Military should be in charge

Officials of this bungling government don’t even know who’s in charge.

Asked in a press briefing the other day who is in charge of the gargantuan, urgent task of saving 500,000 Leyteños from starvation, disease, and deadly anarchy, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras like a true sycophant said: “The one calling the shots is actually the President and the Cabinet members.”

Almendras should have been kept, as he had been during calmer periods, in the background. Does he mean that after the president, it is every Cabinet member on his own in this emergency? Or maybe after enjoying the briefings he’s been giving media, he in effect is saying that since he is Cabinet Secretary, he is in charge?

Then, at a recent press briefing of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council’s (NDRRMC)—its executive director Eduardo del Rosario was similarly asked who’s in charge.

“Not me,” Del Rosario said, in his case toadying up to his immediate superiors: “It’s the Executive Secretary (Paquito Ochoa), ably assisted by Secretary (to the Cabinet Rene) Almendras.” Almendras in fact in his lengthy press briefings referred to the NDRRMC as if he were the one calling the shots there.

Defense Secretary Gazmin, left: He’s in charge, or supposed to be; right, DND website totally oblivious to ‘Yolanda’ super-disaster.

Defense Secretary Gazmin, left: He’s in charge, or supposed to be; right, DND website totally oblivious to ‘Yolanda’ super-disaster.

But Interior Secretary Mar Roxas likely fumed at Almendras and del Rosario. Why, he is in charge, going by his recent briefings to media in Tacloban.

Please read the disaster-response law
Aquino’s officials don’t seem to have even bothered to read the law that created the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and provided a detailed how-to for government’s to response to a disaster.

The law is Republic Act No. 10121 of May 27, 2010, the last law passed during the term of President Arroyo, who pushed for its enactment after the devastation of Typhoon Ondoy, so that her successors would have a detailed framework and procedures for confronting disaster and mitigating its impact on the population.

Aquino though has thrown that law into the dustbin.

Under the law, the NDRRMC consists not only of several department secretaries and ranking security officials but also key representatives of local governments, among them the presidents of the Union of Local Authorities, the League of Provinces, and the League of Municipalities. It even has one representative from the private sector, and included the Secretary General of the Philippine National Red Cross.

Who heads the NDRRMC, and therefore in charge of all operations for the Yolanda-created disaster? Under the law, the NDRMMC’s chair is somebody neither Almendras nor its executive director thought of as being in charge: the Secretary of National Defense, Voltaire Gazmin.

But we’ve not heard anything though from Gazmin before and after Yolanda struck, other than the report that he bunkered with Mar Roxas in a Tacloban airport building at the height of the typhoon.

There is an important reason why the law designated the defense secretary as the NDRRMC chair. Next after the president, he has command—through the Armed Forces Chief of Staff—of the only national organizations that have the resources and organizational discipline to deal with emergencies created by national disasters.

In countries all over the world, and under all previous administrations, it is the military that is the vanguard in rescue operations which secures a devastated area and orderly delivering food and water to victims.

If a military man were in charge of operations for Tacloban, his first instinct would be the security of the survivors. In our case, that looters and brigands emerged in Tacloban seemed to be a shock to whoever was in charge. Disaster relief is essentially a matter of logistics, which of course, next to combat, is the military’s expertise.

In disasters during past administrations, there were generals and colonels on the ground, assuring the stunned populace: “We are here. We are in control.” None of that in Tacloban. Instead you see only Mar Roxas, in a ruffled dirtied shirt, appearing as stunned as everyone else.

Where’s the military?
It had to take CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, to tell us that in Japan when the tsunamis hit, it was the Japanese military, the Japan Self Defense Forces that was swiftly at the airports nearest the devastated areas the day after, which set up feeding centers for the victims, and methodically divided the area into grids so that a systematic removal of the corpses was done. Nothing like that in Tacloban after five days, Cooper said. In the US after Katrina, Bush sent in the National Guards, instead of SWAT teams, which is in our case are the PNP Special Action Forces sent to secure Tacloban.

Trying to sound witty when asked by reporters why corpses lining up Tacloban streets weren’t being collected, Cabinet secretary Almendras replied: “Hands,” explaining that there weren’t enough people to collect the bodies.

Somebody please tell him that we have a 220,000 pairs of hands available, and they are in the armed forces, and another 270,000 in the reserve corps.

Where has our military been during this crisis? Commendable of course has been the Air Force with its two C-130s (the third is under repair) ferrying supplies, officials, and platoons of police and army personnel to Tacloban and bringing refugees to Manila. It has also deployed six scout helicopters in Leyte, providing officials—and media—a fantastic bird’s eye views of the disaster area.

The biggest Army contingent has been the engineering battalion that has been clearing roads together with their escorts. In short, our military in devastated Leyte consist of pilots and road works laborers.

How many soldiers deployed for disaster?
Our military has one of the biggest budgets of P80 billion, with over 220,000 soldiers and Marines in eleven divisions. How many have been deployed in the devastated areas of Leyte, including Tacloban?

According to Malacañang’s “Consolidated report on government actions on typhoon Yolanda, November 13, 2013 (12:00 p.m.)”: 1,447. The AFP reported that an engineering battalion and a Special Forces battalion to provide it security were deployed in Leyte. That means the military practically has had minimal presence in terms of securing the population and undertaking relief and rescue operations.

No wonder the website of the DND—the lead agency for disaster response—seems to be completely oblivious that a disaster has struck the country, its worst ever.

It was the PNP’s Special Action Force of 600 men that were ordered to secure Tacloban and three other devastated municipalities. A battalion of policemen to secure a population of at least 500,000 in a situation where death, hunger, and devastation made the area ripe for anarchy? No wonder looters and brigands have made the area a no-man’s land.

For this year, the DND had been even allocated nearly P1 billion of the Calamity Fund’s “Quick Response Fund”, making the agency with the biggest allocation of such emergency funds.

Have all these already been spent, which explains why Gazmin isn’t mobilizing the military to save 500,000 Leyteños?

Somebody should explain to Gazmin the concept of “civil defense”—defending the population from and securing their safety in major threats to their lives and property—is along with “external defense”, the most important tasks of the national defense department, here and in any country in the world.

No wonder CNN’s Cooper concluded from what he saw in Tacloban: “There is no leader, no government, no civil defense in the Philippines.”