Beware the Wrath of a Presidential Storm

August 25, 2010 · 0 comments

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) may indeed have underestimated the danger that Typhoon Conson posed to Manila in July. But it seems even more likely that PAGASA director Prisco Nilo underestimated the political storm that ensued.

At an emergency disaster coordination meeting after the storm (known locally as Typhoon Basyang), President Benigno Aquino scolded Nilo because PAGASA had led Manilans to believe the capital would be spared the brunt of the rain and winds:

That [storm] information it is sorely lacking and we have had this problem for quite a long time. … You do what you are supposed to do… this is not acceptable. I hope this is the last time that we are all brought to areas different from where we should be.

“He really was not angry,” Nilo commented at a press conference. “It was just a comment made by a President, he wanted things to improve, that was his point.”  Yet it seems the president was indeed angry; angry enough to fire Nilo a few weeks later.

It was only the second week of Aquino’s term when Basyang hit metropolitan Manila on 13 July, initially as a weak Category 1 tropical cyclone. Heavy rains and flooding led to at least 100 deaths (at least 70 people were initially reported as missing). The 95 kph

Typhoon Conson (Basyang)

Typhoon Conson approaching the Philippines in July. Portents of political trouble.

winds caused also caused power and communications outages that paralyzed the city for days. PAGASA’s last advisory that night at 11:00 p.m. said that the typhoon had weakened and was headed farther north of Manila. Yet around midnight the eye of the storm passed through the area.

Nilo’s explanation to President Aquino was that the bureau’s equipment limited storm updates and that the system needed to be updated:

We update the bulletin every six hours to take into account possible changes that were not earlier indicated by the mathematical models we are using as guidance in coming up with our forecast.

According to the Philippine news service GMA News, others have spoken up about similar constraints on PAGASA:

PAGASA officials have repeatedly said lack of modern equipment is hampering them from doing their jobs more effectively.

President Aquino’s responded that the bureau should have consulted data from other weather agencies.

Aquino commented to reporters that Nilo should have taken the poor predictions more seriously. “He never really bothered to explain why Typhoon Basyang moved in a different direction,” the president said.

After the announcement of Nilo’s removal, the Phillipine Inquirer received complaints that the 27-year-veteran of PAGASA would be replaced by a “pseudometeorologist,” hurting the agency even further.  Nilo’s boss, Science Undersecretary Graciano Yumul, who is not an atmospheric scientist but briefly managed PAGASA in 2005, is serving three months as officer in charge until a new chief is appointed.

Meanwhile, Nilo’s pleas apparently have not gone completely unheaded. Just last week the Aquino administration announced that it would beef up PAGASA’s Doppler radar network from four to seven units, although they added that the agency will begin issuing storm updates hourly.

Nilo had already been overseeing a modernization program that was as yet incomplete:

The only thing missing was the communications system so we can quickly relay data from the field observation units to the forecasting center. We set aside a budget of P1.8 billion to complete the automation. There are areas where we come up short but most of this is in the field of communications systems.

The Philippine Senate has scheduled hearings next week for Nilo and others to review PAGASA’s technological needs. Science and Technology Committee Chair Senator Edgardo Angara said:

We want to give them a chance to explain what’s going on… and find out how we can help solve this perennial challenge of forecasting correctly and getting the information disseminated on time.