Vacillating typhoon response indicative of insecurity
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.