From Haiyan to Harvey: What the U.S. Can Learn from the Philippine Experience

By Richmund Sta. Lucia

In a span of just three weeks, two hurricanes hit the U.S. mainland causing severe impacts on human life and property. On August 25, Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas with unprecedented flooding and claimed a current total of 82 lives. The death toll from Hurricane Irma, which ravaged Florida last week, has reached 26. Overall, these severe storms cost the U.S. between $150 billion and $200 billion in damage to property and lost productivity; an economist predicts these hurricanes could slow U.S. economic growth by 1% this year. As if those present debacles were not enough, Hurricane Maria caused enormous damage in the Caribbean.

The economic and social costs brought about by these massive weather disruptions again highlight the relevance of climate change nowadays. Whether or not politicians view climate change as undeniable, reality will not detract from the science pointing to it as a likely harbinger of future (and potentially more catastrophic) storms. Intuitively, Harvey, Irma and Maria bring to mind a super-storm in the past which boasted the strongest winds ever recorded to have made landfall, at least up until now: Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

In November 2013, Tropical Cyclone Haiyan (locally known in the Philippines as Yolanda) wreaked havoc in the central region of the tropical archipelago. It resulted in one of the worst natural calamities in recent times. Historical figures state that the super-typhoon imposed a tremendous cost resulting in more than 4,000 people killed (some estimates say around 6,000), up to 4.4 million displaced, and economic losses amounting to between $6.5 billion and $15 billion. According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), the Philippine government agency tasked to prepare for and mitigate natural disasters, reconstruction and recovery needs based on their damage and loss assessments are estimated to be about $2.34 billion.

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law takes particular interest in the impacts of climate change in the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,100 islands with its own share of climate issues. It previously discussed the significance of loss and damage issues caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. More recently, the Center made a submission in support of a petition to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights requesting an investigation into human rights violations resulting from the repercussions of climate change. With Haiyan, Harvey, Irma, Maria and all these cataclysmic events becoming the “new normal”, we naturally would want to know how to prepare for them and try to mitigate the maelstrom that they wield.

So what are the lessons we can learn from Haiyan? It may be worthwhile taking a look at the post-Haiyan review and evaluation done by the Philippine government in both national and local levels. In its report, the NDRRMC identified gaps and challenges in the Philippines’ calamity preparation and response framework, as well as the institutional mechanisms, policies and programs, and the corresponding capacities of the national and local disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) councils and related institutions. Key stakeholders such as national government agencies, local government units, and members of the local and international communities, convened in a workshop in an effort to minimize the risks of future natural disasters like Haiyan. Under four major aspects in disaster management, below are the salient points of the meeting where we can draw some wisdom:

  1. Disaster Prevention and Mitigation:
    1. Vulnerability risk assessment and multi-hazard mapping – Use local knowledge and incorporate historical accounts in risk and hazard assessments and mapping, especially with respect to communities living in high-risk areas.
    2. DRRM and climate change adaptation mainstreamed in various local policies, plans, and programs – Scientific forecasts and risk factors that make people more exposed to possible disasters have to be taken into account in developing the policies, plans, and programs of local government units.
    3. Environmental management – Climate programming and ecosystem-smart DRRM approaches help mitigate the risks and problems posed by climate change (e.g., casualties due to storm surges were less in coastal communities living in an area where thick mangrove forests thrive).
    4. Infrastructure system – Review and update building laws and regulations to ensure critical facilities like hospitals, schools, evacuation centers, and government buildings, are sufficiently sturdy to withstand strong typhoons.
    5. Risk financing and insurance – More access should be given to those who need crop insurance and minimization of other forms of risk connected with calamities.
    6. End-to-end early warning system – Simulations and drills and multi-hazard warnings that people will easily understand and respond to (e.g., using community-based warnings like church bells, sirens, drums, flags, whistles, SMS alerts, among others) should be developed.
  1. Disaster Preparedness:
    1. Risk awareness and understanding – More effort has to be made to ensure those situated in high-risk areas have awareness and understanding of the risk factors that expose them to disasters.
    2. Skills and capacity of community – People need to urgently know what to do as soon as they hear the warnings and pre-emptive evacuation directives.
    3. Local DRRM Council and offices – Local DRRM offices must be part of the local government units’ list of priorities in accordance with calamity studies, such as traditional hazards and worst-case scenarios and scientific forecasts.
    4. Preparedness policies, plans, and systems – Disaster-preparedness activities should be done regularly and consistently—on both national and local levels—based on clear protocols, systems, and procedures.
    5. Partnership and coordination among key players and stakeholders – Develop partnership arrangements among local government units, private sector organizations, the academe, and NGOs, as well as other mechanisms to enhance a collective and coordinated disaster response.
  1. Disaster Response:
    1. Disaster response operations – Ensure that politics will not interfere with urgent life-saving actions. The security of rescue workers must also be adequately attended to. The protocols on relief distribution must also be followed.
    2. Assessment and reporting of needs and damages – During disaster operations, the assessment, documentation, and other related reports should be gathered and consolidated for timely decision-making (e.g., the mobilization and distribution of urgently-needed food and non-food items).
  1. Recovery and Rehabilitation:
    1. Damages, losses and needs assessment – Post-disaster needs assessment tools and systems need to be institutionalized. These include creating a core group of personnel from different government agencies who are ready for deployment.
    2. DRRM and climate change adaptation elements mainstreamed in human settlements – Improve on and adhere to international standards on human settlement.


From the optics of Philippine stakeholders, the above realizations are borne by the experiences and takeaways of the participants after they have collectively reflected and identified areas of improvement in legal, policy, and administrative approaches to combat the ill effects of future storms like Haiyan, particularly its impacts on the most vulnerable communities. Surely, there are myriad other lessons to be learned from the Philippines’ experience from Haiyan (see here, here, and here).

While the U.S. may be deemed as dissimilar in certain respects from the Philippines such as geography, climate, and even as to the level of preparedness or the state infrastructure for disaster response, some useful takeaways can be had from the Philippines’ experience. This is most especially true during interesting times—like today—when the current political climate and legal policy may not necessarily align with the stark realities that nature confronts us with. Let us remember that these natural disasters do not choose or favor any country or people—they affect all of the human populace without distinction. All the same, we as global citizens can together prepare for their impacts.


Richmund Sta. Lucia, a candidate for an LL.M. degree at Columbia Law School, received his J.D. degree from the University of the Philippines College of Law and has worked as an attorney in the Philippines’ Office of the Solicitor General and private law firms. He has also been a lecturer in several colleges in the Philippines. His legal advocacy includes the promotion of renewable energy.

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