Research Project: The Role of Media and Communication Technologies during Disaster in the Philippines

This project seeks to understand how impoverished coastal residents monitor storms for themselves and for their community, and how storm monitoring is a part of understanding media and communication technologies in the Philippines.

How do people living in disaster-prone areas use media and communication technologies to mitigate their vulnerability? This project investigates how communities in central Philippine coastal areas use media and communication technologies to monitor storms, and coordinate community-based strategies for disaster preparedness. Although Filipinos prepare annually for as many as 20 typhoons to pass through the nation (PAGASA, 2009), no authority anticipated that Supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan) would upturn the technological infrastructure, social institutions, and everyday lives of 14.1 million people on November 8, 2013 (OCHA Philippines, 2013). Tacloban City, Leyte in the central Philippines (Visayas) a highly urbanized center of the disaster-affected area, suffered the most death and destruction. Within the city, Barangay San Jose (“Neighborhood San Jose”), is a peninsular neighborhood at the mouth of San Juanico Channel. People in Barangay San Jose received the full force of Yolanda’s storm surges before the water continued up the channel to Tacloban City’s downtown. This neighborhood alone lost 1,000 of the estimated 10,000 people killed in the typhoon, mostly to storm surges. Filipinos, and especially “Yolanda survivors,” now expect and prepare for the next supertyphoon. While the Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world, it is also one of the most connected by communication technologies—ranking among the world’s texting and social media capitals (Pertierra, 2010). Many of the poorest families have at least shared access to a cellphone, radio and television. This dissertation research project asks, therefore: how are impoverished, coastal residents of Tacloban City using media and communication technologies (cellphones, radios, televisions, and internet-accessing devices) in their personal, familial, and neighborhood strategies for disaster mitigation? This research expects to find that culturally specific understandings of media and communication technologies are integral to the way people use these technologies to monitor storms. This research is an original approach to studying media use among disaster-affected people in that it seeks to understand disaster communication in context of the cultural meanings and uses of media and communication technologies.

This project depends on ethnographic methodology including participant-observation, interviews (informal conversation, formal interviews, and group interviews) and surveys to bring forth different types of knowledge and information. I will spend 15 months between September 2016 to February 2018 conducting field research in Tacloban City. This research is broken into two major phases to focus on: 1) uses and meanings of media and communication technologies during the non-storm season, during which I gain knowledge of how these technologies are understood apart from storm monitoring uses; and 2) uses and meanings of media and communication technologies during the wet season/ typhoon season, during which I focus specifically on typhoon monitoring and disaster communication. Storm monitoring is especially important in areas near the coast that are vulnerable to storm surges, like Barangay San Jose in Tacloban City. People living here coordinate strategies for evacuation, and securing property in advance of a storm’s landfall. Research is designed to understand how coastal residents monitor storms for themselves and for each other, and how these actions are integrated into their everyday, non-storm related cultural understandings of media and communication technologies.

References Cited
OCHA Philippines. 2013. Philippines: Typhoon Haiyan (Situation Report No. 22).
PAGASA. 2009. ESCAP/WMO Typhoon Committee, 41st Session (Member Report). Chang Mai: PAGASA.
Pertierra, R. 2010. The Anthropology of New Media in the Philippines. Manila: Ateneo Univers, ity Press.

Distances

Whenever I spend New Year’s Eve in my family’s hometown of Monterey, California I tend to end up at Point Lobos State Park on the first day of the year. I’m back here now in Monterey in between stretches of field research at in my new home base of Tacloban, Philippines. As I look out across the Pacific ocean today, I imagine that I am looking in the direction of Tacloban, but it seems like everything earthly drops out of view after several miles or so. So, I imagine reaching the end of that point on the horizon only to look out again and again and again until I finally see land. I imagine what it would be like to arrive at Tacloban after a thousand turns over the horizon.

Somehow, over the years, I have lost my sense of distance in the places I am traveling in the world. Distance for me, is on the Priceline screen and an accounting of hours spent inside the cabin of an airplane. Looking at the ocean today, I wonder if a thousand turns over the horizon would even get me to the Philippines. It is a distance that I can hardly fit into what I know. I would have to chase the curve of the earth until I reached night. And not that night fell upon me, but that it was I who arrived upon a foreign day there in another spot in the Pacific, and entered it against the current of expected arrangements.