Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque dismissed criticisms of President Rodrigo Duterte's actions during Typhoon Ulysses (Vamco) as mere "nonsense" coming from the political opposition.
In a post-typhoon press situationer on Friday, November 13, Roque specifically reacted to the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo (Where is the President?) which trended on Thursday as floods inundated parts of Luzon and left thousands stranded on their rooftops.
"Hindi po dapat tanungin kung nasaan ang Pangulo. 'Yan po ay kalokohan lang ng oposisyon (You shouldn't ask where is the President. That's just nonsense coming from the opposition)," he said.
Stressing that the President was constantly monitoring the typhoon and its aftermath, Roque said the opposition had no right to question Duterte given the supposed higher death tolls of storms during previous administrations.
But as of that press conference, the Ulysses death count was nowhere near being finalized, with military chief General Gilbert Gapay reporting that at least 39 dead bodies were recovered in their post-Ulysses operations. Differences in death tolls across multiple agencies were bared by reports of government officials.
"Oposisyon, itigil 'nyo na 'yan dahil kung ikokompara 'nyo po ang ibang casualties sa ibang administrasyon, sa casualty ngayon ay napakaliit ng casualty natin bagama't ang aim po natin talaga zero casualty pa rin," said Roque.
(Opposition, stop it because if you compare the casualties now to those during previous administrations, it's very small though our aim is still zero casualty).
The Duterte spokesman said there was "no need" for Duterte to preside in the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) briefing because government agencies are on top of the situation.
Duterte used to lead such meetings for typhoons, earthquakes, and other calamities earlier in his presidency.
Roque said this typhoon was different, because it coincided with the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.
"That is our problem for this typhoon. It coincided with the ASEAN Summit and the President also has to fulfill his role as chief architect of foreign policy," said Roque.
On Thursday morning, amid rescue operations in flooded areas, Duterte spoke at the ASEAN Summit plenary and again at the ASEAN-China Summit.
After criticism on social media erupted, Duterte suddenly decided to make a 6-minute speech about the typhoon, in between summit events. He also conducted an aerial survey over Marikina and Montalban.
In the same briefing, Malacañang defended the government's response and preparedness amid criticisms that food packs were delayed in evacuation centers and local governments resorted to urgent calls for help from the national government and private sector in rescuing stranded persons.
The Office of Civil Defense had reported that all stranded persons had been rescued by 3 pm on Thursday.
"Hindi naman instant ang ating pagrescue sa kanila; hindi ganoon katagal ang kanilang pag-antay (Rescuing them wasn't instant; they didn't wait that long)," said Roque.
Philippine Coast Guard chief Commodore George Ursabia meanwhile said the delay in deployment of rubber boats was due to the strength of the floodwaters.
"It just so happened that the rainfall coincided with high tide yesterday so the water took a while to get flushed out toward Manila Bay," said Ursabia in Filipino.
On Thursday morning, Philippine Red Cross chairman Senator Richard Gordon had called on the private sector to bring hot meals to evacuation centers as there was a lack of food.
Marikina City Mayor Marcelino Teodoro had also issued appeals for more rescue boats and choppers for air rescues.
Liberal Party spokesman Barry Gutierrez meanwhile denied the organization had started the use of #NasaangAngPangulo during the onslaught of Ulysses.
“Unlike my friend Harry, we are too focused on relief operations for those affected by Typhoon Ulysses to spend any time playing politics,” Gutierrez told Rappler on Saturday, November 14.
“In case they haven't noticed, our fellow Filipinos have far more urgent concerns right now than hashtags,” he added.
Detained opposition Senator Leila de Lima called out the Duterte administration's “neglect at its gravest” for dismissing criticism of its disaster response.
“We’ve seen how this administration slashed our calamity funds year after year, defund Project NOAH, and shut down a media network crucial in information dissemination and disaster response, while spending millions on a fake beach project. And yet, when we call them out, we are sneered upon instead,” said De Lima in a statement on Saturday.
As for being Duterte's presence in disaster response activities, De Lima said that "maybe he doesn’t need to bother showing up anymore" as Vice President Leni Robredo has been busy attending to affected communities.
"The #BusyPresidente is doing her job, coordinating with rescue teams… working non-stop despite the Office of the Vice President’s limited budget, personnel, and other resources. Walang emergency powers ‘yan ha (She has no emergency powers, take note). But she emerges in all emergencies,” said De Lima. – With a report from Michelle Abad/ Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.