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Yasmin Arquiza

The problem with PAGASA

October 4, 2011 7:48pm
As early as Saturday, Sept. 24, weather anchor Ivan Cabrera of CNN was already warning viewers about a potentially destructive typhoon heading for the Philippines. But a quick check with our news desk showed that PAGASA was still talking about a piddling tropical storm way out in the Pacific Ocean.

True enough, at the time it seemed like a small weather disturbance, but as Cabrera pointed out, several factors indicated it would be a big storm: warm air, open sea, and all that stuff from high school physics. On Sunday, the same warning came out on BBC, but still there was not much sense of urgency from PAGASA.

The problem with the media, of course, is that we are trained to rely on official sources so we rarely check other references to validate information coming from our government agencies. In the age of Google and free reliable data on the Internet, however, there is no excuse for not reporting borderless events such as impending disasters using multiple sources. The only barriers for journalists are laxity and the inability to interpret data correctly.

As the gentle Mang Tani has shown us, there is much that PAGASA can do to assist the media in providing information to the public in a more thoughtful manner.

Some key points:

WINDS

This is usually the first element in a weather report that tells us how strong a storm is, but when PAGASA warns about 160-kph gusts, do most Pinoys realize what it means? Most of the time, the weather bureau simply makes references to past destructive cyclones, without making distinctions on damage sustained from wind and rain. These are two different elements though, and it would really help if PAGASA makes comparisons with previous typhoons that had similar wind strengths so that home owners and Meralco can prepare better for falling trees and electric poles.

RAINFALL

Do you know the average rainfall in your area? Most of us don’t, so when PAGASA says we should expect 10-12 mm per hour of rainfall, we’re not really sure if we should be alarmed. It won’t hurt if PAGASA provides a basis for comparison on average hourly rainfall instead of just reciting figures that make little sense. Also, enough about Doppler radars already; we just want to know if a storm will bring a lot of rain, which they can see in satellite images anyway.

DIRECTION

Whenever PAGASA says a cyclone is entering the “Philippine area of responsibility,” one can’t help but think the entire country will be affected. This is why it’s a lot more enlightening to watch cable news weather reporters, who will interpret the speed and direction of a storm to determine if it will weaken or gain strength, move out faster or linger in an area, and all those important details that you can’t get out of any severe weather bulletin from PAGASA. It would be nice if our weathermen can be more specific about these things, and also discuss the impact of monsoon winds on the day’s weather.

LOCATION

One of the most misleading details in PAGASA’s weather reports is this thing about the eye of the storm, which a lot of people often mistake to be the main danger zone. Fatalistic Pinoys do not readily see that a wide band can affect large areas; for instance, Pedring’s storm alerts covered Batanes down to Samar, or almost half the country. There’s also a need to warn downstream areas such as Bulacan and Pampanga, which were very much unprepared for the rainfall coming from Luzon’s mountainous spine and tidal fluctuations, as well as dam operators. This is where an ecosystem approach in communicating technical data would be helpful and very much within its mandate, as the G in PAGASA stands for geophysical anyway.

FORECAST

Don’t you sometimes feel our weathermen are predicting the day’s weather by looking outside the window? This is a crucial function, as most Pinoys only start preparing once PAGASA comes up with storm alerts, by which time it’s already too late. This is what happened with Pedring, and it happened again with Quiel, which we were told would not affect any part of the country until Sunday. Lo and behold, as early as Friday, PAGASA had already raised Signal No. 3 in northern Luzon!

These days, one can’t help but wish that PAGASA’s weather bulletins would resemble MMDA’S new cool app for iPhone, which gives a snapshot of the traffic situation and lets commuters avoid congested areas in one efficient tool, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Insightful comments may be emailed to yarquiza@gmanews.tv