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Till the next typhoon

Uprooted trees

From the Publisher's Desk By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

How did Guam fare after Mawar? It depends on whom you ask. The answer depends on one’s temperament and previous disaster experience. It depends on one’s yardstick.

Guam performed better than Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, according to Todd Semonite, the former chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It took the sister territory 11 months to restore its power. Guam Power Authority said it has restored 90 percent of electricity as of the last week of June.

Survivors of past Guam typhoons say, “We’re doing OK.” Those who lived through Karen, Pamela and Pongsona recalled that it took six to 14 months to get the power and water back. Looking at the post-Mawar landscape from these windows can mitigate the misery of waiting for power and water restoration.

The optimists said Guam managed to recoup much faster than anticipated. We set the bar low in terms of expectations. We used past failures as a benchmark. It skewed our notion of what is normal and acceptable.

We looked at Puerto Rico instead of Florida, which restored power to all 2.6 million accounts after Hurricane Ian within two weeks. The state’s road infrastructure and bridges were immediately repaired and reopened to traffic within a similar timeframe.

Our own government is happy-go-lucky. Before the typhoon hit, GPA issued an early warning: “Expect power outages." We didn't hear about any contingency plan. We braced for the power failure, but not without resenting the government's failure. We didn’t realize we would be sent back to the dark ages for more than a month. “We’ve been living like cave people,” Attorney General Douglas Moylan said, summing up the people’s frustrations.

If Guam is hardly equipped to deal with the aftermath of typhoons, I dread to imagine what might happen if the island gets attacked. But that's another story.

We still have patchy internet connectivity. Hundreds of households still do not have home internet at all— not even the primitive dial-up option to fall back on. There is a whole new generation born after Pongsona. Emerging into the digital world, they have no point of reference in terms of protracted internet outages triggered by a typhoon.

Hence another rationale for not using past performances as the standard for restoration and recovery speed. We live in a different lifetime in which pretty much every aspect of our lives is conducted online, every business organization depends on digital transactions, and utility operations are interconnected. The communications meltdown made the restoration even more onerous.


The lethargic pace in establishing critical pieces of recovery infrastructure is difficult to fathom. Living on a disaster-prone island, we expected a standard recovery infrastructure that is ready to roll out right after any hammering.

Two decades after Pongsona, we wonder what lessons government planners have learned or forgotten. =We expected utility providers to have a good idea of where critical infrastructure and disaster management practices can be hardened up. We might have given them more credit than they deserved. Our power and water infrastructure clearly remains unhardened. Our power plants have been occasionally in repair mode even prior to Mawar.

Now we are bracing for more typhoons this year—five to eight named storms, with three to five of those storms reaching typhoon strength, according to the National Weather Service. Whether or not we are adequately prepared is out of the question.

For the most part, Guam held up relatively well after Mawar. The people have generally remained patient. A new stream of federal aid allows in-between-jobs residents to get by until their places of work reopen. The federal rescue, including the low-interest loans offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, could help stimulate the island’s tourism-based economy which is lulled once again while still reeling from the impact of Covid-19. Largess from Washington is always the silver lining to a disaster.

But “getting by” is not a substitute for quick recovery, which must take place before the next typhoon arrives.

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