Where we shouldn't fail

A week ago tonight, the night before Yolanda plowed through the Visayas region, Noynoy Aquino spoke in a televised address to the nation. He spent little time warning Filipinos in potentially affected regions of the trouble they will encounter, and more time assuring them that the government is ready to give relief. Three C130 cargo planes, 32 PAF aircraft, 20 Navy vessels, relief goods, all ready to be deployed. "Umasa po kayong darating agad ang tulong paghupa ng bagyo," he promised.

It's been six days, and the images coming out of eastern Visayas are still depressing, frustrating, disappointing. If we're going by what we hear in the news, from both local and foreign journalists, things are not getting any better. Many towns remain isolated, with no aid coming through. Even in Tacloban, where relief efforts are concentrated, survivors are complaining of having little to eat. "Hindi kami namatay sa bagyo," one survivor told a television crew, anguished, "pero mamamatay naman kami sa gutom!"

On this alone, you begin to wonder: is this the same government who went on national television to declare that they're prepared?

Granted, things are more complicated than they seem on television. Yolanda is an overwhelming storm: we were all caught flat-footed, even the people who ought to know best. The widespread destruction meant authorities had difficulty breaking into the hardest-hit areas. Power is still down and communication is still intermittent. I have a colleague who returned to the town of Hernani in Eastern Samar, where his family lives, on Monday; we haven't heard from him since. The situation remains grim, for lack of a better term.

I'm also not saying that the government is not doing anything. For what it's worth - and again, I am only judging from what I see on television - the government did a decent job in making sure what little they have counts. I mean, of course things would be so much better if we had more than three cargo planes, making trips from Manila (or Cebu) to Tacloban, but considering the circumstances, we did the best we can.

But, of course, they can do better. They should do better.

Tacloban was pretty much left alone the weekend after Yolanda hit, and the situation - again, from what I hear - descended into something pretty much like The Walking Dead without the walkers. With no idea of what's going on outside, and the need to fill their stomachs with anything, the survivors got desperate. You can't always stop looting from happening in these cases - judging from anecdotes that people from other towns, or perhaps members of the NPA, have come in, you can prove that someone, somewhere, will take advantage of essentially having a whole city to themselves  - but you feel these things could've been lessened, if not prevented, if decisive action came in sooner rather than later.

Another colleague of mine tells the story of one of his employees, who found himself in Tacloban the day the storm hit. He walked fourteen kilometers from his hotel to the airport, and along the way, chanced upon a businessman who, feeling terrible for the famished survivors, decided to open his shop and let everyone help themselves. Feeling they haven't had enough, they decided to force their way into the man's home. He resisted, and was shot.

"May mga high-powered firearms 'yung mga looters," he said. "Hindi lahat, pero 'yung iba, meron."

On Monday night, five days after his first televised statement, and four days after the typhoon struck, Noynoy Aquino finally declared a state of national calamity.

The gap is, for the survivors, a very long one. To paraphrase Love Radio's Papa Jack last night, "mahaba ang araw ng mga taong dumadaan sa paghihirap." The government's slow response is definitely something of concern. "Umasa po kayong darating agad ang tulong paghupa ng bagyo," the president promised, but once you're hit by a typhoon of unimaginable proportions, of a storm surge that essentially wipes everything you know out of existence, everything gets awfully distorted in your eyes.

And I am sure that, yes, the government was ready. They did have their vehicles ready. They did have the relief goods ready. They did have their personnel ready. But the storm struck. The relief goods likely got washed away by the storm surge. The people, too, were perhaps washed away, or at the very least, stuck in an evacuation center, counting themselves as victims rather than helpers. If there were efforts to clear the runway at the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport, or the roads leading out to the rest of Leyte and Samar, they were very slow.

"This is the biggest logistics undertaking the Philippine government has faced," the BBC's Kathy Kay said in her broadcast this morning.

I've had a think about what possibly went wrong. Logistics. I've been surrounded by logistics people for the past couple of years and their work has rubbed off on me. We are a country of 7,107 islands, and delivering products from a factory in Manila to, say, Siquijor is a gargantuan proposition, one that involves trucks and cargo containers and cargo vessels making multiple stopovers and even more trucks. What you want to do - to make sure you fulfill the customers' demand for it - is to find a way to cut that trip short.

So the aid pre-positioned in Samar and Leyte went poof the moment the storm did its worst. Who helps them? Were other provinces ready to help out a brother in need? Were there full-hearted attempts to bring help in as early as Friday night? What I see here is this: Yolanda came and went, and suddenly everybody scrambled to help the hard-hit provinces out, and that scrambling took time. And in that time, Tacloban became New Orleans, only worse. Or, to keep with the Walking Dead metaphor, Atlanta.

Yesterday I was reading the government's disaster management plan - the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan, an extremely technical 71-page document that outlines, in general terms, what should be done before and after a calamity strikes, whether it be natural or man-made. (That man-made angle is, according to the document, something unique to the Philippines.)

If you read it, it all looks amazing in a "I can't believe they thought of all that!" way. There are provisions for hazard mapping and risk assessments, for standardized responses, for integrating concepts of disaster preparedness into pretty much everything, for humane temporary shelters for those affected (and their pets), for restoration of a normal way of life - physically, mentally - once the worst is over.

But it is all said in general terms. Perhaps I was reading the wrong document, but I was expecting it to go into detail on how things will be done. I understand, hopefully correctly, that local governments are ultimately in charge of their own people - this is where we store our supplies; this is where we evacuate everyone; and no, do not go there! - but the framework will be defined by the national government agencies. The DOST does the risk assessments and warnings. The DILG does the preparedness plans, resource accumulation, and contingency plans. The DSWD does the restoration of lifelines in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Finally, NEDA does the whole recovery shindig.

Instead we scrambled. We're still scrambling.

Is it a case of wrong timing? Perhaps. The NDRRMP was put in place two years ago, and its time table goes as far forward as 2028. We're still in that stage of the plan where preparations at the national level are supposed to be fully realized, but not those at the local level. The document states, for instance, that the preparation of comprehensive disaster plans in communities would be 30% finished by the end of 2013.

But we knew Yolanda was coming as early as a week before Friday. And yet, as a foreign national remarked in its immediate aftermath, Tacloban was business as usual the day before the typhoon came in. There either was little preparation, or they did everything they could, but it just wasn't enough.

"The problem is when the main government unit, which is the local government unit, who are acting as first responders, fail to respond appropriately, then there was that breakdown," Noynoy Aquino told CNN's Christiane Amanpour, citing that local governments themselves became the victims. "People became desperate, and that's why we are trying to fast-track the situation where national government takes over these local government functions so that order is restored and people gain the confidence that their needs are being addressed and will be addressed fully."

It's been six days, and not every town has been entered. Not every decomposing body has been recovered. Not every survivor has access to clean water, to food, to contact with their families. You go online, and you see stories of places where nobody has, they say, come in yet: Capiz immediately comes to mind. Not everybody feels confident that their needs, their fellow Filipinos' needs, are being addressed, and will be addressed fully.

It's interesting seeing the conversation shift online. The weekend after the storm, when the first images of Tacloban started trickling in, everybody was appealing for donations, attempting to inspire everyone, perhaps even bragging that they are helping with the relief effort, unlike you, Facebook-surfing devil spawn.

Now international aid is coming in, amounting to billions of pesos, and the images on television continue to be desperate. There are (arguably?) unfair comparisons with Japan's quick response after the 2011 earthquake. There are wishes that politicians don't get their grubby hands on the donations. And with every share of Anderson Cooper's reports from Tacloban, there are questions as to where the national government exactly is.

"There are tens of thousands of people affected," CNN's Nick Paton Walsh said yesterday. "They are walking up to us and saying we have no food. We need water. We need help. So at the moment, the frustration levels down there are extraordinary high and I don't sense [the government is] still really getting a grip on meeting this problem as it should be met."

"The entire force of the government ... is looking after our people here," Mar Roxas told CNN's Andrew Stevens earlier today. "If we had set aside gallons, or pails of water, it just turns out that the need is that of a swimming pool. So, what was a garden hose is now a fire truck's hose, and we're doubling this every day, and this should now accelerate as days go by."

"In many ways, the preparedness gap between Japan and the Philippines does, unfortunately, come down to money," The Washington Post's Max Fisher suggests. "But the difference also gets to more elusive factors, about a government's power to not just deploy helicopters and clear roads but to earn its society's trust and, at the right moments, its compliance."

Does it all boil down to the fact that nobody trusts this government anymore to do the right thing, and to do that thing the right way?

I don't know. Again, the government is, I think, doing something. Perhaps not everything that it can, considering the circumstances, but they're doing something. But again, it's been six days, and this is a story that hits right in the gut of every Filipino, directly affected by Yolanda or otherwise. They see how slow things are. They are told, continuously, that, no, actually, things are getting better here in Tacloban, where all the cameras are.

But it doesn't take an expert to see that things are not going as well as we hope it should, and it's frustrating. Filipinos, whether by heart or by bandwagon, are always wont to give to their fellow Filipinos, and this is yet another example. The typhoon is overwhelming; the help to those affected, more so. Again, billions of pesos from citizens and corporations, from here and abroad, and all they want is to turn on their televisions and know that, even if little by little, the situation in Tacloban and elsewhere is starting to shine much like the sun that we've seen these past few days.

Of course, it's not an easy task. There's debris to clear. There's a guideline or two to sit through. We understand that. We were all caught by surprise. But it's almost been a week. And we've known this will happen a week prior. And the government claims we're off to a running start, when we're actually still tying our sneakers and trying to remember how to do those loops, like a five-year-old.

But no, we are off to a running start, right? We don't have power, no reliable communications, no reliable water supply, no medicines, right? We do have rotting corpses and piles of debris and hope, little hope, but still, hope. We were on the brink of a societal breakdown. But we understand. These things happen. We make mistakes. As long as we recognize that there are mistakes, and that we'll learn from them, right? Or you'd rather not admit them because 2016 is near? Is this all because 2016 is near? Because some people have to look good, even if it defies logic, even if it defies humanity?

"The way you respond and your government responds to this terrible devastation will probably define your presidency," Christiane Amanpour told Noynoy Aquino.

I listened to the news again this morning, and it occurred to me that, at this rate, a pork barrel scandal will not bring this government down to its knees, but a natural disaster, something we've always been familiar with. There will be no EDSA-style upheavals, perhaps to the disappointment of some people, but the frustration in everybody's faces - those on the ground, those here donating - says it all.

Knowing that there's all of this help coming in, and nothing's changing in the ground, and you have your authorities saying that they are, and blaming their colleagues (of a different persuasion, mostly) for this mess, and not helping everybody, even - that is frustrating. That is disappointing. The government came to Tacloban, above all, to look good, rather than to help its people, and that will define Noynoy Aquino's presidency.

The Philippine Red Cross is accepting donations wherever you are in the world. Visit www.redcross.org.ph/donatenow for details.

And your responses...


Your tweet got quoted sa Inquirer! LOL

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