‘Who’s in charge here?’
Where is the government?
Five days after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” flattened the central Philippines, thousands of victims were still crying out for food on Wednesday, their dead left rotting by the roadside, prompting CNN’s Anderson Cooper to declare that “there is no real evidence of organized recovery or relief.”
Even as an enormous global aid effort gathered momentum and relief supplies began trickling into the airport in Tacloban, capital of the worst-hit province of Leyte, officials did not have a full grasp of the magnitude of the devastation and could provide no guidance on when basic emergency needs could be met.
While President Aquino suggested in a CNN interview on Wednesday that estimates of 10,000 or more dead may turn out to be high, international relief officials said they were still assuming the worst and were worried that bottlenecks and delays could prevent them from reaching millions of victims for days.
Officials in Manila found themselves on the defensive, asserting that they were doing the best they could despite a storm that Valerie Amos, the top United Nations relief coordinator, who flew to Manila on Tuesday to help take charge of efforts, called the “most deadly and destructive” to hit the Philippines.
Amos pleaded for more than $300 million in emergency aid.
Malacañang admitted on Tuesday that it had asked the United States for help and that many survivors had not received relief.
“We’ve asked the US for aid and the secretary of defense says they are sending an aircraft carrier and a couple of other ships—those are en route,” said Ricky Carandang, a spokesman for the Palace.
“There are lots of remote areas that haven’t received aid,” Carandang said. “The priority is to supply food and water. With communications partially functioning, with ports and roads blocked, we need to get that clear first. We need to get the roads clear before you can get the aid to them.”
Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) slammed into the Samar-Leyte area on Friday with sustained winds of up to 215 kilometers per hour and gusts of up to 250 kph, then swept across the central Philippines, flattening entire towns, killing a still undetermined number of people, and knocking down power and communication lines.
The government blames its slow response to the lack of power and communications and questions the death toll estimate of 10,000, only to show the absence of organization in responding to the crisis.
The Aquino response
CNN’s chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, on Wednesday put President Aquino on the spot, impressing on him that his administration’s response to the disaster would probably define his presidency.
“Mr. President you talked about a moral responsibility from the world,” she told Aquino in an exclusive interview.
“Let me ask you about your responsibility as President. Clearly, I don’t know whether you agree, but the way you respond and your government respond to this terrible devastation will probably define your presidency,” Amanpour said.
“Many have talked about how much effort has gone in, how much reform you have done, how much work you’ve done against corruption. But many people might end up judging you on how your government has responded. What do you say to that?” she asked.
The President did not answer the question and instead mentioned other areas in the Visayas, “with the exception” of Leyte and Eastern and Western Samar, where the number of casualties officials had said was “minimal.”
But Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, asked in a news briefing on Wednesday about Amanpour’s observation, said: “I don’t think it is an acid test of this administration. This is an acid test of the Filipino people. How well we handle this crisis will matter a lot. Yes, there will be challenges, but we will move on.”
Asked by the Inquirer who was calling the shots, Almendras said, “The one calling the shots is actually the President and the Cabinet members.”
At the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), reporters asked Executive Director Eduardo del Rosario who was in charge of the government’s response to Yolanda.
“Not me,” Del Rosario said. “It’s the Executive Secretary (Paquito Ochoa), ably assisted by Secretary (to the Cabinet Jose Rene) Almendras.”
Del Rosario last presided over a meeting of the national disaster council on Friday, hours before Yolanda slammed into the Samar-Leyte area.
President Aquino presided over the next meeting, on Saturday, and walked out of the meeting on Sunday after showing dissatisfaction with Del Rosario’s report.
Ochoa has since been presiding over meetings of the council.
Former Election Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, who grew up in Ormoc City, spoke on Wednesday about the magnitude of the devastation that he saw during a visit to his hometown and neighboring Tanauan, Palo, Tolosa, Dulag and Abuyog on Sunday.
“It’s not something you would want to happen to your worst enemy,” he told the Inquirer, recalling the sight of corpses stuffed into sacks and piled up on the streets.
“We went around in the evening in an air-conditioned car. We were wearing 3M masks, meaning the heavy duty one, but believe me, the stench was so bad,” Larrazabal said.
Amanpour cited CNN stories showing “the slowness, the bottleneck of trying to get vital aid to the people.”
Aquino said “the sheer number of people who were affected in these three provinces is quite daunting.”
“What hampers the effort is that the typhoon wrought havoc on the power lines and also the communication facilities, giving us immense difficulty in identifying needs and thereby dispatching the necessary relief supplies and vital equipment,” he added.
But with the world reaching out in the biggest relief effort yet for the Philippines, the government apparently remained unable to find an efficient way to ensure that food, medicines and shelter actually reached the survivors sooner, not later.
The President met with key Cabinet officials on Tuesday night on a “master plan” to deal with the disaster, Almendras said.
It was not clear, however, if the plan was drawn up only that night, meaning four days after Yolanda laid waste to the central Philippines.
Asked if the plan was working, Almendras said: “This is the first time we are going to try it at this magnitude. So far, things are moving. So far, goods are moving.”
Almendras acknowledged logistical difficulties, but blamed these on the breakdown of local response where local officials should be the first responders.
That “goods are not reaching some people” was “really a local issue that we are trying to address now,” he said, noting village officials knew who should receive relief and where.
But when reminded that local officials themselves were victims of the typhoon and that the President had already declared a state of national calamity, Almendras said government personnel were now being sent to disaster areas from other locations.
“If the local governments do not have the resources to handle that logistic process, the national government will step in,” Almendras said, reiterating that the government had powers to do so, which Palace officials had been talking about since the weekend.
Almendras admitted that the government was facing “not a small amount of work” and had distributed relief only at “a small level today.”
But he said officials had a “dream”—to reach all survivors—and they would fulfill that “challenging task” in the coming days.
He said the master plan involved accelerating the repacking of relief, expanding supply centers in such places as Cebu and Davao, speeding up the movement of relief and bringing in government workers from other regions to the typhoon-ravaged areas.
Almendras said the government was considering using many of its 1.6 million workers to help repack relief goods.
The government will deploy more law enforcement and security forces to restore peace and order in Leyte and Samar, he said.
Can’t say when
Asked how soon the survivors would actually receive relief, Almendras said: “I would like to give you a date and a time if possible, but that is not within the national government’s control how effectively we can hit the ground.”
“There are places that are very remote, which we need to know also so that we can reach them,” he added.
The systems breakdown in Eastern Visayas has prompted questions about local governments’ capability to handle disaster preparation and response and whether the national government should take over the job to ensure maximum safety.
Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, head of the House national defense committee, on Wednesday said most local governments had so far been unable to cope with the responsibility of organizing mass evacuations and providing temporary shelters for typhoon survivors.
He said that at present, the national government’s role was only to provide information about the strength of coming storms, with local governments handling the preparations and response.
The setup worked well in the past, Biazon said, but local government capabilities now looked inadequate because of the increasing strength of typhoons.
The local governments in Samar and Leyte alerted residents to the size and power of Yolanda, but were unable to force the people to move to safer grounds.
“I believe the national government has the authority and resources to force evacuations and prepare for safe, temporary shelters before a supertyphoon,” Biazon said.
He said he had asked Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to find out whether there really was a complete breakdown in local preparations so that the House could decide whether it should give the job to the national government.
Time for unity
Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello said he shared President Aquino’s frustration with his underlings who were quite slow in responding to the crisis.
But Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said this was not the time for tossing blame.
“All of us have to unite to deliver relief to the victims of Yolanda. It is not the time to pinpoint whether the fault lies with Malacañang or with local officials,” Colmenares said.
He, however, acknowledged news reports that five days after Yolanda flattened the central Philippines, most survivors still had to receive any help from the government.
Yolanda has shown that private companies and individuals and civic organizations are more effective in delivering aid in times of calamities, Colmenares said.—With reports from Gil C. Cabacungan and Dona Z. Pazzibugan and wires
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