Disaster preparedness means being proactive

THERE are many lessons we can and should learn from this whole Yolanda/ Haiyan experience – one that I hope we take to heart in this whole experience – is that being proactive is definitely the way to go. And if there’s one organization that I see is in the right path, it is SM.

This is not to take away the credit from the many companies and individuals who have helped in the relief and rehabilitation effort. On the contrary, everybody deserves the accolade.

But the case of SM is one that I know of personally, one that I can write drawing from first hand knowledge and years of experience and observation of their growth and practices. At one time or another in my 50 plus years of existence I have worked with them, for them (in a few projects) and interacted with them as contractor, supplier, client and friend.

In the SM Foundation Inc., the team headed by Executive Director Debbie Sy (wife of Harley and daughter in law of Henry) had actually prepared for Yolanda’s coming, allowing them to deploy resources fast. They were already deep in relief work with the Bohol-Cebu earthquake that when Yolanda was about to strike they stepped up their efforts from their Cebu base of operations. SMFI’s Cebu point person, Marissa Fernan, had readied warehouses full of relief resources and had their Operation Tulong Express ready for deployment. Theirs was not a case reacting to the typhoon needs. It was proactive.

Away from the attention of Tacloban City, SMFI's Operation Tulong express rapid response delivered from being ready in their Cebu warehouses before Yolanda hit.

Away from the attention of Tacloban City, SMFI’s Operation Tulong express rapid response delivered from being ready in their Cebu warehouses before Yolanda hit.

Unfortunately, even as they had discussed, planned and readied for Yolanda, they had prepared for a typhoon. What they did not expect was the magnitude of the storm surge; a situation that caught many flatfooted. From inside their operations center the lament was if the warnings had come out that the storm surge would create “tidal wave – like” or “tsunami-like” waves, it would have been a different ballgame. But that was wisdom in hindsight, a lesson learned for future planning. The current relief effort was of import.

While their operations from Cebu and other strategic points had taken care of things from the ground, SMFI anticipated the exodus of survivors borne by C-130 Hercules planes at Villamor Airbase and immediately set up the receiving centers with first aid and welcoming facilities. As this happened reports came in from the SMFI people: I just got back from the Villamor Air Base where SM Foundation put up its Operation Tulong Medical Mission…evacuees from Leyte who take the C130 light from Tacloban airport disembark in the airbase…they are met by PAF staff while SM Foundation gives them food, water & spare clothing & possible communication access to relatives in Manila. While awaiting pick-up from relatives, they are given stress debriefing to combat fear of water after experiencing how the city was flattened with water and other psychological disturbances. A team of medical practitioners are on hand for consultations. Majority of complaints are dehydration, coughs & colds, Fever, sore throat, sprains, bruises, etc. Medicines are also available for them. Per PAF, a total of 1,500 evacuees are expected every day as C130 planes that ferry relief goods to Tacloban accommodate these evacuees on the trip back of the C130. A total of 4 flights a day are undertaken by the C130s.

Receiving survivors in Villamor

Receiving survivors in Villamor

And the immediate response was overwhelming, even in the first hours: Just got word from Ms. Debbie Sy, SMFI Executive Director who is at the SM Medical Mission Tent at the Villamor Air Base Grandstand that the mission is deluged with volunteers from the medical field!! News has spread like wildfire and SM is getting all support from them. I am likewise deluged with requests if they can join and I simply ask them to go to Villamor. Ms. Debbie is doing a scheduling so that some groups can do night shifts while others who’ve been there since early morning can rest. Parang multiplier effect…really PEOPLE ARE THERE TO HELP PEOPLE!!

Early Villamor Airbase set up - immediate medical attention for arriving survivors

Early Villamor Airbase set up – immediate medical attention for arriving survivors


Multiplier effect indeed as many more people and groups poured in resources: These are the day-to-day activities of the Mission at the Villamor Air Base ……doctors, nurses, pharmacists and students flock to lend help on a 24-hour basis. The mission which SM started together with the PAF has snowballed: Globe, Smart, Abs-Cbn, GMA, various religious organizations, even offices of politicians have set up their own tents. Some provide assistance to get in touch with relatives, others bring them to the residences of relatives which they dub OPLAN HATID, still others serve food in a SOUP kitchen, give clothing but many come to the medical clinic for attention. Evacuees come not only in C130s but in foreign aircrafts which bring relief goods to Tacloban. DSWD has a half-way house for evacuees who are awaiting relatives…some groups have volunteered to ferry the victims to their relatives around Metro Manila. Some have even offered their homes as temporary shelter for those who have no relatives in Manila. This is the true character of the Filipinos!!! PEOPLE HELPING PEOPLE!!!

SM’s proactive management did not come to them overnight. I recall when I was vice president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, SM Megamall was just in its infancy. When we were studying of setting up a branch office in its bridgeway the mall management was forthcoming in their dealings, sharing their learning from the successes and pitfalls in their earlier mall in SM North EDSA, and how they were instituting reforms in their operations system-wide from those lessons learned.

When the issue was raised about Megamall’s inadequate waste water system, they acted on it with dispatch and again used the experience to be part and parcel of future real estate and mall development.

Some sectors lay SM out as the bad guy big business, out to push its weight around, circumvent the law and subvert the best interest of the little people. But there is a place in this world for big business, for big capital done right moves an economy forward, serves the greater good.

In this day and age where government is more sensitive to calls of transparency and accountability, it is difficult for a large operation like SM to do anything without being noticed. This has actually forced them to take the lead in compliance – whether it be regulations on permits or best practices in environment and resource management. Giants cannot move without being noticed. It is this situation that makes the organization proactive in its development projects, including keeping in constant communications and consultation with the top authorities and experts on the environment, community development and other areas where the impact of their actions are felt.

And this proactive approach is carried about even in their foundation’s programs. Henry Sy’s charitable work has been cited by Forbes magazine as the largest and only one of two in the country. Forbes said that Sy’s is the true philanthropy because it draws from his personal wealth and not from the coffers of the corporation. In recognizing Sy Forbes pointed out that other tycoons have their corporate social responsibility programs, but these cannot be considered as the tycoons’ philanthropy because they use the corporations resources which are rightfully the corporations’ and their respective stockholders.

Sy’s philanthropy in itself is proactive as it centers on giving college scholarships to deserving indigent students. This literally impacts the person so positively that instantly their lives improve, as well as their families’. This also is positive for society as a whole because it improves the emerging generation; a more educated and equipped populace that will impact the future of the country. And thousands have benefited from this.

As we move from relief for Yolanda survivors to rebuilding the country and the lives of Filipinos, SM and SMFI takes away a wealth of information and experience that for certain will better prepare it for the future. Experts say that with the way things are with the world such events are bound to get worse. Being proactive is definitely one lesson we should all learn.

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