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A joker’s crisis during times of calamities

/ 01:58 AM October 10, 2011

WET RICE. Farmers harvest what is left of their water-logged ricefields at Apalit town in Pampanga, towing a boatload of their wet crops to dry land. They hope the weather would get better in the next three days so the grains would not all go to waste. LYN RILLON

Must one look sad when faced with calamity?

This is the dilemma faced by the country’s “calamity manager,” Defense Undersecretary Benito Ramos, a retired Army major general and a naturally jolly person.

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As administrator of the Office of Civil Defense and executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), Ramos has become the “voice” and the “face” of the government in times of disasters.

It doesn’t help much that he has also a face he describes as, well, not exactly ideal for comedies.

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“My face is serious, and a serious face equates with the seriousness of the calamity. When the people see me, they will feel worse,” Ramos said in Filipino the other night when interviewed on Radyo Inquirer 990AM.

“But if I crack jokes, others will also say I am insensitive. Nagkamatayan na nga, eh nagpapatawa pa daw ako (People are dying and I can still supposedly afford to make jokes),” he said.

Ramos cracks jokes at the drop of a hat—unfortunately, even while in the middle of a briefing he was giving President Benigno Aquino III last week on the destruction brought by Typhoons “Pedring” and “Quiel.”

At one point, he told the President that “stubborn” flood victims refused to be evacuated, preferring to stay on the roofs of their submerged houses so they could watch out for looters.

“I wanted to handcuff them, but I’d be accused of human rights violations,” Ramos said, eliciting laughter from the media.

Zambales Representative Mitos Magsaysay did not find Ramos’ off-the-wall comments funny.

In the middle of his briefing, Magsaysay tweeted: “This guy doing the briefing ISN’T FUNNY at ALL. The situation in the country is NO LAUGHING MATTER!”

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In the world of SMS, Facebook and Twitter, using all capital letters may seem to some people as tantamount to shouting.

Part of the job

Asked how he felt about Magsaysay’s reaction, Ramos said also in Filipino: “That’s a good question. Congresswoman Magsaysay is entitled to her own opinion. I respect her for that.”

Ramos, a respected former commander of the Army’s elite Special Forces , said he was not “onion-skinned.” In fact, he welcomes criticisms and takes them as part of his job.

“No hard feelings. In fact, I have improved. I know when to be serious, I know when to be corny,” he said, laughing.

One thing he doesn’t laugh about is the devastation wrought by Pedring and Quiel.

Authorities on Sunday put the death toll from the two typhoons at 101, with tens of thousands of people still displaced by massive flooding.

Pedring left 82 dead in its wake, while Quiel—which hit five days later—killed 19, the NDRRMC said.

Most of those killed drowned in floods that swept through farming towns, while the remainder were either electrocuted by fallen power lines or crushed by debris and landslides.

Twenty-seven people remain missing.

More than 67,000 people remain in evacuation centers in Luzon, most of them in low-lying agricultural areas where rivers and tributaries overflowed.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said those displaced were being served in 78 evacuation centers, although tens of thousands more still needed help after deciding to return home to houses still immersed in waist-deep water.

The typhoons caused crop and property damage estimated at P13.8 billion.

Enough funds?

But all isn’t that bleak.

The President’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said on state radio dzRB that Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima had told him the government had “enough fiscal space in our budget to address” calamity concerns.  The state’s calamity fund amounts to P8 billion.

Lacierda made the statement when asked whether the government plans to seek a supplement to the proposed 2012 budget to help it cope with the damage caused by the two typhoons.

“But let’s wait and see—we’re going to discuss the issue of the state of calamity within this week and we will let you know,” he said. With reports from Christine O. Avendaño, AFP and Reuters

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TAGS: Benito Ramos, Civil Defense, Disasters, Natural Calamities, NDRRMC, Pedring, Quiel
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