Wednesday, July 09, 2008

MV Princess of the Stars Tragedy Inquiry: Barking at the Wrong Tree (Part 1)

Last Monday, the Committee on Transportation and the Committee on Oversight conducted the first hearing, in aid of legislation, into the sinking of Sulpicio Lines' MV Princess of the Stars, which brought more than 800 souls to their deaths.

As I said in my press statement that day, the inquiry should focus more on the legislation that should be produced in order to prevent or minimize sea tragedies in our archipelagic country.

Actually, there already are pending legislation, some of which I am the principal author, but are lying in the depths of the piles of bills pending in Congress. But I will get to that later. For now, I would like to share my thoughts on the hearing that was held, which to my mind almost veered off course from where we were supposed to be headed.

As expected, first to be on the questioning block was the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Sciences, commonly known as PAGASA (there's no hyphen between G and A, which would make it the Tagalog word for “HOPE”).

Director Prisco Nilo, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken and obviously low-profile head of the agency, faced off with the congressmen, all eager to get answers to their probing questions.

A couple of questions after he was put on the line, it became apparent that the direction of blame was heading the director's way. There seemed to be a belief that due to PAGASA's faulty weather forecast, the ship met its fatal destination under water. The accuracy of their forecasts, as well as the lack of equipment, came to the forefront of the discussions. It did not help that many people have experienced in the past PAGASA's forecasts of storms yet be toasted in the bask of sunshine. Or the times when clear weather was forecasted but rains dampened everyone's day.

PAGASA was further slammed when it was revealed that despite the allocation of funds for the purchase of doppler radars last year, the same had yet to be actually bought and put into operation. Dir. Nilo had a difficult time answering the impatient questions of the congressmen with regard to the several failure of biddings for the supply of the equipment, leading to the non-procurement of the radars.

It seemed that PAGASA was turning out to be the culprit of the accident. But is it?

In my opinion, there is no firm basis to say that PAGASA is to blame. I'm not absolving them, but what I'm saying is that there isn't enough for me to even be led to believe that they're culpable. For now.

Why so? Well, the first thing to do is to look at the agency's function. As provided by it's legal mandate, PAGASA's functions are:

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, presently existing, is hereby reorganized and shall have the following functions:

  1. Maintain a nationwide network pertaining to observation and forecasting of weather and other climatological conditions affecting national safety, welfare and economy;

  2. Undertake activities relative to observation, collection, assessment and processing of atmospheric and allied data for the benefit of agriculture, commerce and industry;

  3. Engage in studies of geophysical and astronomical phenomena essential to the safety and welfare of the people;

  4. Undertake researches on the structure, development and motion of typhoons and formulate measures for their moderation; and

  5. Maintain effective linkages with scientific organizations here and abroad, and promote exchange of scientific information and cooperation among personnel engaged in atmospheric, geophysical and astronomical studies.

Nowhere is it stated in their functions that they are supposed to prevent land, air or sea vessels from plying their routes in case of a storm. Neither are they expected to manage disasters or coordinate the operations of government agencies during inclement weather such as typhoons.

In general, PAGASA is expected to gather data on the weather, process them and make those available to the agencies that need the information to perform their own functions. Examples would be the Coast Guard, which gives the clearances for ships to sail, the Air Transport Authority, which can ground planes, and the National Disaster Coordinating Council, which is tasked to be the over-all coordinator for disaster management and response.

That's why I found it ridiculous when some took PAGASA to task for not calling the ship to warn them of the weather. It simply is not their job to do that.

Some might say, “well, the principle of garbage in, garbage out applies in this case”. Yes, that maxim is true. There is no debate about that. If PAGASA gave the wrong information to the agencies, then their decisions and judgment calls will become erroneous.

So the question is, did PAGASA give the wrong information?

In order to answer that, it must first be realized that there really is no way to accurately predict or forecast where a typhoon will pass. Scientists can only make an educated prediction based on scientific observations and some established geophysical principles.

For example, it is already known that typhoons in our part of the world generally move westward from the Pacific ocean where they are born. It is also known that typhoons are drawn towards the poles of the hemisphere where they are, that is, typhoons in the northern hemisphere (where the Philippines is) are drawn towards the North Pole. It is also scientifically known that temperature and pressure also affect the movement of typhoons, and all of these and other information, along with the use of special equipment, give them the ability to forecast a typhoon's trajectory.

But typhoons are still natural occurrences that are affected by so many variables. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to precisely predict with 100% reliable accuracy, where a typhoon will pass.

Typhoon Hagibis in 2007 is a perfect example of how fickle a typhoon can be. It was forecasted to hit the Bicol region, which prompted evacuations and disaster preparations, but it changed course and avoided the usual route. To top it off, as it was about to leave the Philippine area of responsibility, it suddenly backtracked and reversed its course, going back into Philippine AOR.

Going back to the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy, the relevant question is, “was PAGASA able to provide the right information at the right time?”

Well, in spite of PAGASA's lack of equipment, the agency was able to gather weather data and issue Severe Weather Bulletins. Those weather bulletins were accessible to the government agencies, media outfits and all others who cared about what the weather would be like.

In fact, PAGASA's Weather Bulletin No. 8 was the basis for the Philippine Coast Guard's clearance for the MV Princess of the Stars to set sail. Noteworthy, however, was the one hour and twnety minute gap between PAGASA's issuance of the bulletin, which was at 4:45 PM, and receipt of the bulletin by the PCG's Action Center at 6:07 PM. The ship was given clearance to sail at 8:00 PM.

At 11:00 PM, PAGASA issued Weather Bulletin No. 9 and it indicated the change in course of the typhoon. They also gave a new trajectory forecast which then placed the route of the ship and its destination on a higher Severe Weather Signal. At the time of the bulletin, the ship was somewhere in the vicinity of Batangas and was still in calmer seas. Given the circumstances, there was a reason and there was still time for the ship to seek shelter. It did not.

A comparison of the PAGASA forecast of the typhoon's path and the actual track it took would show that the deviation was not gross. The actual path followed a similar general trajectory as the forecast, not an entirely different course. If the typhoon followed the forecasted track, it might still even have affected, though a lesser degree, the route of the ship.

It is unfortunate that during the hearing, much time was spent grilling the PAGASA official. It only resulted in the deviation from asking the agencies (Marina or Coast Guard) and the shipping company, which I believe have more direct responsibility.

Thankfully, we were able to ask questions to the Coast Guard and Sulpicio Lines. We just did not have enough time and had to adjourn for the day. More on those questions in my next blog entry.

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