Painted good by social surveys, reviled by calamity survivors
Or how the government bungled the handling of Yolanda victims
By Charles Avila
THE Leyte Gulf Region folk are not pleased. Their hatred for the PNoy regime was lately matched by wonderful poll results for PNoy. “Are they serious,” the people of Leyte-Samar asked.
The real test came with Yolanda and he utterly flunked it. This is what some 12,000 Warays came out for—to remind him of his real grade. In their January 25th “Night of Remembrance” thousands of Yolanda survivors from all across the Leyte Gulf Region assailed the self-contented heir for claiming that disaster victims were satisfied with government action. The mass action frontally contradicted the SWS survey of PNoy popularity.
Unspoken by these thousands in the Eastern littoral was the undeniable fact that all government talk of “relief” and “rehabilitation,” which they were now criticizing, merely covered the original sin of omission, which was the criminal neglect of any RESCUE operation in the first days following Yolanda’s invasion.
A personal report by young blog writer-survivor Tahna de Veyra expressed this inconvenient truth so poignantly: “Just a few hours after Yolanda hit our city, my uncle and his family decided to walk a good distance from a hotel to check on our home. My cousin had to cover his eyes as much as he could while walking because he could see near-dead people on the ground, struggling for life. . . fallen but still breathing. There were no immediate rescue efforts. Second day came. Third day came. No such rescue efforts came. There was never a massive rescue effort from the government.”
The local government executive, Tahna continued in her blog, “specifically requested for foot soldiers to retrieve cadavers from the debris, to rescue those who may still have been trapped under the debris, those whose lives may still be spared. He also needed them to control the looting, especially because he was looking to use the goods from the warehouses to provide immediate relief to the people. No such foot soldiers were provided.” Not in the crucial first few days. Our equivalent of the National Guard was nowhere anywhere to help a decimated local government—only national politicians too eager to blame local government officials. Blame was the name of their game.
“Sure,” Tahna continued, “the national government has now sent battalions of soldiers to the city, but they are driving around in their army vehicles, clustered together in groups.”
For contrasts, even on day one, the local government head “already worked with the few men he had, clearing the roads, prioritizing the one leading to the airport, expecting that help would arrive from there. All this while the national government’s representatives in Tacloban were busy holding many meetings, talking about endless assessments while people were dying on the streets and the looting ensuing under their very noses.”
In the first days after Yolanda made its landfall, “I saw how people looked for and expected outside help. I witnessed how help never came. I also saw how the city had become very vulnerable. The city had become lawless then. With the massive looting, it almost felt like people had the pass to do whatever they wanted. And with the total darkness that besieged the city at night, there was ample opportunity for anybody with sinister intentions to act on their whims. Thankfully, no violence of a massive scale ensued.”
But why even talk of national government which clearly was so absent when most badly needed? Tahna understood that “when you find yourself in a position of desperation, when you have people calling out for help and you can only do so much, you look to the powers-that-be for the much needed help. When you see tens of thousands of people who need help, you look to people from higher places for an answer.”
To her great disappointment, however, all she “saw was blame placing, a cold and spiteful president, and a spotlight-hungry, detached and abrasive DILG secretary holding the reigns.
“The Taclobanons are the ones who lost their loved ones, but you would rarely hear us talking about mistakes pre-Yolanda. A great part of our ranting is related to the shortcomings of the government post-Yolanda. That’s because in spite of the loss, we choose to focus more on what little of our lives we can still salvage. We choose to do everything we can to make sure that the survivors will continue surviving. That’s really all that we wanted from the government.
“So do excuse us for bothering your daily conveniences with our life-saving ranting!
“And oh, this could have happened to your city. This could have happened to you, your loved ones, your friends. It could have been you living alongside the corpses of your loved ones. It could have been you threatened by impending hunger and thirst. It could have been you threatened by attacks in your own home. It could have been you.”
Thanks to the interntional community
In Tacloban during that Night of Remembrance, survivors thanked the international community for its assistance even as it scored the Philippine government for the snail’s pace of its rehabilitation measures.
“Government? What government? We did not receive any help from them here in Tacloban. The only aid we see are from the international institutions,” said Rowena Berio of Barangay 52 in the city’s Magallanes district.
The United Nations had made an initial humanitarian appeal for $301 million in aid for the typhoon victims just days after Haiyan hit. They made another appeal for more funds in December. A spokeswoman for the local UN office, Orla Fagan, told a news conference that donors had forked out $164 million so far.
Top US and Vatican Officials have made new visits to Tacloban to see what more they could do in the immediate and for the long term. As in Mindanao after Typhoons Sendong and Pablo, so now, too, in East Visayas after Super Typhoon Yolanda, the Catholic Relief Service is quite busy indeed.
Kuwait’s Sheik Ahmad after giving ten million dollars in aid also announced that he will bring in investment funds for agriculture to help farmers who still form the majority populace of Yolanda victims and thereby, too, help the national economy.
Activists like Jun Berino asked people not to be fooled by government-sponsored popularity surveys, which are “delusional,” “self-serving” and “self-deceiving.” They challenged both locals and foreigners alike to “go to the interior villages, evacuation centers, coastal communities, rural and urban schools and mass graves of Yolanda victims” and see for themselves how the victims remain “so thirsty for help, may it be food, cash or medical assistance.”
Their point is that the typhoon victims are really exasperated with the government, finding it “inutile,” said Berino, adding that “typhoon victims have to endure the wretched conditions in the evacuation centers.” Many bunkhouses that were supposed to serve as temporary housing were mostly empty because some unidentified government official had not yet arrived in town for the facilities’ official launching.
Anyway, the truth is, according to these critics, the bunkhouses only serve as photo-op for PNoy and his officials to show that they were doing something whereas actually, not a single family had been relocated to these overpriced materially sub-standard units. Thousands and thousands of families still do not know where to go.
The brag line from the government side was summed up by Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson: “We are looking at over a hundred billion pesos ($2.2 billion) of reconstruction, from livelihood, commerce, social services,” as well as infrastructure and power facilities—a figure that does not include the huge amounts already spent on immediate relief for the millions of people who were injured or left without food, water or shelter.
About 15 to 20 billion pesos will go to providing shelter with some 60,000 to 80,000 families to be re-settled. This will include both the people whose homes were destroyed by Haiyan Yolanda and those who will now have to move out of a recently-declared 40-metre (131-foot) “no-build zone” from the coastline, Singson added. The crucial question again is: how far or near to reality are we? Oh, a few years. “Some three years?” Singson was rather tentative.
Another governmental dodge came this way: “The total rehabilitation will take three to five years, depending on the pace of our support system and the projects we implement.” Uttering this gobbledegook was one Eduardo del Rosario, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).
In fairness, however, perhaps what del Rosario really meant was the sense of recent statements by the new US Ambassador and the old Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary: Yolanda has shown that the Philippines can only survive or is surely better off not with sovereign posturing but with imperial aid. The “can-do” is not the Philippine government but the USA.
Last August 14, the US and Philippines started negotiations in Manila for an expanded US rotational presence in the country. If approved, the arrangement would allow intensified joint training of Philippine and US air, naval and ground troops; it would also pave the way for more US military assistance to the country.
Then last month, the Philippine Foreign Affairs chief was quoted as saying the rapid and large US military assistance given to the country amid Yolanda’s onslaught showed the need for an increased American military presence in the Philippines. Was Yolanda precursor to greater US presence?
The US Ambassador clarified that the framework agreement does not constitute establishing new bases in the Philippines. “Let me say clearly we’re not talking about bases or any kind of new bases for the United States. This is about our capacity to help the Philippine government and military… advance… in many areas in… [their] own interests,” he said. How imperially altruistic!
Also last August, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said “the United States does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines… That would represent a return to an outdated cold war mentality.” The more modern subterfuge is not invasion forces but visiting forces—not a few bases near one or the other port but the country as a whole serving as base of operations in the Western Pacific, the West Philippine Sea (a.k.a. South China Sea) and the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) essential to the universe of oil from the Strait of Hormuz through the Straits of Malacca and Lomboc all the way to Japan with the concurrence of Muslim Philippines in the Northern Indonesia region.
Now they got PNoy into a fight with China, which he probably enjoys. So lucky USA! They needed a surrogate against the Middle Kingdom? Now they have one—the perfect motor mouth for their interests. If only he could be good, too, for the Filipino people, but the Yolanda test proved negative overall.
Ignoring “hopeless people”
Rebuilding after the typhoon is a colossal work for an impoverished Third World country even with First World pretentions. It is still recovering from a recent earthquake that hit a nearby island and Muslim rebel attacks that razed houses in clashes in September and January in the south. Haiyan destroyed or damaged more than a million homes. It brought the following in its wake—the following numbers at a glance:
10.3 million people affected, including 4.2 million in the Leyte Gulf region;
6,576 deaths so far identified, and some 4,000 more considered missing, whom whole towns and relatives have not yet given up hope of finding;
5.0 million displaced, with some 571,806 houses destroyed or severely damaged;
almost 34 billion pesos in agricultural damages, including damages to crops, livestock, fisheries, and irrigation facilities;
Battered by the typhoon were rice-growing and coconut-growing areas including their mills as well as sugar plantations and mills in central and eastern Philippines, destroying more than 145,000 metric tons of unmilled rice and inflicting damage on 44,125, 652 coconut trees of which 33,947, 406 are in the Leyte Gulf provinces for an estimated total loss of 17.7 billion pesos. The Leyte Gulf coconut tree losses are just a little less than 50% of all the coconut tree population in that region.
No doubt about it, the storm led to a breakdown in government services and there were scenes of chaos as hungry survivors broke into shops, homes and gasoline stations. It’s now three months since the Yolanda onslaught. Masses of survivors are living amid rubble in rebuilt shanty homes and it is more and more difficult to contradict experts who say reconstructing destroyed communities will take years and years and years—ultimately depending on an administration’s credibility and governance savvy.
How long will people have to be receiving emergency assistance? How long till the normalization of energy and infrastructure and housing to prevent mass exodus of both businessmen and workers? What special come-on will a government, if it exists as such, use to lure in direct investments for business and the build-up of the economy?
Whatever they say in the rest of the nation, in the Leyte Gulf region, for as long as PNoy is at the helm—given his negative attitude to the place for whatever psychological reasons the doctors can give, medical doctors and spin doctors both—the present consensus is they have a hopeless case. They are quite aware, painfully so, that this servant of the people does not like his bosses telling him what to do, or criticizing him or questioning his actuations. His reactive response is summed up in his own line: “Ignore hopeless people.”
The last question, of course, is: will the Warays take this praying down or also rising up. The latter is now rather popular: Tindog Tacloban! Tindog Tanauan! Tindog Leyte! In the mass graves of these towns, the Waray folk have buried as well the political ambitions of Roxas and his kind. In the past, from Magellan to MacArthur, it was always: “As Leyte goes, so will the whole Philippines.” The events in Leyte heightened the dysfunctionality of the national government. The PNoy administration was shown up to be one that couldn’t.