Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 November 2013


Shoulda, woulda, coulda. That seems to be the blame game everyone is playing now with regard to our relief efforts.  We coulda done this, or we shoulda gone that way, or we woulda made more of a difference. And to buttress our self-flagellation, we misquote or take out of context what foreigners say about our efforts.

Take the United Nations emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos. Her analysis of the situation was absolutely balanced, but by the time it got out to us, she was made to look critical of the Philippine government. No one paid attention to the reasons she gave for the difficulty of distributing relief goods: lack of air assets (not including the Tacloban airport, which was destroyed and took three days to reopen), shortage of vehicles for waste management (so debris and roadblocks could be cleared), lack of coordination by local officials (understandable, she says, because they were affected by the storm, too).  I cannot see how the government is answerable for that.

Anderson Cooper came on Day 5.  He probably didn’t know that the airport reopened on Day 4, and was aghast at conditions there. He said things like “the scene here at the airport is desperate,” “I have not seen a large Philippine military presence out around here,” “Philippine military personnel are cleaning up the area around the airport … first time we’re seeing this,” “people line up and they are here all day for a handful of flights.” People should understand that his analysis of Philippine relief efforts were based on one location only: Tacloban airport. He did walk around, but was constrained by the fact that there were NO VEHICLES available for use, so his analysis was severely limited.

Of course, Defense Secretary Volt Gazmin didn’t help matters. He was quoted as saying that there was something wrong with the system (of relief), and that politics was rearing its ugly head. He was at a loss to explain where the bottleneck was, in the first instance, although he chairs the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Committee (NDRRMC). In the second instance, he apparently based his conclusion about politics on the accounts of two victims, which he then expanded to the whole of local government (which is the same logic that Cooper used).

But I’d like to focus on the alleged lack of Philippine military presence (although Cooper admitted that they were cleaning up the area around the airport). I called up the Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, who gave details of the military participation.  The military participated, quietly (perhaps too quietly), but effectively. The conversation with Bautista was followed up by a 7-page report from Col. Ramon Zagala.

“Yolanda” hit land on Nov. 8 and wiped out all communications. The Army commander for Eastern Visayas, Brig. Gen. Jet Belarmino, with HQ beside the Tacloban airport, had to bore a hole in the ceiling of his quarters to survive the rising waters. And Lt. Col. Fermin Carangan of the Air Force was swept out to sea for six hours; he managed to survive, and save a 7-year-old boy in the process.

The first military sortie was carried out on Nov. 9,  by the GHQ Crisis Action Team and Medical Teams with 7,000 pounds of relief goods and food packs that were prepared four-five days earlier. The Air Force and Navy began transporting Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) assets and equipment coordinated by a command post in Tacloban (at the police station). A C-130 was used to bring 50 drums of oil for use of their other air assets in rescue and transport work. The same efforts were made in the cities of Roxas and Iloilo.  Two Navy ships (DF 341 and DF 352) were also deployed to bring aid and relief goods to Carles and Estancia in northern Iloilo.

By Nov. 9, other ships and air assets were carrying everything from cadaver bags to medicines to food, as well as communications equipment, fuel and personnel to Roxas; Kalibo, Aklan; San Jose, Antique; Guiuan, Eastern Samar; northern Panay; northern Palawan (including Coron); Negros Island; Masbate; and Cebu City. How do you think we got the information that 7,251 barangays in 471 municipalities and 51 cities in 41 provinces, involving 2.1 million families, were devastated?

By Thursday, 15 naval vessels had transported relief goods, equipment and personnel in affected areas in Eastern and Western Visayas. Aircraft had flown 216 sorties carrying 379,369 lbs of relief goods and 267,183 lbs of other cargo (fuel, equipment, etc.).  The military literally threw everything it had into the effort, including land vehicles (81 trucks), 23 aircraft, and 17 Navy vessels (from five tons to 2,000 tons).  This, aside from the 3,000 men sent to help the 12,000 men already in the area. It established six monitoring hubs over the Visayas, presided over by five brigadier generals and one colonel.  Serving the Filipino people.

Not enough? No presence? Please. Certainly not from want of trying. And given the limitations of equipment because the money for them was going elsewhere.

The military is not the only one who is getting a raw deal here. Local government officials (all right, maybe some of them are tying their relief services to votes) have been criticized, too. And the central government, including the President. I think they’ve done a hell of a job. They cannot be judged based on one city alone—Tacloban. Only consider: Do you really think anyone could have done better there, when 98 percent of the city had been destroyed, including the airport?