I was invited by the Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah to be a guest lecturer before students taking up international studies at the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies. I also met BYU president Kevin Worthen, international vice president Dr. Sandra Rogers and select members of the faculty and administration.
BYU is a non-profit educational institution owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), whose members are often referred to as Mormons. In the Philippines, there are close to 800,000 members of the LDS church from across several cities and provinces.
During my lecture, I shared our experience with typhoon Yolanda that devastated the Philippines in 2013, which also affected thousands of LDS church members especially those located in Tacloban. The church leadership worked with the local government units in areas that were devastated by the typhoon to send food, hygiene kits, medical supplies and other relief items to members and non-members alike through LDS Charities, the humanitarian arm of the church whose volunteer members go all over the world to help disaster victims recover through various forms of assistance.
The talk about super typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) elicited concern about the increasing threat of natural disasters due to climate change. Utah is one of the states that has been feeling the effects of climate change. Extreme weather events have either caused strong storms that triggered flashfloods, or very dry summers have resulted in drought with streams drying up and animals dying, with wildfires burning down hundreds of thousands of acres of land and destroying hundreds of structures. In fact, the state is currently experiencing its worst wildfire season in the last 15 years.
Last May, the Utah state legislature passed a landmark climate change resolution recognizing the effects of climate change on citizens, acknowledging that “responsible stewardship and prudent management of natural resources is needed.” According to an environmental advocate and watchdog organization, Utah is the first conservative state legislature to pass a resolution acknowledging the existence of climate change.
The mayor of Salt Lake City – the capital of Utah – was at the recent Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco where thousands of delegates composed of mayors, governors, business leaders and environment advocates from the US and about a hundred other countries gathered to discuss pollution, reducing carbon footprint, curbing greenhouse gas emissions and other issues regarding global warming and climate change.
According to a recent study by James Kossin (of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) covering 1949 to 2016, tropical cyclones, including storms and hurricanes across the globe, have become slower by an average of 10 percent – meaning they now stay in an area longer, dropping more rainfall in the process.
As a result, these storms have become more threatening, posing more risk of damage and destruction especially due to flooding. A slowing storm can increase storm surge and subject buildings and other structures to strong winds for a longer amount of time. The increased amount of rainfall can result in greater damage as “slower storms can push a larger wall of water in front of them,” the climate expert explained. A 2017 American Meteorological Society study on 22 hurricanes since 2004 also concluded that storms will move more slowly and pose a greater threat to people and property.
The threat of Hurricane Florence has prompted the governors of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland as well as the mayor of Washington, D.C. to declare a state of emergency last Sept. 7. As early as Monday, mandatory evacuation orders were issued for coastal communities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia in anticipation of the catastrophic flooding that started to hit last Thursday.
In the Philippines, the threat of super typhoon Ompong (international name Mangkhut) has prompted local government units to order forced evacuations in areas that are in the path of the typhoon which, according to Philippine weather bureau PAGASA, could bring worse rains than Typhoon Ondoy (international name Ketsana) that devastated the Philippines in 2009.
What our friend Senator Loren Legarda has been saying for decades is now more relevant than ever. She chairs the Senate committee on climate change, and has been urging local government officials down to the barangay to come up with an evacuation plan and inform citizens of possible landslides, flooding and storm surge. Those in high-risk areas should be evacuated to safe places even before the typhoon approaches, she said – advice that local officials heeded.
Leyte Congresswoman Yedda Romualdez is also pushing for the passage of a bill creating a Department of Disaster Resilience as it will better equip the government in reducing the risks that come with natural disasters, and empower local communities in becoming more disaster resilient. The proposed DDR would be a single agency overseeing all programs and activities pertaining to disaster response. No doubt, Congresswoman Yeddah knows whereof she speaks, since Leyte was one of the hardest-hit by super typhoon Yolanda in 2013, with the impact of the devastation still felt to this day.
With the Philippines deemed as one of the most vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, the government is stepping up efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change by shifting government policies and programs from disaster response to disaster risk reduction and preparedness.
One thing is clear: The increasing severity of typhoons and extreme weather occurrences in many parts of the world shows that climate change is a reality that is already upon us – we have to brace ourselves with more disasters to come.
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