One would think that in the face of the country’s worst disaster ever, the President of the Republic would reach out to unite the country and get everyone, even those not within his camp, on board.
There are in fact institutional mechanisms for this, for such a crisis as the horrific devastation caused by Typhoon Yolanda.
The National Security Council during Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administrations, and especially the latter’s Council of State had past presidents, leaders of Congress including the opposition as well as of the business sector sitting in one table to discuss how a crisis would be met, how the nation’s resources, how a collective mind could be tapped to solve a grave problem confronting the country.
Instead President Aquino since Yolanda struck had been closeted solely with his inner circle in the Palace. He had not even consulted his leaders in Congress, Senate President Franklin Drilon and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, which explains these two politicians invisibility in the past week.
I was told that Vice President Jejomar Binay even had to course his proposal to help Mr. Aquino’s team for the disaster through an intermediary, as he couldn’t even talk to the President. Binay wasn’t even given the courtesy of a reply.
We have a President who even blamed Tacloban officials for not preparing for the super-typhoon—when Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas were in the city (see item below) before Yolanda struck to make sure national government agencies made their preparations, which proved useless.
A Facebook post on Roxas’ interview with CNN reporter Andrew Stevens (quotes are accurate).
Whatever the two officials prepared obviously were also washed away by the storm surge. And like nearly everyone in Leyte and in the country, Aquino’s two top officials had not understood meteorologists’ warning about a “storm surge.” The two had nearly drowned in the undisclosed building near the airport where they bunkered in. The colonel commanding the military outpost at the airport was washed to the sea, and hung on for dear life on a plywood plank that fortunately drifted back to the shore the day after.
No wonder film director Peque Gallaga wrote in his Facebook essay that had become viral: “Not since Marcos have we as a people been so polarized. As far as our hearts and minds are concerned, it’s like we’re in the edge of a civil war.”
We are in the midst of a catastrophe that would be a scar on our nation for decades to come. Yet this president has chosen a path of discord. It’s not really such a surprise, as Aquino has been a quarrelsome president, internally and externally.
What really happened in Tacloban
The following narrative has been circulating in social media, and was even emailed to me by different people. One email said that it was written by a Mr. Alex Avisado, Jr. who the sender said is a lawyer for Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez, who had posted it on his Facebook wall.
I checked Mr. Avisado’s Facebook account and indeed he posted it, on November 15. Other postings in his wall show that he has been privy to events that transpired in Tacloban before and after the typhoon. One of his postings had an unpublished photo of secretaries Gazmin and Roxas arriving at the Tacloban airport “a few days” before Tacloban struck. Avisado captioned it: “PNoy stop blaming local officials for the tragedy! Look—secretaries Roxas and Gazmin were both in Tacloban a few days before to ensure disaster preparedness for typhoon Yolanda.” (I emailed him through his Facebook account to verify whether he did or didn’t write the posting, but as of my deadline, I had not received a reply.)
I find Mr. Avisado’s narrative (dated Nov. 15) credible. Here it is, unedited:
“After Typhoon Yolanda struck, the Mayor of Tacloban requested the NDRRMC to make a “RESPONSE OVERKILL” on the rescue and relief operations.
Unfortunately, the response from the National Govt was very cold and half-hearted. On Day 2 of Typhoon Yolanda aftermath, the Mayor requested the NDRRMC to deploy 2 Marine Battalions to help immediately establish peace and order and rescue/relief operations.
Unfortunately, this plea for help was unheeded by the National Govt. After almost a week, the National Govt sent only Bureau of Fire Protection and MMDA personnel.
The Mayor requested for PNP reinforcement since only around 25 policemen were left for duty out of 280 plus police force. Unfortunately, this plea for help was again unheeded.
The Mayor again requested the National Govt for trucks and transportation since they got even the remaining patrol cars but this plea was again unheeded. The Mayor requested the National Govt to put more vehicles and personnel for cadaver retrieval but up to now only 4 trucks from the National Govt are doing this.
Only 8 trucks from the National Govt are doing relief work. Tacloban is now reeking from the smell of death and relief operations are still moving at a snail’s pace. All relief goods arriving at the airport and seaport are now being controlled by the National Govt.
To add insult to injury, the DILG Sec wants the Mayor of Tacloban to write a formal letter to the PNOY supposedly to inform him that he could no longer function as Mayor thereby surrendering authority to the DILG Sec. He wants the letter soon so PNoy can make the announcement and perhaps justify the government’s slow and stupid response to this disaster and lay the blame on the Mayor. The International Community is fully aware of the deplorable conditions in Tacloban but the National Govt is still in denial.”
There was incontrovertibly a crucial delay in government’s deployment of troops. NDRMMC Executive Director Eduardo del Rosario said that troops were not deployed as it was thought that they would have to compete for food in the city. He claimed: “We might be adding troops that are not needed. Another problem is how to feed the soldiers and policemen we will send there,”
Only in recent days, and spearheaded by the reportage of CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the horrific costs to the people of Tacloban of such a stupid thinking—aren’t troops supposed to bring their own rations?—have been exposed to the world.
One of the most vivid narratives of the tragic cost to human life of government’s belated response to the disaster is an article by Keith Bradsher in the Nov. 15 issue of the New York Times article. An excerpt:
TACLOBAN, the Philippines: Richard Pulga lay on a hard steel gurney for five days with only a saline drip after being seriously injured in the typhoon that devastated his country.
Doctors said the father of two small children could have been saved. Instead, he became a victim of the incompetence and inaction that have plagued relief efforts here for the hundreds of thousands left injured, or homeless or hungry, and sometimes all three, since the typhoon hit.
By the time Dr. Rodel Flores, a surgeon with a team of visiting doctors, found Mr. Pulga on Thursday, he had received no antibiotics or antiseptic and his leg was badly infected. The doctor ordered an emergency amputation to try to save his life. But the surgery was too late, and death soon followed.
“In short,” Dr. Flores said, “it was preventable.”
His death is one of the clearest signs yet of the human toll taken by a slow and troubled relief effort since the typhoon swept ashore on Nov. 8. Like much-needed water and food, medicine—including antibiotics—was held up for days as rescue teams struggled to operate amid the chaos of a city with too few military or police officers to provide security and too little government control.
Aid workers huddled for days at the airport, unable to obtain vehicles or fuel and fearful of venturing out amid reports of sporadic gunfire as desperate people nearly hijacked one convoy approaching Tacloban, which turned back. Some of those workers have since said the inadequate government response has made this disaster more difficult in some ways than such historic catastrophes as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.