MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – A year after Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) made landfall in the Philippines, a defensive but positive President Benigno Aquino III stood by his government’s efforts in rehabilitating hardest-hit areas.
On Friday, November 7, Aquino visited Guiuan, Eastern Samar, the first area where Yolanda made landfall to mark the first year of the natural disaster that claimed thousands of lives.
In Guiuan, he outlined what the administration has done to speed up recovery, but he also hit his detractors.
“For those who don’t get tired of criticizing our every move, I will let God deal with them. The day might come that God will give them additional knowledge and kindness, that they may straighten up,” he told a crowd of beneficiaries and government officials, eliciting applause.
The President also talked about Tacloban in particular, and how the government is working towards relocating the airport to safer ground to ensure that the most crucial entry point is safe in the event of a disaster.
Aquino anticipated his critics and said that he expects them to still have something to say, despite all the work accomplished by the government in this regard.
“Despite all these initiatives, I have a strong feeling that first thing tomorrow, someone will still say I’ve neglected Tacloban. It’s up to you to recognize who would say such things,” he said.
Aquino decided to forego a stop at Tacloban, the hardest-hit by Yolanda, and go to Guiuan instead, a decision that he defended at a news conference in Villamor Airbase upon his return from Guiuan, where he was briefed on government preparations for possible Ebola cases in the country
Responding to questions about his choice of Guiuan over Tacloban to commemorate the tragedy, the President said, “At the end of the day, this is not politics.”
He was apparently referring to speculations that he skipped Tacloban to avoid its mayor, Alfred Romualdez, with whom he had traded barbs over Yolanda preparedness and recovery.
When asked to comment on criticisms about his choice, Aquino answered: “Can anybody claim that [they] were the worst hit?”
Aquino also noted he has already visited Leyte many times, but his visit on Friday was only his second time in Guiuan.
Malacañang had said that the President had “limited time” since he has to prepare for trips to Beijing and Myanmar next week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting, respectively.
At the Guiuan event however, the President praised Guiuan Mayor Cristopher Sheen Gonzales for his preparedness.
“Your mayor was ready. I thought I was lost earlier because I didn’t even recognize Guiuan. It’s so different. The roofs used to be tarpaulin….Now your iron sheets are so bright,” he said. “The problem is not all are as good as your Mayor.”
Guiuan registered a death toll of 107, while Tacloban lost 2,678 lives, according to the National Disaster Risk and Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) website. The government’s total death count from Yolanda is at 6,300, while 1,061 more are estimated to be missing.
‘Go ahead, curse me’
To emphasize the success of his administration’s efforts, Aquino quoted Asian Development Bank experts who described the pace of recovery post-Yolanda as “satisfactory,” and better than Aceh, Indonesia when it was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami. The President did recognize however that while it has a “long list of accomplishments, there is still much left to be done.”
Aquino also defended his decision not to give cash dole outs to Yolanda survivors. He said had he given P40,000 ($887.5*) to each of the 1.47 million families as requested, it would have taken away funds from long-term projects needed to help devastated areas get back on their feet.
The government needs P58.8 billion ($1.3 billion) to complete its projects in 2015.
“There are those who say I should just give P40,000 to every family instead of these long-term solutions. Let me ask you, is it right that I just try to impress you? I hand money to every family that would have been spent for these projects: ‘Here, cash. You’re on your own,’” he said.
“Then what will happen? After the P40,000 is done, I won’t have to worry anymore. But how long will the P40,000 last after food, school, all the expenses of the family?” the President said, adding that such dole-out would not help communities withstand and prepare for another storm.
Aquino said he would not be able to live with himself or face his late parents, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr and former President Corazon Aquino – both Philippine democracy icons and heroes – if he knew he had put his countrymen in danger again when it could have been avoided.
“So go ahead, curse me, criticize me, but I think we should do it right. My conscience won’t be able to bear leaving you on your own, to allow tragedies to keep happening and say, ‘My job here is done.’ You are my bosses. I won’t be able to deal with that,” he said,
“In every decision we make, conscience, obligation and true service are still our priorities.”
In his speech, Aquino also outlined the work the government has done and continues to do in helping the affected provinces recover.
Aside from transferring Tacloban airport, Aquino said plans are also underway to build a 27-kilometer road elevated 4 meters above sea level. The road, which will be known as the Tacloban-Palo-Tanauan road dike project, will serve as a natural dike in the event of flooding.
Aquino said the road was conceptualized by a multilateral organization but it would have taken the group two years to start it. He said Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson has since asked for the plans and the government has taken over its construction, to begin in the first quarter of 2015. The President said those in danger zones will be transfered to the other side of the wall in order to be protected.
“If we already know that a place is dangerous and we stay there, it’s like saying you’re going to be a part of the statistic when the time comes,” he said.
Other efforts he highlighted are the rebuilding and transfering classrooms to safe zones set for completion by June 2015, increased livelihood and technical training skills to allow survivors to support themselves and their families, the construction of health facilities, medical centers and hospitals, and efforts to increase the yield of farmers and fishermen by providing them with farming supplies, fertilizers, and freezers for fishermen to store their fish and maximize their profits. – Rappler.com