Looking for the government

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Vice-President Jejomar Binay is right. This is not the time for finger-pointing — at least not yet. The people of the provinces that have been devastated by typhoon Yolanda have to be helped, and helped quickly.

As soon as the situation stabilizes, however, blaming whoever contributed to the immense catastrophe in Tacloban and elsewhere, as part of the democratic imperative of holding government to account, will not only be inevitable; it will also be absolutely necessary, if the same levels of destruction and deaths are to be prevented in future disasters. Sooner rather than later, both the national and local governments will have to explain to their constituencies what they did and didn’t do and why, to prepare for, and to cope with, the worst typhoon to hit the country in living memory.

The Philippines sits on the ring of volcanoes known as the Ring of Fire that circles the Pacific Ocean. Fault lines crisscross the archipelago, making it vulnerable to frequent earthquakes. Between 20 and 30 storms and typhoons strike the country every year. Some, like “Yolanda,” build up great strength as they cross the Pacific. The usual results are the floods and landslides that every year claim thousands of lives and destroy billions of pesos in crops and property. That it is a country shredded into 7,000 islands also makes the Philippines and its human settlements, many within meters of shorelines, prone to storm surges.

These are the realities of geography and geology. Nothing can be done to change them. No government can legislate volcanoes out of existence, stabilize fault lines, or stop typhoons.

But if they can’t predict earthquakes either, governments aware of the vulnerability of the countries they govern can draft and implement building codes that can make structures reasonably safe during earthquakes.

If they can’t subdue typhoons, they can warn their citizens of their imminence and the devastation they can inflict. They can also identify and construct evacuation centers where people can seek refuge from the impact of earthquakes and typhoons.

In the aftermath of disasters, governments can mobilize the manpower and other resources that can prevent more casualties, provide the food, water and medical care the survivors and the injured need, and, eventually put in place a rehabilitation program to restore services and utilities so the people can rebuild their communities, bury their dead, and resume their normal lives.

If governments can soften the impact of disasters, they can also — by default, incompetence and/or inefficiency and indifference — do the opposite. Organized human intervention is a vital factor prior to, during, and after disasters.

The devastation in Tacloban City is illustrative. Tacloban is the capital of Leyte province, much of which has been under the control of the Romualdez political dynasty since 1949.

Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, the son of the late Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, is the current congressman for the first district of Leyte. His aunt, Kokoy’s sister, former First Lady and currently second district of Ilocos Norte Congresswoman Imelda Romualdez Marcos, represented the same district from 1995 to 1998. The mayor of Tacloban is Alfred Romualdez, another Imelda Marcos nephew. Alfred’s wife is also a city councilor of Tacloban.

Mayor Romualdez’s councilor-wife couldn’t tell the difference between a storm surge and a tsunami. While that’s a comment on her abysmal qualifications as a councilor, it is also indicative of how the local government defaulted on providing the citizens of Tacloban the crucial information that could have saved lives.

The bottom line is that as among the worst-hit victims of “Yolanda,” Tacloban needs help immediately. But how prepared was it in the first place?

The extent of Tacloban’s unpreparedness was evident in the death, which a little information could have prevented, of over a hundred people who had sought refuge in a building that the storm surge at the height of “Yolanda” inundated with five-meter high waves.

A full five days after the city was razed to the ground, the broadcast media were also reporting that, with debris and bodies littering the streets, there was still no visible government presence in the city, whether in the form of the police, sanitary squads, or the most minimal relief operations by government agencies whether local or national.

The looting that ensued in some parts of the city was provoked by desperation over the lack of food and water as well as places of refuge. But in a bizarre replication of the martial law practice of blaming the victims for their own problems, the chaos was last Monday being used as the excuse for the demand that President Aquino III declare martial law.

Did the local government even take the time and effort to issue guidelines on the perils of the storm surge that the typhoon was likely to generate, and where citizens could safely seek refuge once the typhoon hit? Did it even know the difference between a storm surge and a tsunami? Did it evacuate the most vulnerable to evacuation centers? It had all of five days — PAG-ASA had been tracking the typhoon path since Nov. 4 — in which to do these and more.

In the aftermath of the typhoon, when bodies littered debris-ridden streets, and survivors were desperately looking for food, water, medical care, and a place to rest and sleep in, where was the local government? If the Mayor and his wife could fly to Manila immediately after the typhoon, and could make themselves available for interviews, could they not have been in Tacloban instead to tend to the needs of their suffering constituency rather than using the media to deflect criticism and to get public sympathy by narrating to all who would listen how terrible a time they had in their huge Tacloban mansion? Were they even in Tacloban in the first place?

These are among the questions that eventually will have to be raised not only about the behavior of the Tacloban government but also of the governments of other municipalities. Equally relevant is why the national government, for all the billions in discretionary funds in the hands of the executive, was still unable to provide the food, water and medical care so desperately needed in Leyte five days after the disaster.

Where was the supposedly “modernized” military, which had to rely on the Smart and Globe companies’ damaged cell sites for its and the government’s communication needs? And how competent are the people Aquino III has appointed to such crucial agencies as the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), whose executive director said with a straight face during a briefing that there was only “minor devastation” in Tacloban and that the casualties there were minimal?

Disaster and other experts from all over the world agree that the Philippines is particularly vulnerable to calamities, but they’re also saying that positive human intervention could have resulted in fewer casualties than the thousands — some estimates say the dead could be as many as 10,000-who died in the Visayas.

There should be no finger-pointing in aid of a political agenda during the country’s hour of need. But it is still necessary to find out how the agony of Tacloban and other cities, towns, and villages in the Visayas could have been, if not prevented, at least minimized, so that the magnitude of the “Yolanda” disaster won’t ever be repeated when other disasters strike. That will mean holding to account the government officials responsible regardless of their political affiliations.

Comments, blogs and other columns: www.luisteodoro.com, and www.cmfr-phil.org

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
November 14, 2013

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  1. I salute this article and it’s author and message..there is much to answer for and many answers to be sort..NEXT time..and there will be many,our government has oodles to learn and the money available to put into place for a very-much better response to the next emergency.
    Forget China and all those pork-barrel grievances..1st things first!!

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