Man of the hour
Have you ever tried contacting a government bureaucrat at, let’s say, the division chief, bureau director, assistant secretary, or undersecretary level? Nine out of 10 calls, the answer at the other end of the line would be a polite (sometimes not too polite), “He is attending a meeting at the moment.” If you are lucky, the secretary might ask if he or she could be of help, or ask you for your telephone number, saying, “We will return your call soonest.” Nine out of 10 such instances, there will be no return call and if by chance you have the patience and the persistence to call the same office every day of the working week, it is possible that you will hear the same refrain, “Nasa meeting po (He’s in a meeting),” which could mean anything from being on the golf course or having a long coffee break after a disastrous weekend.
It would appear that most of our government officials are constantly attending meetings in or out of their buildings and may not have the time to warm their seats long enough to find out what the average citizen may be needing or wanting to discuss with the official concerned. Now if you are some big shot with name recall, you might be able to get through the cordon sanitaire. Otherwise your best bet may be to write a nasty letter to the editor and hope that the bureaucrat reads the newspapers and does something to surprise you.
Last Saturday morning (and I emphasize Saturday), I thought I would check on the work of the country’s National Disaster Management Office, which is officially known by the mind-boggling title “National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council” or NDRRMC. There was no ongoing natural or manmade crisis, so I figured it would be a good time to shoot the breeze with whoever was around.
Lo and behold! I was able to get in touch with the executive director himself, Undersecretary Benito Taguba Ramos, a dusky, hard working Ilocano who serves as the face of government when disaster strikes. Each time the country is hit by a typhoon, an earthquake, a landslide, or some similar calamity, it is Ramos who can be seen in action coordinating the efforts of state institutions in bringing relief and assistance to communities devastated by Mother Nature.
Who is Benito Taguba Ramos? First of all, as his middle name indicates, he is a distant relative of the famous Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba of the US Army. Tony Taguba, one of the few Filipino-Americans who made it to star rank in the US Army, was the fellow tasked to investigate the Abu Ghraib scandal that saw Iraqi detainees being abused and maltreated by their American captors at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility in 2003. For his honest work in reporting exactly what took place at Abu Ghraib (which may have ruffled a lot of feathers of the top brass), Taguba was summoned by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to his Pentagon office, dressed down, and shunted off to some obscure office to await retirement.
Perhaps because of his background, incumbent Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin personally selected Ramos to head the disaster management office. Ramos served in the Armed Forces of the Philippines for 36 years until he retired with the rank of major general as head of the Special Operations Command of the Philippine Army. A native of Isabela, Ramos joined the military service as a private in 1972. After a short period, he was called to active duty as an officer by virtue of his reserve commission. During his entire career, he stayed with the Special Forces and witnessed the evolution of the Home Defense Forces of the 1970s into the Special Warfare Brigade, and finally to the Special Operations Command. Most of his field assignments were in the Visayas and Mindanao, and his experiences in these areas have served him in good stead as he battled not an enemy but the elements.
Ramos is married to Rosemarie Gandeza of Sultan Kudarat. They have two boys: Benito Ramos Jr., a PMA graduate, Class of 2001, now an Army captain; and Benito Ramos III, an agriculturist.
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The Philippines occupies the Western rim of the Pacific Ocean, a most active part of the Earth that is characterized by an ocean-encircling belt of active volcanoes and earthquake fault lines. In the World Risk Index that assesses countries on the basis of their exposure to hazards, the Philippines places third. Only Vanuatu and Tonga, also islands in the Pacific, are at a higher risk. Over the last 20 years, some 31,835 Filipinos have been killed as a result of natural calamities that hit the country. Tropical Storm “Sendong” in December last year accounted for 1,257 deaths. The 6.9 magnitude earthquake that struck Negros Oriental and the landslides that occurred in the gold mining areas of Compostela Valley resulted in hundreds of dead and missing.
How is government structured to respond to disasters, natural as well as manmade?
Republic Act 10121, or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010, provides the framework for disaster risk reduction and management. The shift from past systems has gone from Disaster Relief and Response to Disaster Risk Reduction and Management. That explains the long title that the office now holds.
The NDRRMC is chaired by the defense secretary with four vice-chairpersons:
Disaster Prevention/Mitigation—secretary, DOST
Disaster Preparedness—secretary, DILG
Disaster Response—secretary, DSWD
Disaster Rehabilitation and Recovery—director general, Neda
There are a total of 39 agencies from various government departments represented in the NDRRMC. The executive director is in charge of coordinating this vast bureaucracy.
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