WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: No more air tours, please

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/ 9 December)–End of September, the US Embassy-Manila invited me to present before an audience of people from Mindanao that, over forty years, the US government had sent States-side for exchange programs, short courses, and academic studies. In the audience were young students, middle level professionals in the academe, military, and public service, and of course, higher government officials. Some among them head the LGUs in the towns and provinces stricken by Typhoon Pablo on December 4.

Our hosts had requested me to talk about my two-year research on grassroots communities in Mindanao for lessons on disaster risk reduction and post-disaster recovery planning. (Interested readers may view this on the AFRIM website: http://afrim.org.ph/resilient4/index.php).  The presentation was met with mixed reactions. The younger ones were excited to see their home communities on video and to recognize the people we interviewed. They were appreciative that the remarkable self-help initiatives in their villages were being validated for lessons that other communities could replicate for disaster preparation and for planning recovery.

The government officials seated at the back, however, were ominously silent. After a while, the most senior among them came to the mike and volunteered to voice their general sentiment. Why, he asked, were they being made to listen to my presentation?

When people are not willing to hear, I don’t have a problem with that. It really was not up to me to answer why the host found my participation in that gathering relevant. I just wished the company at the back found my village stories inspiring. These were examples of how functional grassroots-based disaster preparation and post-disaster recovery enhancement had been set up. These were, to my thinking, commendable models to learn from. However, the honorable ladies and gentlemen at the back of the room found consensus in asking why such was relevant. On 30 September 2012, they did not find the thought of community disasters seen through the eyes of those who experienced these worth entertaining.

Two months later, Typhoon Pablo struck.

For three days after as I combed the ravaged countryside, I could see that the scale of devastation would overwhelm even the most disaster-ready LGU. The sad thing is that it appears that none of our LGUs in the affected areas even measured up to standard on disaster-readiness. Those that did have designated evacuation centers did not reckon on steady gusts of 170 kilometers per hour. Even buildings constructed to specification fell apart. Walking through ruined towns, I heard the echo of my mother’s voice saying, “Saramaha kami, Guinoo”. Roughly translated, it means “Lord, treat us all the same.”

Designating an evacuation center seemed to be just about it. There’s no system of distribution relays capacitated with transport for quick response. There is little by way of community-based committees checking up on people and what they need. No bulletin boards to show who is where and who is looking for whom. Bodies are being sprayed with insecticide until the body bags arrive when, for heavens’ sake.

Still, we find that many among the affected LGUs have bound documents of the Disaster Risk Reduction Management plans of their respective barangays. They put these out there in their municipal DRRM centers for nosy busybodies like me to see.

Those manning the centers stay in the center and wait for the people to come. Distribution of relief is about the local folk finding the transport to go to the center and bring it back to their villages. That’s very tough to do when one would have just about lost everything and the children do not have a roof over their heads, sheltering in lean-tos by the roadside. When you have lost everything, planning to get to the DRRM center would be like planning a trip to the moon.

Help should come to them where they are. Their LGUs owe them that.

Rats. Those government officials should have listened to my presentation. I should have made them listen. Never mind if they’d have come away thinking I am an upstart for lecturing them on how to prepare for disaster and recovery. Upstart is just one of the kinder adjectives people use to describe me when I dig in my heels at doing the right thing.

In the wake of Pablo, we have yet to see how relief distribution and even the inventory of affected families are systematized in these barangays. Those bound copies of BDRRM plans are just that: for show. The people in the barangay don’t know what those documents say about the committees that they would have formed among themselves, much less what the functions of these committees are and how they are to coordinate in response to community disasters.

Those BDRRM documents were probably generated from a template developed by the municipal LGUs to comply with RA 10121 so that funds for disaster preparation could be released. Whether or not those funds were used to capacitate communities down to the local level is really debatable the way our grassroots are experiencing the aftermath of Typhoon Pablo. Er, correction- let that read: …the way our LGUs are responding in the aftermath of Typhoon Pablo.

I was so disheartened on the 6th to talk to a mayor who, when told that the dead need caskets before the corpse of that little baby rots, just replied that, “Yes, a lot of people are in need. Bugas diri…” Change subject? And then he said that the choppers were now evacuating the injured from the hinterlands of his town. I asked to which hospital he was sending his constituents. He said, “Panacan siguro.”

Uh-oh. Panacan is a military hospital. They don’t treat civilians there. Civilians go to government hospitals or to private ones if they can bear the cost.

This mayor’s reply meant he had no preparation for the medical needs of the people being evacuated. He was abdicating their care to the military personnel who came to pick up the injured and the dead from among his constituents. It reminded me of a custom in Old China where the one who rescues another becomes responsible for him for the rest of his life. This man must have Western Philippine Seas island blood in him. His psyche remembers a very ancient tradition that prevented people from intervening when someone is about to die.

Poor man. If I’d put him through a mental status exam at that time, he would fail. Distracted. Unable to focus. Flat affect. Impaired judgment, definitely. Maybe he was still overcome with horror finding his town hit that way while he was gone. I hope he has recovered by now because he does need to take control and step up. That’s what a mayor is supposed to do.

In Montevista in Comval, mendicancy was an emerging culture on day one. Three days later, the practice had spread to portions of Monkayo.  The habit will continue even after these people receive help because, with what they’ve lost in two hours of nature’s fury, help would never be enough. We’ll have a problem weaning them off this habit that they have resorted to when they could at least cut firewood from the felled trees, line these up to dry on the roadside, and sell these to passing motorists who would be inclined to help those who help themselves. May pera sana sa basura.

It’s a different roadside story in Lingig going to Cateel. Along the coast, typhoon survivors are fashioning bed-size flooring from bamboo slats and putting a triangular roof directly above it. The tent-like structure, made of local materials salvaged from the ruins, looks like a bigger version of a gaming cock shelter. The bamboo floor, elevated a foot or less above the ground, keeps the owner and his family dry. They could at least sleep huddled together through the cold nights, shut their eyes from the sight of felled coconut trees as far as the eye could see.

In the hinterlands of Barangay San Jose in Trento, there’s a 32-year old mother who is handy with a hammer. The very next day after their shack fell apart in the storm, she helped her husband recover trunks from uprooted trees that fell on the mountainside. Ten feet and about the girth of my waistline, the trunks now planted defiantly on the rise mark the perimeter of what would be the future home for her family. She said she’d rather be doing this than walk all day to wait in line for relief distribution at the barangay hall.

As we drove by the devastation, Carol wondered why I waved at people. You see, when survivors wave back, that means they can look beyond themselves and see you. They can respond. They smile and wave back. That’s good spirits reasserting.

The survivors didn’t wave back when we got to Cateel.

In the immediate aftermath of Pablo’s wrath, I found the creative architecture, the stout-hearted mother, the waving children and some other people out there doing things to warm the heart. Consider the DPWH workers everywhere who are laboring to clear roads immediately after the worst was over. Yano kaayo. They just go at it without fanfare. Ask how many trees they’d cleared off the road, the reply is a cheery, “Way ko na naihap, ma’m.”

I found that good Samaritan spirit also in the solidarity of electric cooperatives all over mainland Mindanao that sent their people on a 7-day deployment to help the neighboring provinces straighten up poles and reattach wires. SOCOTECO, MOELCI, LANECO, ANECO. Mabuhay kayo.

If anybody wants to know how our communities really experienced the immediate aftermath of Pablo, it is the road crews who had seen it all. It’s not the national government officials who fly by for the TV cameras. The road crews know that the people on the ground feel bad to see untouchable choppers up there while they are suffering down below.

Those who rent choppers must know that it costs about P25,000 each time a chopper gets off the ground. One chopper for air tour in time for the early evening news is just a little bit too much epal. Another military chopper for his security escort up there is unforgivable for wasting personnel time and military resources that could be used in the rescue and relief efforts instead.

And remember those choppers have to take off again to bring them home after they would have touched down, made their cheesy speeches, and had the camera catch them doling out care packages to some bedraggled Juan. Then it’s time to go home. Another 25,000 to bring the party back. Fifty thousand per chopper. One hour tops. That’s how long the gadflies stayed where the helicopter can land.

I ask you, what could they really see up close of how this disaster struck the town they chose to grace with their august presence? They see the numbers on the briefing charts, yes. The numbers tell them that there are too many Juans. Only a fraction of the Juans make it, but the visitors leave thinking he’s seen them all. Been there. Done that. Goodbye.

Lord, how do you explain hunger to people who have never known it?

Come, boys, let’s take to the road instead and ride the habal-habal up where there are people who lived through the worst storm to hit this side of the Philippines in our lifetime. Let’s see Juan up close. (So the habal-habal overcharges. That’s okay. He’ll charge you about 0.012% what it costs to make the chopper fly. No blinking, please. The driver needs to feed his family. Gas is selling double, triple its price. Be thankful this one is game for an adventure given the road conditions.)

Take six choppers, like someone did the other day, and it’s just more choppers up there bringing false hope to a forsaken people, only to have their hopes immediately dashed back to the ground the minute the iron dragonfly turns around and shows its backside. Six choppers. Three hundred thousand pesos can feed the people in makeshift tents on any ten-kilometer stretch of the roadside in Compostela Valley today.

No more, please.  Don’t use soldiers and Air Force choppers for PR jaunts masquerading as disaster assessment. Let those knowledgeable about disaster assessment do the disaster assessment. It would usually cost a lot less that way. Let’s not turn our soldiers into glorified security guards for these people to bark at where the TV camera can catch them at it. It’s just a blustery show of how on top of things they are supposed to be when they can raise their voice to a man in uniform, and one who has stars on his shoulder at that.

Media coverage had so far extolled how responsive the national government had been and how puny the LGUs are in comparison. Not true. National government officials can just afford air tours better than LGU officials can. They also automatically require military escorts when they come down from the capital. So just because they have a retinue of soldiers and other busy-looking secretaries doesn’t mean that they have things under control at all.

No one is really on top of things at the moment. That’s why people are still starving on the roadside even after the numerous fly-by’s.

Politicians seeking to milk this community disaster for media mileage should stay home. Better send help instead, and make sure it would get where it is needed. That would free our soldiers from demeaning escort duty assignments while they do their air tours. Our beleaguered communities need all the able-bodied men and women – in uniform or not – to come to their aid. Let’s pull together and help the villages, especially those that are too far from the center.

Duplication – that dreaded word – of relief is not a problem at this moment. Don’t deny starving people food while the LGUs are still dithering how to distribute it such that everyone can get his share. That dream of systematic organization would never happen under emergency conditions. Meanwhile, the longer those relief goods stay at the DRRM centers waiting for the barangay captains to come get their share, the longer will the people in those villages go hungry. The less hardy would pocket their dignity and go begging in the streets, hold out their hands, or throw themselves at passing cars. Let’s not wait for them to resort to highway robbery.

Carry on with the air tours, if you must. Just make sure to drop food for typhoon survivors far removed from the eyesight of those manning those DRRM centers or the concerned sectors that trust DRRM centers to distribute what they donate. Get that food to where people are hungry.

I kid you not.

Extreme deprivation does strange things to the human psyche.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says)