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Winds, Rains

Sometimes, people just do not get it. There is a lot people in very crucial agencies can learn from the humble public elementary school teacher. When the teacher attempts to impart knowledge, he or she does it in at least in two ways – verbally, or the use of the spoken word; and visually, by way of the blackboard, a book, a manila paper or other itty-bitty things that can hopefully create the correct imagery inside a student’s head.

I hasten to highlight the words “correct imagery,” because teaching – as with any attempt at communication – when stripped of its corollary complications is simply an attempt to transfer what is inside the teacher’s head to another person’s head. Because there is always an obvious gap in the range of knowledge and experiences between the teacher and the student, it goes without saying that the teacher adapts the transferring method to the intellect level of the student.

It also goes without saying that even the use of various methods does not necessarily mean that the transfer is successfully and accurately completed. Once during my teaching years, after a long and laborious lecture in one class about medieval conflicts complete with visual aids, I decided to test if there was absorption of information by asking my students to draw what they learned.

One student, attempting to portray the War of the Roses, drew tanks, airplanes and even an aircraft carrier. What a graphical display of adolescent asininity; albeit, the insolent fool was probably bored out of his wits and heard not one word of my lecture. All I am saying here is that, sometimes, what one is saying is not necessarily being understood or even heard to begin with.

A few days back, Albay Governor Jose Salceda was shown on television severely criticizing PAGASA for having failed to adequately issue warnings about the perils of the approaching tropical system Juaning. In the same news television show, a representative from PAGASA was shown very politely disagreeing with the governor, saying that – in fact – PAGASA had been issuing advisories about the system as early as several days before it started to affect the south-eastern side of the country. In fact, according to the same representative, the advisories were all properly documented.

I habitually check PAGASA’s web site, so I will have to take its side on this one. I had seen the agency’s periodic advisories; and yes, they were issued. However, I am not about to let PAGASA off the hook just yet.

I honestly think Salceda would not have gone public with his frustration and indignation had he not sincerely believed that no advisories were issued. Perhaps nobody was home when the advisories arrived, who knows? But this is less about PAGASA’s advisory system as it is about what it is saying to the public, in the first place.

Consider this advisory that I downloaded from PAGASA’s web site just this morning:

Have you made anything out of it yet? If not, then you are among many casual visitors to the web site who probably expected to be reassured what the weather would be like specifically over a period of time only to find the advisories not only unkind to untrained readers but even downright cryptic and unintelligible.

I am a regular to the site and I reasonably comprehend the information the agency makes available; but if I have to complain at all, it is often that the advisories always seem to make one ask for more information. I mean, what is the point of an advisory if it raises more questions than answers them? It only means that the advisory is ineffectual!

Granted that PAGASA regularly issued advisories prior to Juaning’s arrival. First, were the advisories received? Second, and more importantly, were they understood? Are we now made to assume that there are personnel in every government office across the nation trained to interpret the agency’s often trite weather bulletins?

Remember, last year, that the head of PAGASA was very publicly rebuked by no less than the President and subsequently removed from the agency for its failure to accurately predict the movement of the tropical system Basyang. The agency’s equipment has been given a long-delayed upgrade since; and in fairness its forecasting has become so much more reliable. How, then, was Juaning’s brief sojourn to the country such a catastrophe?

Here we go back to the classroom situation that I began this article with. Granted that PAGASA had not been remiss in making information available to local government as well as to the rest of the public; the question, then, is obviously if the information or imagery inside the heads of the experts of PAGASA was accurately transferred into the heads of those whose lives depended on it. If the sample advisory I quote in this post is anything to go by, then we can all assume that it is in the understanding part where the problem lies.

Considering that we are right in the path of typhoon alley and tropical systems arrive each year as sure as you and I live and breathe, it is a wonder at all that no government – past or present – has ever tried to rethink the weather alert system and then undertaken a comprehensive effort at educating the public in the interpretation of information made public by PAGASA.

A weather disturbance has two potentially destructive components: winds and rains. The current weather alert system is based on a weather system’s wind speed; and although there is always an almost as an afterthought addendum of rainfall in either millimetres or inches, who the devil among us really knows what to make of this information?

Quick: what do Ondoy, Basyang and Juaning all have in common? All these systems did not have particularly worrying winds – especially in comparison to the Category 4 or 5 howlers that went avisiting a few years back. Yet, what have we been seeing these past couple of months flashed almost with monotonous regularity in television news show? Floods, floods, and more floods! People let their guards down when a tropical system does not have powerful winds; but the rains turn out to be just as deadly.

The truth of the matter is that it is easier to look at the satellite photo that PAGASA conveniently makes available on its web site than to attempt to understand the information that goes along with it. I knew that Ondoy was this humongous bucket of water waiting to be spilled just by looking at the photo available before it sauntered over to land. There was this big ugly red blob that was menacingly moving west towards Luzon; and if that was not rain, I did not know what it was. And I am not even trained…

For those of you who may take interest as a consequence of this article, red means heavy rains; yellow means moderate rains; and shades of grey means varying degrees of light rains. The bigger the blob of red or yellow that you see on a satellite photo, then the wider the area where the rains will fall.

If it is too much of a bother for government to train the public to interpret PAGASA’s information, I sure as hell think it will be less of a bother to train PAGASA’s personnel in how to talk to the public instead.

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