed to be taken by schools, par­ents and stu­dents. These in­clude which stu­dents should be kept home from school and clear di­rec­tives based on weather ob­ser­va­tions on whether a full or par­tial day of classes will be can­celed.

More im­por­tantly, such an SOP op­er­ates on con­tin­gency plans and ar­ranges staff to look af­ter stu­dents who might ar­rive and en­sure that con­di­tions are safe be­fore al­low­ing stu­dents to re­turn home. A large por­tion of the In­ter­net anger came from con­cerned par­ents; hav­ing a set of well-re­hearsed op­er­a­tional guide­lines be­tween schools, teach­ers, par­ents and stu­dents could have off­set con­fu­sion over ac­count­abil­ity and re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The ef­fec­tive­ness of such a sys­tem will also re­quire co­or­di­na­tion from tele­vi­sion, ra­dio and the In­ter­net to help bet­ter the public’s aware­ness of risk and the pre­cau­tions to be taken. But aside from this, Tai­wan could stand to learn more by in­creas­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion among other coun­tries and re­gions by ex­chang­ing valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence and cre­at­ing more di­a­logue be­tween gov­ern­ment and cit­i­zens so that the next typhoon can be met with readi­ness be­yond slo­gans and hack­neyed footage of lead­ers in­spect­ing anti-flood equip­ment.

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