MANILA, Philippines – For the first time, President Benigno Aquino III talks at length about his disappointment over Tacloban’s lack of preparation and mishandling of Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan), sharing incidents and details when the local government unit (LGU) failed to come through.
On Thursday, March 13, at a forum with high school students over 4 months since the world’s biggest typhoon, Aquino said he felt the public was “fed wrong information” and said he wanted to share facts to “let you decide who was prepared and wasn’t prepared, and who is doing something and who is not doing something.”
Aquino started by comparing the huge death toll in Tacloban compared to the other areas affected by the storm.
“Everybody was reporting very minimal casualties. And up to the conclusion, very, very few. But in this particular portion of the country, when you look at it on the map…something very different happened here. For instance, in Guian, the mayor was telling me that they attended to the warnings. They brought their people up to a hill and they braved the rains rather than storm surges that affected Guian. And again the casualties relatively were 99 people out of 45,000,” he said.
He also detailed how Tacloban did not follow through with the instructions he gave them, when he visited the area two days after the storm hit.
To address looting immediately after the typhoon, Aquino said he, Philippine National Police Chief Alan Purisima, and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin sat down with Tacloban’s vice mayor and come up with an ordinance imposing a curfew. Aquino said he came back a week later but there was no ordinance.
“And I asked: ‘What happened?’ And then their explanation is in the city council only two members were present. He said they couldn’t convene the city council. They couldn’t have a quorum, therefore, they couldn’t come up with the ordinance,” Aquino said.
He said in the same meeting, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) said it was ready with materials for bunkhouses and were ready to start building. He said the local government told him they had 34 hectares that could be used.
When he returned a week later, he said he was told “not a single house has been built and none of the bunkhouses.”
“So I had to ask again: ‘What happened to the bunkhouses?’ It was the city administrator who said: ‘We have other purposes for that land.’ I said: ‘What about the people who need a shelter right now?'” Aquino said.
On November 8, Yolanda hit Eastern Visayas, leaving about 6,200 people dead and nearly 2,000 others missing. It also destroyed or severely damaged 1.1 million houses, leaving more than 4 million people homeless.
Immediately after the typhoon, the government was criticized for what observers said was slow relief efforts, saying it was unclear who was in charge.
But Aquino explained it was not the national government’s fault although it got most of the blame.
He cited the 290 policemen deployed to Tacloban City to re-establish peace and order. He said it was Tacloban that was meant to lead operations there, but even if the city was under red alert status, only 20 showed up when he visited. He said all those policemen are currently being investigated.
Aquino said the same happened with city hall employees.
“The people in city hall, how many were they? It took what? Two weeks, 3 weeks or so before people started moving?” he said.
The President said even in clearing the streets, the local government drafted a document outlining their responsibilities and the national government’s.
“I told them, ‘Please commit to what you can do, and things that have to be done that you cannot do, we will take care of.’ The document they drafted said they would take care of relief distribution. Provision and packing relief was us, they would just distribute,” he said.
He added that clearing of the roads, cadaver recovery, “practically the whole list’ was the national government’s responsibility and that the only thing the LGU had to do was distribution of relief.
“Sad to say that also wasn’t done properly. And at the end of the day, we were the ones blamed. The relief didn’t reach victims, but they asked for it,” Aquino said.
He also disclosed that the national government agreed to the draft prepared by the LGU but “at the end of the day…they refused to sign the draft that they made.”
“And that is a fact and I won’t disparage anybody but that is the truth,” he said.
Concern over tents
Aquino revealed he is still “bothered and concerned” over Tacloban until now. He said victims living in tents are “in an even more vulnerable situation come the next typhoon season.”
“We have to accelerate the program where they are put in better conditions, meaning, more resistant and farther from the bay,” he said.
Aquino said his administration has been able to establish 53 bunkhouses in Tacloban already, housing 960 families, with 100 houses ready to be built as soon as the land is provided. He also said the national government would foot the water and electricity bills.
“We are told that there is hesitancy by the distribution utility to afford this electricity to the Tacloban City government,” he said.
He said he is especially concerned with the typhoon season fast approaching, since it takes time to build bunkhouses. “We are hoping that we will get better cooperation from them.”
While Aquino said he has not responded to the charges or thrown accusations toward the LGU, the President could not help but take a swipe at Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez.
He cited Romualdez’s own lack of preparation as a sign of Tacloban’s unpreparedness, and questioned his priorities, although he did not mention Romualdez’s name.
“I was in Tanauan recently in Leyte, the mayor is not part of my party but he and the national government have been working very, very well. There is a school that took about a month to repair and rehabilitate and start being utilized by the students. Anybody was ready to partner with us. That’s human nature. We can do more if everyone is willing to cooperate,” he said.
“Now if you’re more interested in press conferences, interviews, appearing before hearings, et cetera, we (the national government) still have a conscience that we have a responsibility to our people. And that responsibility has to go first, over us debating because that won’t feed anyone or house anyone or dress anyone,” he added. (READ: Aquino on Romualdez: Too many interviews, no real action)
“Now, I don’t think I have time to debate with him, to make this a political issue. There are people – and they keep emphasizing this to the Cabinet and other government agencies – who are continuing to suffer and our focus has to be alleviating that suffering not tomorrow, preferably yesterday. And that is where our focus is.”
When Aquino first visited Tacloban, he and Romualdez traded barbs after Aquino expressed his disappointment over the LGU’s lack of preparation.
A month later, in December, a video recording of Romauldez’s meeting with Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, was uploaded online a day after Romualdez told a congressional committee that the national government refused to help the city. In the clip, Roxas tells Romualdez: “You are a Romualdez, the President is an Aquino.”
Roxas called the video misleading and malicious, and accused the Romualdez camp of releasing the edited version of the video to cover up the mayor’s own shortcomings.
While Aquino did not hesitate to blame the local government, he also admitted the national government’s faults and its over reliance on the LGU “to provide the backbone.”
“They will tell us who is in need, where, what is needed and di ba parang even just knowing who the people we will have to work with. That was not existent Sunday, Saturday [after the storm],” he said.
He also apologized for what others viewed as slow relief efforts.
“I apologize if we couldn’t act even faster. But the givens that we have had in various instances – Pablo, for instance – were not present when it hit the region. Which tells us also that with anything else, we are also students, we want to learn from this experience and do even better next time,” he said.
But he also insisted the national government did all it could to alleviate the situation, which was simply too overwhelming.
“Our people were there beforehand. We made mistakes in terms of being able to call on the indigenous government entities on the onset, but we cleared the runway that it was operational as early as 9 am of Saturday, Yolanda hit Friday. Again, [there’s just] the sheer mass of people that had to be attended to,” he said. – Rappler.com