GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/15 November) – As this article was being written, the search, rescue and relief operations in Tacloban City was expected to improve – that is, search the ruins to rescue any survivor and retrieve the dead and give relief to the victims. On November 13, five days after Yolanda had struck, on-the-scene reports of the CNN, BBC, the Associated Press and The New York Times deplored the Aquino government’s response to the disaster as “disorganized”. (Inquirer.net, November 13, 2013)
In their reports, they cited “no real evidence of organized recovery or relief” such as “delivery of food, water or medical supplies; and no one “in charge in providing assistance in the area” even if “piles of aid have begun to arrive at the airport”. Furthermore, they did not see “a feeding center that had been set up for 5 days after the storm”; and “bodies [corpses were still] scattered around the devastated areas”. And, more!
Palace officials responding to these international media reports sounded pathetic. They cited the enormity of the disaster, made excuses for the failure of government to respond immediately and efficiently, and issued assurances the relief assistance was coming. They were evading the issue of lack of organization.
At one point the President sounded like blaming the most developed countries when, responding to a CNN reporter, he attributed Yolanda to climate change due to global warming and called on those countries to address the problem of climate change – reminding them to have “a sense of moral responsibility [for] playing havoc on the lives of so many others who are less capable of defending for themselves”. That was an ironic twist to his earlier profuse “thank you” to the same countries and international relief agencies and donors for the aid pouring in.
The international media on-the-scene reports since the day after Yolanda had left contradicted a report of the Philippine News Agency and Interaksyon.com that “President Benigno Aquino III flew to Tacloban City at 8:40 Sunday morning to visit the victims of super typhoon Yolanda and to oversee rescue, relief, and rehabilitation efforts. With him were seven key cabinet members. (bold texts supplied)
After distributing relief goods, he was to “be briefed by local officials and Cabinet secretaries on the disaster operations” then he would “proceed to Barangay Culasi in Roxas City, Capiz also to distribute relief goods”. As officially admitted later, there were no relief goods and no barangay officials around to brief the President.
Responding to the CNN last November 13, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras said that because of “limited transport capabilities … and other logistical problems” the government failed “to get food packs, medicines and other relief goods to the people in the Visayas soon after Yolanda left the country”. These difficulties were aggravated by the inability of the local government executives — the first responders – to respond as they themselves were typhoon victims.
The President admitted to the CNN that the government five days after Yolanda had struck had not yet reached all areas affected by the typhoon, would not insist all had received aid and would need help in reaching all those who had yet to receive aid. He sounded like making an erratum – a correction – of the inaccurate reports from the Palace.
The Tacloban airport has been open to military traffic only. Because of this, a team from Médecins Sans Frontières, with complete medical supplies, who arrived in Cebu last November 10 , was still in Cebu as of last November 14 waiting for a flight to Tacloban. For the same reason, a team of 15 doctors and logistics experts in Manila was ready to fly to Tacloban City on November 9 but had not left as of November 14. For the lack of organization, their departures had not been coordinated with the military.
Philippine Daily Inquirer (November 13, 2013) reported Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin saying, “Something is wrong with the system”. There is the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) that should have taken charge of the relief operations for the Yolanda victims. But NDRRMC Executive Director Eduardo del Rosario said that Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras were in charge
When Del Rosario last presided over the NDRRMC meeting on November 8 at 5 p.m. — hours after Yolanda had struck — he announced he was confident that the country would have “very, very low” casualties due to the preemptive evacuation done days ahead.
On the next day, the President presided over the NDRRMC meeting. When he saw on November 10 the devastation of Tacloban City especially the death toll, he “was reported to have shown frustration over the report made by Del Rosario. Ochoa has been presiding over the inter-agency briefings at the NDRRMC office in the military general headquarters Camp Aguinaldo since Sunday.” The very agency mandated to organize coordinated response proved inutile.
Almendras admitted at a briefing in Malacañang that the Aquino administration was not fully prepared to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe wrought by Yolanda – describing it as “a logistics nightmare” and assuring “that’s going to be addressed.” In effect, he reproached Del Rosario and assured all that the President was “on top of the situation”.
What did President Aquino do? In response to “criticisms by local and international media networks of the slowness — if not inadequacy — of government’s aid to the victims”, he met with key officials last November 12 in the evening “to revise the masterplan for disaster response … to expand (the masterplan) … to adjust … to anything at the magnitude we’re seeing now”.
Almendras dodged the question whether the quality and speed of the Aquino administration in responding to the humanitarian emergency would define the presidency. In thinking it was not “an acid test of this administration” but “an acid test of Filipino people”, Almendras was passing to the “Filipino people” the burden and responsibility solely that of President Aquino. It defines the President. The lack of organization was mainly due to his indecisiveness.
When he saw the immensity of the disaster that Sunday – November 10 – on the spot, he should have declared a state of calamity or emergency, taken over the NDRRMC and, using all the powers he has under the Constitution, organized the mechanisms to cope with the disaster. He had with him seven key members of the cabinet; together, they could have rekindled the morale of a stricken down people. Seeing their President leading, the able could have joined.
He and the National Food Authority administrator had assured there was enough rice for the Yolanda victims. Had this been distributed immediately instead of just assuring, the looting of the NFA bodega and the death of eight looters could have been avoided. Had the malls and grocery stores been secured and their foodstuffs taken at cost and distributed, the looting could have been avoided. Seeing their President leading in keeping order, people would have behaved.
By the latest report (November 14), NDRRMC, the agency mandated by R.A. 10121 to respond to disasters, appeared to be a non-factor. Reports from the Palace to the contrary, the relief efforts, while obviously intensifying, are too feeble for comfort. The state of affairs in Tacloban City was “no help … no food …debris and uncollected corpses … etc. … people wanting to get out … no organization”.
Organization is still most imperative. As of last November 14, at least 31 countries and five international organizations have extended assistance amounting to P3,848,564,500 or $89,501,500 to the Philippines, based on the latest tally of Department of Foreign Affairs. The figure accounts only for cash donation pledges and in-kind donations to which monetary valuation had been assigned by the donors. While donor agencies will do the distribution, they still have to be coordinated. Otherwise, relief efforts will be frustrating
Government is no doubt intensifying its efforts. The NDRRMC has, as reported, been holding meetings under Ochoa – not under Del Rosario, its official chief. Through the local media, the Palace updates the public of its efforts. But as the test of the pudding is in the eating, it is the feedbacks from Tacloban City and other typhoon devastated areas that will mean most.
I remember. In Iloilo in the late 1930s, to stop a threatening carabao disease epidemic, BAI (Bureau of Animal Industry) officials held meetings in the barrios. A farmer whose carabao had died grumbled, ”Miting, miting, miting nga miting. Patay man gihapon ang mga karbao (Despite the meetings, the carabaos are still dying.)
People judge government not from what it says but from what they see. It’s a waste of billions of pesos funding government media agencies to tell the people what government does – making it appear it is “on top of the situation” in Tacloban City until the international media “spilled the beans”. If the people see and enjoy what government does for them, they don’t have to be told. [Author’s Note: Mind da News, an alternate of COMMENT, is specifically an opinion on current news. firstname.lastname@example.org]