Is This the Best Humanity Can Do for the Philippines?

The inadequacy of our planning for disaster relief


Now that a storm, perhaps the most powerful in recorded history, has struck the Philippines, with winds gusting to 170 mph, a storm surge exceeding 20 feet, and an estimated 10,000 people dead; now that bodies are piling up in such quantities that local officials are digging mass graves; now that desperate survivors are telling reporters things like "Help us, help us, we are very thirsty," and "There were people—babies, children, old people—lying out on the street, with blisters over their bodies … hundreds of them;" now the world is rushing to send help.

"American military search-and-rescue helicopters, surveillance planes and Marines streamed toward the central Philippines on Sunday to survey the devastation and assist survivors," The Los Angeles Times reports. "Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the U.S. Pacific Command to deploy rescue teams, helicopters for airlifts, logistics officers and cargo planes to assist in the relief efforts."

Help is what we ought to give, of course.

Events like the Boxing Day tsunami in Banda Aceh, the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and this storm in the Philippines unfold on a scale so staggering that we can't help but be shaken from our indifference to most tragedies. Is our usual behavior shameful? Is it fortunate that we're typically able to be indifferent in a world so full of suffering that feeling its scope everyday would destroy us?

The philosophical question isn't one I've answered. But the aftermath of these disasters often prompts me to reflect with fresh eyes on humanity's questionable priorities.

When I read a rundown of military assets being sent to rescue survivors and deliver supplies, I feel grateful for the logistics officers marshaling their expertise, but also struck by the fact that the tools we're using were designed to fight wars and are being temporarily repurposed. I wonder what a fleet as well-funded as the U.S. military's would look like if it were optimized for natural disaster response.

How many victims would have been reached already?

The stories about inaccessible areas of the Philippines, where authorities haven't yet seen the damage—let alone helped the survivors—makes me reflect on the global drone fleet, and imagine an alternative world where it was optimized and expanded to spot victims rather than insurgents, delivering drinking water rather than Hellfire missiles.

I don't mean to go all John Lennon on you. This isn't a naive call to eliminate the U.S. military and spend its entire budget augmenting the International Red Cross.

But given how predictable it is that there will be deadly storms, catastrophic earthquakes, and other natural disasters besides, you'd think we'd spend more on preemptive measures that would help lower the death toll and speed help to survivors. Alas, our psychology as individuals and nations is to dig into our pockets only after the fact, when the descriptions of mass graves and hunger reach us.

It is good to act then. It would be better to act sooner.

Natural disasters are especially devastating in poorer countries with infrastructure more fragile than ours. The U.S. nevertheless plans and spends inadequately for our own disaster preparedness to an irrational degree. Odds are very good that a huge earthquake and tsunami will hit the Pacific Northwest soon, for example. If you live in an area of Portland, Oregon where the soil is expected to liquify, or if your kid goes to school in a building of unreinforced brick, there's good reason to worry. It is hard to invest upfront, even for natural disasters likely to occur in a given area, because it's so hard to imagine them really happening.

The typhoon in the Philippines is a reminder: The worst can happen.

And while it may seem wide-eyed, in the near term, to suggest that countries ought to spend less figuring out how to kill one another and more trying to stop nature from prematurely killing us, that may be the only chance we've got in the long run.

As Charles Krauthammer put it in the best column he ever wrote, a reflection on why humans seem to be alone in a universe so vast you'd think intelligent life would abound, "So why the silence? Carl Sagan thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves. In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe—an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, near instantly so."