15 March 2015

LGUs Need To Support Project NOAH

Project NOAH webSAFE
By this time, Philippines' disaster planning officials should have a pretty good idea of what is coming their way when a storm makes a landfall. They knew that storm surges propelled by winds of up to 315 kilometers per hour could sweep across low-lying areas and pose a significant threat to life and property.

The problem, though, is that people on the ground weren’t familiar with what a storm surge entailed. In all, more than 6,300 people perished in Typhoon Haiyan, most of them killed by storm surges.

Months later, Filipinos are in no doubt about what the term storm surge means. Hundreds of thousands of families sought safety in evacuation centers across a broad swath of the Philippines when another strong storm hit the country, shaken by the still-fresh memories of what happened when Typhoon Haiyan hit.

Initial indications suggest the loss of life is substantially lower when Typhoon Hagupit struck land, partly because of the precautions taken. A government spokesman described early reports of the situation as “encouraging.” Moreover, the country’s disaster-planning experts have devised a sophisticated storm surge simulation map, which anyone can access to see where the most at-risk areas lie.

Spearheaded by a disaster-planning scientist named Mahar Lagmay, the modeling maps are developed by Project NOAH, a government agency that looks to find innovate ways to technology to help one the world’s most disaster-prone nations better prepare for calamities such as earthquakes, volcanos and landslides, as well as the 20 or so typhoons which careen through the archipelago each year.

People clicking on the Project NOAH's S webSAFE site, will be able to see high-resolution simulations of how their neighborhoods will be affected by the storm’s path, and, crucially, where the safe evacuation zones might be.

The maps work by using LIDAR technology—or Light Detection and Range—to beam lasers on objects and gauge distances by their reflection. These will place local landmarks clearly on maps, which will also forecast the times of the peak water heights.

In the days following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Mr. Lagmay and his team tested early versions the modeling system and found the results were a close match to the actual devastation caused on the ground by the killer storm.

However, for this tool to be effective, Project NOAH needs the help of the local government units (LGUs) in mapping out buildings, residential areas and critical facilities in their community by using Open Street Maps.

The Philippines, like the U.S., provides a lot of autonomy to local governors and city mayors, so this isn’t always easy. While some bosses such as Albay Governor Joey Salceda have embraced disaster planning for years—as well as he might, given that his turf is home to the Mayon volcano as well as sitting on the Pacific side of the Philippines’ typhoon band—others haven’t.

In some parts of the country, officials are chopped and changed during frequent election seasons. That means that it can be difficult to develop an institutional knowledge of simulation mapping and other new disaster preparedness techniques.

"So last summer we went on a big campaign, all over the country to teach all kinds of officials about what we’re doing, all the way down to the barangay, or village, level," Mr. Lagmay said.