Weathering the storm of flood, disaster response

The Royal Thai Navy (above) was among the many agencies providing evacuation and relief during and after Storm Pabuk, but the prime minister left operations to experts and local officials. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

When Tropical Storm Pabuk hit last week, did you notice what element of Thailand's typical disaster response was absent in the rescue mission?

It is an "ad-hoc committee" that was usually set up and chaired by prime ministers in the past as a special working group to handle disaster responses. In almost every major disaster, such a committee became a platform to showcase the prime ministers' showmanship, rather than being a tool of efficiency.

Prime ministers often take centre stage in rescue operations, acting like CEOs who sometimes end up as chiefs of a disastrous operation. Sometimes they appoint a minister to chair the committee. Those premiers usually led televised publicity stunts such as wearing boots during visits to flooded villages. Sometimes they travel to affected areas just to give orders to officials.

Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.

In many cases, their presence has been counter-productive. It may force a provincial governor and rescuers to halt their work just to accompany them. Worse still, the ad-hoc committee has been politicised. For example, one minister brought MPs from his party and their supporters to a field just to claim credit for their hard work.

But there was no such window-dressing on display during the rescue operation when Pabuk hit. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha did not show up at Pak Phanang district in Nakhon Si Thammarat just to boss other people around like his predecessors. He also did not set up an ad-hoc committee to handle the operation.

Surprisingly, PM Prayut let provincial governors, the existing system and related laws do their work. He visited the affected areas after the storm had quietened, even though he ended up doing a publicity stunt by climbing onto the roof of a house and acting like he was fixing it. The absence of an ad-hoc committee and the cult of personality shows what a rescue operation should look like.

Seree Supharatid, director of Rangsit University's Centre on Climate Change and Disaster, said the Pabuk rescue operation went smoothly and systematically because it strictly followed guidelines and measures stipulated in the 2007 Disaster Prevention and Rescue Operation Act.

Mr Seree, also a member of the national disaster prevention committee and one of the drafters of the law, said the act establishes systems for disaster prevention and rescue operations. It designates a provincial governor as a commander in their province whose decisions cannot be overridden by a prime minister.

The law prescribes actions to be taken before, during and after a disaster. Since 2007, it has required each province to come up with its own disaster prevention and rescue operation plans. The latest Pabuk rescue operation followed the local plans drafted by provincial officials, representative communities and villagers. They are considered bottom-up measures.

"Vulnerable communities have their own evacuation plan. They know when they should evacuate, where they should move to, how long they should stay, and what they need to pack," said Mr Seree, who praised the Pabuk rescue mission for its effectiveness. The evacuation effort at Pak Phanang, the hardest-hit area, was swift and efficient even though a number of villagers at first stubbornly refused to leave their houses.

The rapid evacuation deserves praise because of the unpredictable nature of the storm. At first, weather forecasters predicted the storm would hit Samui Island. But it changed direction and moved towards Pak Phanang instead. It gathered force and hit coastal villages there six hours ahead of the time predicted by the Meteorological Department.

Despite the efficiency of the rescue mission, the prevention plan still needs an overhaul. For example, Thailand needs to improve buildings and infrastructure to be capable of withstanding disasters. So whenever a storm or earthquake occurs, houses in coastal areas would not be so vulnerable.

Pabuk has severely damaged houses in Pak Phanang's Ban Lam Talum Pak. Many had their roofs torn apart. The government should come up with special measures such as subsidies, in additional to soft loans, offered to people in vulnerable areas to help them improve their houses.

Replanting mangroves in risky areas is also an important preventive measure. Mangrove forests have proved to be the best seawalls against storm surge. In many cases, they are more efficient than concrete seawalls, which many local administrators love to build. Such hard concrete seawalls often cause severe coastal erosion in nearby areas.

With the appropriate preventive measures, the country will be able to weather any storm, no matter which political party is leading the government.

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