Monday, June 30, 2008

Eleventh Post

Everybody Talks About The Weather

But nobody does anything about it. Drought and a freak electrical storm set a good part of the California woods on fire; the Midwest is about to drown; the polar ice cap could completely melt this year; and the Philippines have partially dug out from some of the mess created by Typhoon Fengshen/Frank.

The other part of the mess is hundreds of bodies trapped in a capsized ship in the shallows of a remote island.

M/V Princess of the Stars was caught in the midst of the highly unpredictable storm, lost power, broached, was driven onto a lee shore, capsized, and foundered trapping most of the passengers and crew. Horrible deaths; drowning or suffocating in the dark.

Filipino and US Navy divers have been inside the vessel and detected no signs of life. They were called off because the vessel carried ten tons of highly toxic insecticide in her hold. That is something of a no-no for a passenger vessel. Special equipment and divers skilled in its use are en route from Singapore.

The victims have yet to be removed and identified, let alone buried, and the recriminations and accusations are flying, while at the same time bureaucrats are using the tragedy as a pretext for increasing their share of the budget.

Dole Philippines, shipper of the insecticide, the ship’s owner Sulpicio Lines, and the Philippine Coast Guard are in a three way argument over the shipment of poison on a passenger vessel; Sulpicio is blaming the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, And Astronomical Administration – the local weather service – for faulty forecasting and has filed a suit in civil court.

Taking them in reverse order, I looked at two forecasts on Fengshen, one from Global Disaster Alert And Coordinating System – GDACS for short, and the Hong Kong weather service. Neither agreed with each other, nor did they accurately predict the storm’s path. Fengshen/Frank was utterly unpredictable. I don’t think Sulpicio’s argument will hold water. Weather prediction is an inexact science at best. When I was in the Navy, Aerographers – Navspeak for weathermen – were derisively known as “Weather Guessers.” Besides, PAGASA aren’t the folks who made the decision that sent the ship to her doom; the vessel’s master is the man ultimately responsible for the ship’s safety.

Sulpicio loaded the Dole shipment on the wrong ship claiming that the shipper never told them it was a toxic substance. Dole’s riposte was that not only did they tell the line what was in the shipment, they provided the Material Safety Data Sheet with the shipping manifest as well.

The Philippines are a third world country with all the problems other less well-to-do nations have. First, officials aren’t paid well and there are always one or two who will take little gifts to not observe something that needs observing. Supposedly it is the most graft-ridden country in Asia.

Another thing I can relate from first hand observation is maintenance budgets are miniscule to non-existent. I wouldn’t doubt for a minute that Princess of the Stars could not, repeat not, have passed a US Coast Guard safety inspection.

All in all, Sulpicio is not coming off well at all in this matter, but no one else involved in this tragedy has a right to be smug.

I really like the Filipino people. They are light hearted, quick to smile, and always ready to trot out hospitality. I have the deepest sympathy for the survivors who lost relatives and loved ones.

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