Exposed: The govt’s biggest boo-boo on the Yolanda fiasco

A year after the Yolanda disaster, the biggest boo-boo of President Aquino’s top officials tasked to deal with the Super Typhoon remained unexposed, or at least not given the appropriate media reportage. If our Senators are so fond of investigation, this is one issue they should probe—after all, the archipelago, again and again will be hit by super typhoons, and our nation can’t afford this yellow type of blunder.

This gigantic slip-up is, in fact, a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with this Administration, other than its corruption: its arrogance and amateurishness.

Here’s what happened:

Told in Manila on the eve of the disaster that Super Typhoon Yolanda would be hitting Central Visayas on November 8, Interior and Local Government Mar Roxas and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who also heads the National Disaster and Risk Management Center (the command and control center for disaster management), rushed to Tacloban to oversee the evacuation, as well as the rescue and relief operations.

The two arrived at 5 pm on November 7 and after, of course, a press conference at the airport, they called and presided over a meeting of more than two dozen local officials, including the city mayor, Alfred Romualdez, for preparations for the typhoon.

Guess what kind of official Gazmin and Roxas failed to bring with them from Manila, or require the local counterparts to attend the meeting?

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Roxas at the meeting in Tacloban 8 pm, the evening before Yolanda struck—not at noon he thought it would, but at 5 am (Subtitles included in the video.)

 

The weather forecasters of the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Worse, neither of the two nor their staff was in contact with Pagasa forecasters. It was like an army marching into battle without a “G-2” intelligence staff, not knowing where the enemy was.

(Pagasa actually has a regional official for Central Visayas and had five field stations in Samar and Leyte. A Pagasa weather forecaster, Salvacion Avestruz, was killed in the onslaught of the typhoon as she manned a weather station.)

In a video of that meeting, Roxas obviously didn’t realize how the weather forecast was critical to their work. He asked in the meeting if there was a Pagasa representative among the more than two-dozen local officials present, and when the question was met with total silence, he just moved on to another topic without giving an order to get the weather forecaster.

Until 10 a.m.
Roxas and Voltaire’s big boo-boo – which actually nearly cost their lives – was that they were totally out of touch with Pagasa and weren’t updated on the movement of the typhoon. In that meeting (video grab above), Roxas said: “We still have 10 o’clock tomorrow morning to evacuate these people.”

(It is a mystery — or another demonstration of confusion at the top rungs of government — why Aquino claimed in his 6 pm televised speech on November 7, during which he boasted that his government has made all the necessary preparations to respond to the typhoon, that it would hit central Visayas that midnight. [“Inaasahan pong tatama si Yolanda sa mga probinsya ng Samar at Leyte simula mamayang hatinggabi,” he said.]

On the other hand, Roxas’ “10 am” November 8 deadline was based on Pagasa’s Severe Weather Bulletin issued 11 am November 7, that Yolanda’s landfall would be at noon November 8.

However, Pagasa would issue several other bulletins in the course of the day, when its stations detected that the typhoon’s speed had increased. In its 9 pm November 7 bulletin, Pagasa warned that Signal No. 4 denoting winds of more than 185-kph would cover Samar and Leyte and many other areas “in at least 12 hours,” which means by 5 am the next day.

Its bulletin issued 2 am was more categorical, that the typhoon would make landfall on Eastern Samar at 5 am.

It was a horrific mistake that would cost thousands of lives. Roxas expected the typhoon to hit at noon; it hit at 5 am. City and provincial officials relied on the national government officials’ information. Everyone went to bed after that meeting, perhaps thinking they needed to build up through sleep their energies for evacuation operations at daybreak. Using the military analogy, because Roxas and his people lacked an intelligence group (the Pagasa meteorologists); they were ambushed… and wiped out.

Two sources claimed that Roxas and Gazmin, after a round of brandy, retired before midnight and slept soundly. By daybreak the typhoon would strike, and after the storm surge hit their hotel, their terrified aides nearly broke down their door to wake them up. Both nearly drowned, as did one local-based security man who was assigned to them.

Gazmin lost his insulin kit for diabetes, and had to be rushed back to Manila through Cebu on the first helicopter available for his life-saving shots. They lost even their satellite phones, which made them incommunicado until after noon of November 8. After Yolanda left by 10 am, Roxas and Gazmin were walking like dazed zombies on Tacloban’s streets just like most victims, toward the airport.

No wonder, when he recovered from his shock, Roxas was in the foulest of moods, and demanded that the mayor turn over the city to him in a meeting two days later. Why? “‘Because you are a Romualdez, and the President is an Aquino,” he barked at the city mayor in a meeting several days later. That arrangement would have been his remaining chance of proving his leadership in a crisis.

It would be kind to describe what had happened to Roxas and Gazmin with those famous two lines from the poet Robert Burns: “The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry.”

It was more a case of hubris combined with ineptitude, that it could have been a saga for Roxas to demonstrate his leadership to qualify him to be president in 2016, and a savior of poor victims, which would have ratcheted up his ratings.

Instead, it became a horrific nightmare for Roxas that nearly cost his life, and an episode demonstrating one more time the Aquino government’s ineptness and lack of leadership during one of the worst tragedies to hit the nation.

No wonder Aquino was also in a foul mood during a meeting with Tacloban officials and citizens that he snapped at a businessman worried over looting: “Buhay ka pa naman, di ba?” (“Stop whining. After all, you’re still alive, aren’t you?”)

And through the year, the ineptitude would continue in the relief and rehabilitation work. Imagine that, Aquino would approve the plan for rehabilitation only 11 months after?

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