FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - November 6, 2015 - 9:00am

Tomorrow, we commemorate the second anniversary of a very sad day.

When Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit us, the devastation exceeded our worst expectation. Over 8,000 people died. Over eight million Filipinos lost their homes and their means of livelihood.

A few days after the storm struck, a prominent international news anchor had President Benigno Aquino III for an interview. She pointedly (and prophetically) asked Aquino if the management of this calamity would be the legacy of his presidency.

Aquino was obviously unprepared for the question. He mumbled something forgettable and moved back to his prepared talking points.

On hindsight, that question was indeed important.

A calamity of this proportion was a test of executive ability. It required a comprehensive and yet timely response. It required short-term relief and long-term rehabilitation. It required rapid deployment of all of government’s resources and the orchestration of international assistance to the victims.

Aquino deployed his alter ego Mar Roxas to Tacloban ahead of the storm. Roxas was being spoon-fed an opportunity to shine and thus prove himself worthy of the presidency, the reward of a grateful and duly impressed people.

Roxas, as we know, dropped the ball. 

Instead of moving quickly to commandeer resources for the rescue, Roxas chose to quarrel with traumatized local officials. He quibbled over surnames. He held endless meetings. Then he lied on international cable television about the corpses rotting in the streets.

That was just a foretelling of more calamitous things to come.

Government response was slow, chaotic and hampered with petty political considerations. Bureaucratic inertia overran the relief and rehabilitation efforts. The funds seemed constantly trapped somewhere. The national leadership appeared in constant denial.

When a police official, a day after the storm, quoted a high figure of probable casualties, he was sacked. For weeks, government’s own disaster response agency appeared to be suppressing the actual casualty count. This administration seemed more concerned about saving face than saving the victims.

The entire government effort was calamitous. To this day, auditors are finding disaster funds stashed away, unused to meet the worst ever natural disaster in memory.

Eventually, to calm protests about the handling of the calamity, including suspicions donations were being rechanneled, Aquino appointed Panfilo Lacson as some sort of coordinator for the rehab effort. To ensure it does not become a springboard for yet another presidential bid, Lacson was given little power and no budget.

A year after accepting the job, Lacson resigned his post with ill-concealed disappointment over how the rest of the government agencies dealt with the effort. He complained about how the Budget department dragged its feet and about the general attitude of the national leadership towards the devastated region.

There is no announcement President Aquino will visit the Yolanda areas on the second anniversary of the disaster. He knows he is not loved there. His inclination, as in the case of the SAF 44, is to have everybody forget about the event as soon as possible. Any other chief executive might have spent a few days every month in the disaster zone, ensuring the rehab efforts are well underway.

I am not sure if Mar Roxas will make an appearance in Tacloban. The memories, after all, are not heartwarming. At least he should avoid sending out a “Happy Anniversary” message as he did once before to the scarred people of Zamboanga (a lot of who are still in evacuation centers).

Zamboanga, as we know is a man-made tragedy, aggravated by schoolboys trying to play generals.


As calamitous as government response to Yolanda has been, private sector response has been nothing short of heroic.

The Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) should be especially commended. From the day the storm struck, the PNRC and its thousands of volunteers was full-force at the task of relief and rehabilitation.

This week, the PNRC announced it had built nearly 70,000 houses for the victims of calamity. That complements the tens of thousands more of shelters built by private companies and civic groups. All in all, the number of homes built by private groups greatly overshadows what government agencies provided.

In the days following Yolanda, the PNRC directed not only the efforts of its own volunteers but also the massive flow of assistance from other Red Cross chapters worldwide. Effective direction avoided the flow of assistance getting gnarled and foreign volunteers tripping over each other.

This week, PNRC chairman Dick Gordon announced the acquisition of a ship. This will allow the rescue organization to move supplies and volunteers to the islands when something like Yolanda happens again. The calamity proved one should not rely on government’s sloppy logistics system.

Private corporations have dispersed to distinct areas to build new townships. NGOs, in the meantime, have provided livelihood centers to train the survivors in new economic skills.

It might have been ideal if government came in strategically, and reshaped the local economy, weaning it away from dependence on subsistence fishing and agriculture and on low-yielding copra production. But we do not have the quality leadership in government to even make that thinkable.

I have a few friends who spent the past two years working as volunteers in Samar and Leyte. All of them are involved in the nitty-gritty of stitching communities back together.

These friends are my heroes. They went in with nothing more than goodwill. They have since forged strong relationships with the communities they work in. The locals are not victims or clients to them. They are friends.

Government agencies, by contrast, remain strangers to the survivors.


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