Haiyan crisis: No ground commander

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Every official gets an assignment in this 'consultative process,' says Mar Roxas. An aid worker says it's like having many masters without any of them making the decisions.

'NO SINGLE BOSS.' Interior Secretary Mar Roxas says there's no ground commander in Haiyan relief efforts. Photo by Rupert Ambil/Rappler

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines – For over an hour, he quizzed disaster officials, aid workers, and government personnel in a conference Wednesday, November 20, on one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history.

Other than the President, in the public eye, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas is the face of the team to rebuild the lives of almost 10 million people hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

But no, Roxas is not the ground commander.

He said no one actually is.

“There is no such title,” Roxas said in a media briefing Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, he noted, chairs the National Risk Reduction and Management Council. He said Gazmin farms out tasks to other officials.

That’s the general set-up.

But on the ground, who is the point person? Who calls the shots in the command center based in typhoon-hit Tacloban City?

Roxas shot back, “Wala.” (No one).

“You can see the process that is being undertaken, and it is a consultative process,” said the President’s former running mate in the 2010 presidential race, who has taken lead roles in other national crises. (Watch Rappler’s video report below.)

‘Many bosses, no decision-maker’

Rappler went around the command center, the Leyte Sports Complex, to get a feel of the set-up there. The aid workers we spoke to said they’re not sure who’s really the boss. (READ: Have a national conductor, says Salceda)

This set-up frustrates a number of them.

Nang mag-take over ang national government, ang nangyari, parang maraming amo pero walang nagdedesisyon,” an aid worker said on condition of anonymity. (When the national government took over, what happened is that we have so many bosses but nobody makes decisions.)

It’s the same thing that happened, at first, in the Zamboanga City standoff. Back then, no clear leader emerged before President Benigno Aquino III arrived. (READ: Zambo crisis: The fog of war.)

On Tuesday evening, November 19, Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim addressed another problem: politics getting in the way of aid. (READ: Tacloban: Spare aid from politics.)

“Let us focus on what we have to do, and not allow those who would wish to take opportunity of this situation to further whatever political goals or whatever interest they may have, and divert us from that which we have to do,” Lim said.

Lim said this after Aquino and Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez traded barbs over Yolanda.

In apparent reference to Tacloban, Aquino criticized towns and cities that failed to prepare for the typhoon. Romualdez shot back, hinting the President’s comments insult the dead. (Watch Rappler’s video report below.)

Roxas and Romualdez have also taken potshots at each other.

Reports said Roxas requested Romualdez to give up the mayor’s office. To these reports, Roxas replied he is furious and said, “They better be careful in spreading lies.” (READ: City admin denies Roxas wants Tacloban mayor out.)

‘We’re doing our job’

In Wednesday’s press briefing, Roxas said nothing is wrong about the current set-up. He said the bottom line is, the government is doing its job.

Ang masasabi ko lang, magmula Biyernes, nang dumating si Yolanda, nasaan na ba tayo ngayon? Nabuksan ang airport, nabuksan ang seaport, operational na. Lahat ng main supply routes, bukas. Lahat ng mga bayan, accessible. More than 860,000 food packs na ang naipamahagi. One thousand six hundred cadavers na ang na-recover dito sa Tacloban City. Wala nang report ng looting, ng panghaharang nitong mga supply. Bukas ang lahat,” Roxas said.

(All I can say is, since Friday when Yolanda struck, where do we find ourselves now? The airport is open, the seaport is open, all operational. All supply routes are open. All towns are accessible. More than 860,000 food packs have been distributed. One thousand six hundred cadavers have been recovered here in Tacloban City. There are no more reports of looting, of obstructing supplies. Everything is open.)

Lahat itong trabahong ito, kabuuan nito ay national government,” he said. (All of these things, all of these are by the national government.)

He also said each official gets his own assignment.

The commander of Task Force Yolanda, for instance, is Brigadier General Jet Velarmino, head of the military’s 8th infantry division that commands troops based in Eastern Visayas. “That’s for certain purposes,” Roxas said.

He said Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Dinky Soliman also works “for certain purposes.”

‘Our boss, the people’

Backing Roxas, Soliman said the administration adopts a “convergent approach.”

Ibig sabihin, lahat kami, one team. Kaya ‘pag sinabing sino’ng in charge, lahat kami answerable to, first of all, the people. As the President always says, sila ang boss. And then, yung accountability lines namin, sa Presidente,” Soliman said.

(You know, this administration believes in a convergent approach. This means we all work as one team. So if you say who’s in charge, everyone of us is answerable to, first of all, the people. As the President says, they’re the boss. And our accountability lines go straight to the President.)

She also called the response to Haiyan a “whole of government approach.” Then, she broke down in tears.

Lahat kami, buong pamahalaan, pambansa at lokal, kumikilos as one. But more than that, ‘yun ang gusto kong ipaalam sa lahat – it’s also whole of society. Lahat ng private sector, lahat ng volunteers, lahat ng volunteers dito sa Tacloban, nagre-repack sila. This is whole of society, responding to a crisis. Nagkaisa ang bansa; ‘yun ang ating mensahe,” Soliman said.

(Everyone of us, the whole of government, national and local, move as one. But more than this, what I want everyone to know – it’s also whole of society. The entire private sector, all volunteers, all volunteers here in Tacloban are repacking. This is whole of society, responding to a crisis. The nation is working as one; that’s our message.)

Still, it’s a “whole of society” without a ground commander. – Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com