Civil order

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

We might have to shoot looters in Tacloban. That will compound a tragedy already of horrific scale.

With the outbreak of looting and increasing signs of lawlessness, government deployed more policemen and soldiers to the devastated city. A Red Cross convoy carrying relief goods was stopped by armed men and then mobbed.

Influential voices are now asking the entire island of Leyte, and probably Samar, be put under martial law. President Aquino indicated he was open to the idea.

The magnitude of this calamity will put state capacity to severe test. This will not only be a test of logistical capacity to deliver relief to millions of people displaced by the super typhoon. It will be more than just restoring debilitated infrastructures. The highest test will be the maintenance of civil order.

In some societies, the civil order is fragile. It is the first to break in a calamity. It is the most difficult to restore in the aftermath.

We saw some frightening signs in Tacloban over the weekend. Stores were looted, not just of food but even of toys. ATM machines were forced open. Food supplies are commandeered by mobs. The situation could worsen as hunger deepens.

When the storm hit the forsaken city, local governance was shattered as easily as the puny homes facing the surges. Village officials and local policemen were as much victims as everybody else. They had shattered homes to look after, missing relatives to search for, hungry children to feed.

When survival is most urgent, there will be no one to enforce the civil order. Tacloban is a devastated city with tens of thousands of hungry people and an absent police force. The door to chaos is wide open.

Among the more pressing things national government had to deal with was importing a police force into the area of worst devastation. An initial contingent of 120 SAF troopers were brought to Tacloban. We will probably need a thousand more for the whole province.

With power and communication lines down, we cannot possibly have a full picture of the extent of devastation. Interior towns could not be reached except on foot. Some estimates of casualties run up to 10,000.

Hours after the storm hit, Palace propagandists indulged in a premature round of self-congratulations. Casualties, they said was minimized by adept government preparations. Damage was contained by preemptive action. We were dazzled with press releases about so much relief packages “prepositioned” in the possible calamity areas.

The day after, as the full scale of the devastation became clearer, as the casualty toll began to climb, Palace propaganda fell silent. The last shot from the propaganda playbook was delivered by the President himself, when he suggested local officials in Tacloban were to blame for the scale of the calamity.

The fact is, no one could be fully prepared for what Yolanda delivered last Friday. The more relevant concern is how to deal with the aftermath with efficiency and compassion.

The scarcest commodity in the devastated areas is confidence in government’s capacity for prompt action. If that commodity is not convincingly delivered, there will be food riots and an outbreak of lawlessness — and the ugly sight of the police having to shoot down those who survived the storm.


With communications down across the Visayas after Yolanda struck, the President loudly wished we had an all-weather communications system.

We nearly had that, except that corruption and politics intervened. It is called the National Broadband Network (NBN) that might have backed up commercial communications channels with a digital system that could continue operating in all barangays with hand-cranked power if need be.

It might be worth reviving this idea. This will, however, require a clear policy decision from the very top given all the water that already passed under the bridge.

The aftermath of the super typhoon underscored the vulnerability of the existing logistical system, especially for the island economies of the Visayas. In the past decade, an expertly-crafted master plan for upgrading the logistical system in the Visayas was drawn up. Its backbone would be three “nautical highways” running from Luzon to Mindanao. Its basic component was the modernization of the ports to accommodate roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) vessels.

Appreciating the role played by modern, all-weather ro-ro ports to the struggling island economies of the Visayas, the French government offered financial and technical support, including the provision of telescopic piers that enable ro-ro vessels to use them regardless of tidal conditions.

The program, however, was scrapped by the current administration when it took over, to the disappointment of the French government. It was scrapped on the ground the high-grade telescopic piers were too expensive. Perhaps the incoming bureaucrats thought we could get by using bamboo piers for the modern ro-ro vessels.

The antiquated port facilities across the Visayas were rendered unusable by Yolanda, hampering the flow of relief as well as evacuation of beleaguered populations. If the modern port facilities were in place, access to the devastated islands might have been easier.

The most iconic case of call is the Tacloban airport. That facility was earmarked for modernization. Money was appropriated for it. The present administration, however, commandeered the funding for the airport and diverted it to the DAP (some of it handed out to senators as additional pork).

Yolanda devastated the terminal of the Tacloban airport, closing down this facility save for military planes taking the risk of flying in without ground controllers. If this airport were fully functional, it could have served as a vital cog in the current rescue and relief efforts.


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