Never again: The Yolanda super typhoon fiasco

THE previous Yellow government’s colossal incompetence in addressing the “Yolanda” super typhoon eight years ago was a microcosm of everything that was wrong with that Aquino 3rd administration and its leaders.

It was a colossal catastrophe, worsened by government’s delayed response in rescuing those hit by the storm surge, and struggling to survive.

The pro-government Philippine Daily Inquirer reported (Nov. 21, 2013) that when the body count reached 4,300, Aquino ordered the national disaster agency to stop releasing figures on casualties. As a result, we only have estimates of how many people were actually killed by the natural and Yellow-made disaster: 6,000 to as high as 15,000.

The following is what happened on November 7 and 8 when the super typhoon hit Tacloban, Leyte — when the Yellow officials were sound asleep.

Roxas and Gazmin presiding at an 8 p.m. Tacloban City meeting the evening before Yolanda struck. (Screen grab of video taken by city officials, including subtitles.)

After they were informed several days before that super typhoon Yolanda would be hitting Central Visayas on November 8, then Interior and Local Government Secretary 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 City to oversee the evacuation, as well as the rescue and relief operations.

The two arrived in Tacloban at 5 p.m. on November 7 and after 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?

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 in Manila. 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 taken by the city’s staff, 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.

Confusion

Roxas and Voltaire’s big boo-boo — which nearly cost them 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 until 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 p.m. televised speech on November 7, during which he boasted that his government had 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.)

Roxas’claim that the typhoon would hit “10 a.m.” November 8 was based on Pagasa’s Severe Weather Bulletin issued 11 a.m. November 7, that Yolanda’s landfall would be at noon the following day.

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 p.m. November 7 bulletin, Pagasa warned that Signal No. 4 denoting winds of more than 185 kph would cover Samar and Leyte and many otherareas “in at least 12 hours,” which means by 5 a.m. the next day.

Its bulletin issued 2 a.m. November 8 was more categorical, that the typhoon would make landfall on Eastern Samar at 5 a.m.

Horrific blunder

It was a horrific blunder that would cost thousands of lives. Roxas expected the typhoon to hit at noon; it hit at 5 a.m. 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 struck, and after the storm surge hit their hotel, their terrified aides nearly broke down their door to wake them up. Both nearly drowned. One local-based security man who was assigned to them lost his life in the waters that surged through their hotel.

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 a.m., 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.

It was 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, which nearly cost him his life, and an episode demonstrating once more 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, a statement that would ring through Philippine history: “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. Aquino approved the plan for rehabilitation only 11 months after.

Never again.

Note: With a few revisions, this piece was written on the first anniversary to the disaster, on Nov. 6, 2014. Neither Roxas nor Gazmin nor that regime’s spokespersons questioned it, or any of the details it reported.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jonathan B. Bangui

    I really enjoyed reading your column Mr. Tiglao as if I am watching a movie. Its very vivid specially when you wrote “Roxas and Gazmin were walking like dazed zombies on Tacloban’s streets just like most victims, toward the airport” I was laughing my heart out. But seriously, the PNoy administration clearly demonstrated their incompetence and redefined the word inutil for lack of better term. Good thing that we elected a good dictator in the person of PRRD the nation is on the right path again. I just hope that the next administration will have a continuity of the present in the persons of BBM as President and Inday Sara as Vice President.

  2. Dorina Rojas

    BSAquino was in his worst mood having been disturbed while playing computer games in the middle of the storm, surely it was perfect weather for computer games. What about the police chief who went public and announced his estimate at 10,000 deaths? I heard he was sacked too. Like in the Luneta hostage massacre and the Mamasapano tragedy, we saw how incompetent, callous, uncaring and unapologetic the former President was. We may be forgiving as to his poor work ethics and kindergarten style of public management, but we saw the kind of person that he really was when he turned his back on the same people who placed him where he was. And Mar Roxas? His surname is Roxas, sounds like rogue and a__s, or someone who is fond of having rows among us.

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