Yolanda problem: Too many meetings

Bea Cupin
'A delay in 5 seconds will cause a delay in 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days,' says a disaster response team from Albay that assisted Yolanda survivors

FIRST RESPONDERS. Team Albay arrived in Tacloban November 10, two days after Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) ravaged the city. Photo from Gov Joey Salceda's Facebook page

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines – Systems and protocols should be in place before a disaster strikes. Because once it strikes, there would be no time for meetings or coordination or even thinking, according to a veteran in disaster management.

Government officials held too many meetings here after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), and this delayed relief efforts, Dr Nats Rempillo of Team Albay told Rappler in an interview on Friday, November 22.

While many, including foreign veteran aid workers and journalists, were aghast at the damaged caused by Yolanda, Rempillo said he had expected to see the worst. He said the Albay provincial government prepared for the worst, too, thinking that the world’s most powerful typhoon would hit the province. Yolanda however avoided Albay, instead cutting through the Visayas, wiping out entire towns and cities along its path. Leyte’s capital of Tacloban was one of the worst hit.

Albay Gov Joey Salceda himself earlier told Rappler he put 37 trucks on standby in his province before Yolanda’s estimated landfall on November 8. In contrast, the command center in Tacloban City was only able to muster initially 8 trucks – after Yolanda struck. (WATCH: Joey Salceda on surviving Haiyan)

Rempillo said Albay knows what it’s like to face a powerful storm. “[Parang] Bagyong Reming sa amin. Ganitong-ganito rin. Maraming patay rin. Noong makita ko, parang parehas rin,” he said. (The aftermath of Yolanda reminded me of Typhoon Reming. A lot died too.)

In November 2006, Reming, which packed maximum wind speeds of 196 kilometers per hour, left 734 dead in 6 areas including Albay. Yolanda, on the other hand, packed winds of up to 215 km/h near the center. The death toll of Yolanda continues to rise, with at least 5,000 dead as of posting.

Delays unacceptable

Team Albay was one of the first local government units (LGUs) to penetrate this city after Yolanda ruined Tacloban’s airport and roads and paralyzed its local government.

Initially a team of 145, Team Albay brought with them self-contained teams equipped with medical and water sanitation tools and experts in psychological debriefing after disasters. 

“A delay in 5 seconds will cause a delay in 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days. Time is of the essence so alam natin na dapat i-deploy yung team kasi alam natin na totally devastated [ang Tacloban]. Kailangan ng malinis na tubig, medical services for the wounded, tetanus. Kung ma-delay ka ng 2 days, diseases will set in,” Rempillo said. (We needed to deploy the team because we knew Tacloban was totally devastated. The city needed clean water, medical services. If we were delayed by 2 days, diseases will set in.)

The team needed more hands, and it ended up having a total of 200 volunteers.

FOOD NEEDED. Basic needs and services were left unfulfilled in the hours and even weeks after Yolanda. Nov 18, 2013 photo by Jake Versoza

Meetings, meetings!

Being first on the ground meant they saw first-hand the confusion and lawlesness spawned by Yolanda. The days following the storm, hungry and desperate locals started looting stores in the city. Inmates escaped, and gun shots would be heard in the city.

Tacloban Vice Mayor Jerry Yaokasin told Rappler that out of at least 1,000 city hall employees, only 50 showed up on November 8, the day disaster struck.

Basically, dapa yung city government, dapa rin naman yung provincial government,” Rempillo said. (The city, provincial government was rendered useless.)

It was a bureaucratic nightmare. “Magulo talaga pag ganitong sitwayson,” Rempillo added. (It’s really chaotic in situations like these.) But these should be expected in major disasters, he added.

Rempillo explained this is why the Albay provincial government holds meetings weeks, even months before disasters strike. “Dapat talaga may systems in place para hindi na mag-usap. Kasi pag may protocol ka na, may susundin ka na steps. Hindi ka na mag-iisip, kaya pakiramdaman na lang,” he said. (That’s why you need systems in place, so you don’t need to coordinate during the crisis. If you have protocols in place, you know what steps to follow. You don’t need to think about it.)

“Dito, puro meetings, puro meetings,” he added. (Here it’s one meeting after another.)

Rempillo thinks this is why help took so long to reach Yolanda survivors. “Puro meeting sa taas, wala namang nangyari sa baba. It took them 5 days to mobilize,” he said. (They always hold meetings at the top, but on the ground nothing was happening.)

The Aquino administration has come under fire for the delayed relief efforts in areas damaged by Yolanda. Days after the typhoon struck, dead bodies continued to litter the streets of Tacloban and many towns went hungry for more than a week.

The command center here also has no ground commander, as admitted by Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who is already in Manila. It was a consultative process, he added, (READ: Haiyan crisis: No ground commander)

President Benigno Aquino III himself blamed certain LGUs for their lack of preparation. (WATCH: Aquino, Romualdez trade barbs over Haiyan)

Provincial tag teams

[Yung] nangyari, victim rin sila. Papaano naman magrereport yung mga tao? Hindi sila makapagmobilize,” Rempillo said of the Tacloban LGU. (Local officials were victims, too. How will people report for work? They couldn’t mobilize.)

That’s why Albay sent its team to help.

LGUs assisting each other during disasters is not a new concept.

In the aftermath of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Bohol, the Cebu Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council Officer proposed an inter-provincial council that would allow LGUs help each other in event of another big disaster. (READ: 5 steps to disaster-ready communities)

Cebu sent teams to augment forces in nearby Bohol once the province had stabilized. Tacloban Vice Mayor Yaokasin also said the local government is looking at ways to put in place a system of regional response to future disasters.

What can Tacloban, Leyte, and other typhoon-prone provinces learn from Albay?

Coordination is the first thing. Planning is next. “Dapat may geographic and hazards mapping, an early warning system,” Rempillo said.

But Rempillo, whose team went back to Albay on Sunday, November 24, said he’d rather stay away from the politics of disaster. “Our mission was to do ground work,” he said.

“I’d like to think we did a good job.” – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.