NDRRMC: Too many cooks spoil the broth

(First of 2 parts)

MANILA, Philippines - Some 48 hours before Yolanda (Haiyan) hit land on November 8, the operations center of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) was already on "red alert status." Its regional and local counterparts that were on the path of the super typhoon were ordered to take preventive measures.

As in previous disaster situations, different government agencies started mobilizing resources in anticipation of a huge disaster. After all, Yolanda was expected to traverse 9 regions before leaving the Philippine Area of Responsibility.

The Department of National Defense (DND), Department of Health (DOH),  Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) prepositioned their respective resources, while other government agencies activated their own response teams.

The Office of Civil Defense (OCD), which serves as the secretariat of the NDRRMC, was disseminating weather bulletins round the clock to the local and regional disaster risk reduction and management councils. With the growing ferocity of Super Typhoon Yolanda, the entire government disaster machinery had already clearly shifted gear from preparedness to response and relief mode.

What initially appeared to be a routine drill was fast becoming an emergency situation for disaster officials as Yolanda moved closer to the country. On November 6, or two days before Yolanda was expected to strike, Malacañang decided to be on top of the situation.

Roles and functions

The NDRRMC’s first update on Yolanda preparations showed that the NDRRMC convened an emergency meeting that was presided over by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr “to discuss preparations of each member-agency.”

That Ochoa, who was city administrator of Quezon City for 9 years, would preside over the meeting could be interpreted as Malacañang taking Yolanda’s threat seriously but this was out of the norm. In the past, it was either the Defense Secretary or the President himself who would preside over the NDRRMC meetings. It was Ochoa’s first time to preside over such a meeting since Typhoon Butchoy struck in 2012.

EXECUTIVE SECRETARY. In the early days after Typhoon Yolanda hit land, Paquito Ochoa takes charge. Malacau00f1ang file photo

EXECUTIVE SECRETARY. In the early days after Typhoon Yolanda hit land, Paquito Ochoa takes charge.

Malacau00f1ang file photo

Under what was then called the National Disaster Coordinating Council, it was either the President or the defense chief who was at the forefront of disaster preparation and response. But the 3-year old RA 10121, or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act has delineated functions and responsibilities based on clusters. (READ: Fast Facts: The NDRRMC)

As such, for disaster prevention and mitigation, the law mandates the Department of Science and Technology to be in charge, while for disaster preparedness, it is the Department of the Interior and Local Government. For disaster response, the overall responsibility rests with the DSWD, while disaster rehabilitation and recovery lies with the National Economic and Development Authority. The different heads of these government offices are named vice-chairpersons of the NDRRMC.

Under the hierarchical structure of the NDRRMC, the Executive Secretary, in fact, is just a member of the council. It is the DND chief who’s supposed to be on top, retaining the position as chairman.

It is the OCD, which is under the DND, that oversees and sees to it that the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (NDRRMP) is implemented from the national to the regional and local DRRM units. Such task is overseen by the NDRRMC secretariat, headed by executive director Eduardo del Rosario.

TOWARDS REHABILITATION. The NDRRMC's Eduardo del Rosario says that the government will focus on shelter, livelihood, agriculture and fisheries in rehabilitation efforts. Screenshot of ANC coverage

TOWARDS REHABILITATION. The NDRRMC's Eduardo del Rosario says that the government will focus on shelter, livelihood, agriculture and fisheries in rehabilitation efforts.

Screenshot of ANC coverage

The different assignments were in place in past natural calamities and catastrophes like Typhoon Pablo and (Tropical Storm) Sendong, and the recent earthquake that hit Bohol in October. But Yolanda was a different matter. “There were too many actors at play. You do not know who is really in charge at one point,” observed a member of a civil society organization (CSO) that helped craft and fine-tune RA 10121.

Such observation was evident when Cabinet Secretary Jose Almendras was asked by reporters in Malacañang 5 days after Yolanda pounded Eastern Visayas who was in charge. “The one’s calling the shots are actually the President and the Cabinet secretaries,” he said.

Del Rosario for his part, said, “It’s the Executive Secretary ably assisted by Secretary Almendras.”

On the ground, particularly in Tacloban City, aid workers interviewed by Rappler expressed frustration that they “have so many bosses but nobody makes decisions.” Amid this confusion, DILG Secretary Mar Roxas had to fend off reports that he tried to emasculate Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez.

Asked who was the ground commander there, Roxas said no one, adding that decisions were arrived at, following a ”consultative process.” (READ: Who calls the shots after Haiyan?)

CHIEF. Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas takes over the front seat during the disaster response phase after Yolanda (Haiyan) hits land. File photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler

CHIEF. Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas takes over the front seat during the disaster response phase after Yolanda (Haiyan) hits land.

File photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler

Defense chief sidelined?

As chairman of the NDRRMC, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was supposed to be running the show. If RA 10121 was strictly followed, his vice-chair would have been DWSD Secretary Dinky Soliman.

But for some reason, neither Gazmin nor Soliman was running the entire show. In Manila, it was Ochoa and Almendras and in the disaster-stricken areas, it was Roxas who was holding the baton for disaster response. “Dinky was reporting to Roxas. All the military officials in Tacloban were reporting to him,” a local reporter who works for a Japanese wire agency observed.

In one command conference presided over by Roxas that was off-limits to reporters, the reporter saw the DILG chief berating a military official over some report. “You are wasting our time. Sit down and talk to me when you have something good to say,” Roxas scolded the military official. The journalist was able to sneak into the meeting unnoticed.

In one separate interview, one reporter relayed to Gazmin the observation that he was not so visible in the response and recovery efforts – an observation Gazmin did not seem to be too pleased about. 

WHERE WAS HE? Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin is supposed to play a key role in disaster situations. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

WHERE WAS HE? Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin is supposed to play a key role in disaster situations.

Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

Civil society organizations involved in disaster preparedness projects also observed that Gazmin was relegated to a supporting role in the Yolanda crisis. “He was not prominent in the relief and response operations, at least from the reports I saw. When Typhoon Sendong and Pablo struck, he was very visible,” Lorna Victoria, a director at the Center for Disaster Preparedness, said. Typhoons Sendong and Pablo occurred in 2011 and 2012.

The journalist, who had covered the defense beat for years, said the military has a different culture and taking orders from a non-military official, or an indirect superior, has its drawbacks. “I got feedback from the military officials stationed in Eastern Visayas that had they just been allowed to do their job, the relief operations would not have been delayed.”

That Gazmin took the backseat on the Yolanda response operations was not lost on Sen Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense chief himself. During a budget hearing, he castigated Gazmin for failing to take command over the disaster situation.

“Why was the Defense chief relegated to a support position when he was supposed to be in command?” Enrile asked, recalling that during his time, it was always the military that was first to respond. “That’s why we have the military manpower. The military is always the one in command.”

Reluctant president

Amid all these, the President hedged in declaring a state of national calamity or even national emergency, even if reports of a breakdown in law and order had erupted – particularly in Tacloban City where survivors had resorted to looting.

Three days after Yolanda slammed Eastern Samar, Presidential  Communications Office head Herminio Coloma Jr sent a text message to Palace reporters that Malacañang was still studying whether to declare a state of calamity.

Aquino was also reported to have walked out after being pressed by affected businessmen to declare a state of emergency in Tacloban to contain chaos and lawlessness. (The Palace later said he just took a bathroom break.) A state of emergency would have allowed the national government to assume key functions from the LGU, particularly the crippled Tacloban city government.

But Aquino said the initiative to declare a state emergency should come from the LGU.

HESITATION. President Benigno Aquino III treads carefully in declaring a state of emergency after Yolanda leaves behind a trail of destruction in Eastern Visayas. Rappler file photo

HESITATION. President Benigno Aquino III treads carefully in declaring a state of emergency after Yolanda leaves behind a trail of destruction in Eastern Visayas.

Rappler file photo

Constitutionalist and former Supreme Court justice Vicente Mendoza, in a phone interview, said the President could, on his own, declare a state of emergency as part of his broad powers. “He is the one in command. He can decide whether to declare a state of emergency based on the report of his subordinates, in this case, the military officials.”

Given the magnitude of the disaster situation, Mendoza said a declaration of a state of emergency would have given the President extra powers to normalize the situation. “He can order the Armed Forces to restore peace and order. Let the critics question the declaration in the courts. Why,  would you have questioned such act, given the gravity and the necessity of the situation?”

It was only on the 3rd day that Aquino finally declared a state of national calamity after returning from devastated Tacloban.

DRRM fund

Based on its name alone, the NDCC’s function was primarily for disaster response and proponents had wanted a more pro-active approach against disasters, given that the Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries. A creation of PD 1566 which was enacted in 1978, the NDCC was deemed to be no longer responsive to the increasing challenges on disaster management.

In 2009, the Philippines ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, which is the ASEAN’s commitment to the Hyogo Framework of Action. The latter was developed following the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. The Philippine ratification of the ASEAN agreement paved the way for the revamp of the NDCC.

Aiming for a holistic approach to disaster management, proponents of RA 10121 sought to refocus the approach, giving more emphasis on disaster risk reduction and identifying vulnerability rather than concentrating on just disaster response. It expanded membership to include other government agencies and tasked the local government units (LGUs) to be frontliners and first responders in disaster management.

Apart from creating 4 clusters on disaster management with Cabinet secretaries as vice-chairmen, RA 10121 broadened the powers and responsibilities of LGUs by mandating them to allocate "at least" 5% of their Internal Revenue Allotment to support DRRM activities – from training to funding preparedness programs to procurement of disaster response and rescue equipment, said Maria Cagay, deputy executive director of Center for Disaster Preparedness and National Anti-Poverty Commission representative (victims of disaster and calamities).

Cagay explained that this provision under the law allows LGUs to tap DRRM funds without the need to declare a state of calamity in an area, which was a requirement in the past. It also allows the LGUs to use any unused DRRM funds as a revolving fund to finance DRRM activities in the future. Likewise, it grants LGUs some flexibility in using funds to help other distressed LGUs affected by calamities.

Cagay said the only caveat is that LGUs cannot tap the funds if they have not submitted any local DRRM plan. “This is to ensure that the DRRM fund is properly utilized,” she said.

The new law also allows the LGUs, through the local Sanggunian or council, to declare and lift a state of calamity within their locality. In a state of calamity, price control is imposed to prevent profiteering and hoarding. It also allows the LGUs to reprogram their funds for repair and reconstruction.

 While RA 10121 may contain innovations for frontliner LGUs, it failed Yolanda's horrific test. (To be concluded) - Rappler.com