Disaster body lacks satellite phones, others in case of another ‘Yolanda’
MANILA, Philippines— Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name Haiyan) has exposed yet another chink in the government’s armor against disasters.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), the agency tasked with setting up a national early warning system, has no satellite phone that its staff could use after Yolanda walloped central Philippines on Nov. 8.
Neither does it have a generator set or tents.
This came to light at Wednesday’s plenary debate on the budget of the Department of National Defense (DND) in the Senate, reviving calls for the creation of a “stronger” agency like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“The NDRRMC has no satellite phone,” noted Sen. Loren Legarda, who defended the DND budget as chair of the Senate finance subcommittee. Then chuckling, she added: “I’ll lend them mine.”
Sen. Nancy Binay raised questions on the apparent lack of communication equipment by the government in coordinating massive search and rescue operations in provinces where Yolanda left a wide swath of destruction.
When Binay queried if the military had any satellite phone, Legarda said the Philippine Navy had 40 such phones, quoting DND officials, led by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
One was sent to the Tacloban City airport, one of the areas devastated by the storm, while the rest remained in “various” Navy vessels, Legarda said.
Binay, who got the sense only the Navy had satellite phones in the entire bureaucracy, then wondered aloud: “Does this mean that NDRRMC doesn’t have a satellite phone?”
The defense officials confirmed to Legarda that indeed NDRRMC had none. Satellite phones became handy in Tacloban, Leyte and other areas where Yolanda toppled power lines, shutting down not only power but also mobile phone service.
Republic Act No. 10121 of 2010 spells out several functions for NDRMMC, such as establishing a national early warning and emergency alert system; drawing up a comprehensive framework on disaster risk reduction and management; developing appropriate risk transfer mechanisms; and mobilizing resources for risk reduction.
Binay asked: “Is there a plan then to purchase more satellite phones?”
“There should be. Yes, there’s a chorus that says `yes,”’ Legarda said, echoing officials seated behind her. She said that the DND has been planing to buy 17 satellite phones in 2014.
Legarda agreed that it should be standard operating procedure for the NDRRMC to have a satellite phone.
During the course of Binay’s questioning, defense officials admitted through Legarda that the NDRRMC also lacked a generator set and tents.
Agencies comprising the NDRRMC like the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Department of Energy (DOE) have tents and generator sets, according to Legarda.
“Yes we should have had gen sets from the DoE, tents from the DSWD. The NDRRMC does not have facilities,” she said.
Legarda acknowledged that it was high time to look at the mandate of the NDRRMC, if not at the possibility of creating a “stronger council” like the FEMA.
Fema, an agency under the US Department of Homeland Security, coordinates the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating and responding to the effects of domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made.
“When Hurricane `Sandy’ struck, you’d see the FEMA head there beside Mayor Bloomberg every hour, every 30 minutes. And they actually closed New York City, all forms of transport, even if the people were angry,” she said, referring to the hurricane that devastated the US northeast coast a year ago.
This would be an auspicious time for the Senate to rethink the “strength” of the NDRRMC. If at all, it should have its own resources and “own bigger budget,” Legarda said.
Binay said protocols in disaster response, especially in view of the effects of climate change, must be reviewed.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV has refiled Senate Bill No. 819 in July seeking the creation of the Emergency Management Agency (EMA) that would take over the job of the NDRRMC.
Its main functions are drafting policies on disaster and emergency response, advising the President on disaster and emergency response, recommending the declaration of a state of emergency, and developing a national disaster risk management framework.
The proposed Ema would fall under the Office of the President “for better command and control,” he said.
“This would be a better set-up for a crisis/disaster situation than the NDRRMC, which is a council in nature. It would also be the disbursing agency of the calamity funds so it would have its own resources as opposed to getting a small share from the defense budget,” Trillanes said in a text message last Sunday.
Sen. Gregorio Honasan III, principal author of the law creating the NDRRMC, expressed reservations to creating another body, saying this would merely “create another bureaucracy.”
“Don’t we have too many bureaucracies already? That’s another bureaucratic layer,” he said by phone. “Let’s invest instead in an all-weather communication system and evacuate people ahead of storms.”
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