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The day government disappeared

/ 09:07 PM November 19, 2013

Friday, Nov. 8 – When the most powerful typhoon ever to hit this star-crossed archipelago in living memory slammed into Leyte—was a day the government disappeared. And it did in a moment it was most needed by the Filipino people. The typhoon not only nearly wiped out the city of Tacloban, home to 200,000 souls, from the face of earth; it also paralyzed government from providing immediate relief to the hapless victims of the apocalyptic catastrophe.

Supertyphoon “Yolanda’s” landfall not only devastated the Visayas, which lay on its path; worse, it laid bare the disturbing issue: Where is the government? More specifically, who is in charge during emergencies?

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The head of state was invisible for nearly three days until he flew to Tacloban. There he appeared shell-shocked after he was confronted by reports compiled by United Nations field workers (who flew ahead of him and his party of officials to Tacloban; they put the death toll at 10,000) and by the powerful stench of corpses that had been lying on the ground for three days, while survivors were desperately calling for food and shelter, and the wounded were direly in need of medical attention.

President Aquino was not hailed in Tacloban as a liberator, unlike Gen.  Douglas MacArthur when his troops landed on the beaches of Leyte in 1944.  Instead, the survivors greeted him and his party from Manila as harbingers of despair. At that, the people of Leyte were most likely to have thought how far remote Manila is, or if a national government even existed in Manila. The only estimates of the death toll and the casualties came from UN field workers. Government officials could not come up with estimates of their own despite the extensive government bureaucratic machinery from top to bottom.

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But even with the failure of the government to collect data  from its bureaucratic machinery, President Aquino was quick to dismiss the UN estimates as far too many, although he had in his hands nothing more substantial than pure  guesswork to back his assessment.

In an interview with CNN on Nov. 12, three days after Yolanda struck Tacloban, Aquino said the death toll may be lower than many people thought. The estimate was “too high” and the actual figure was more likely to settle at around 2,500. According to the UN, more than 11 million people were believed to have been affected and some 673,000 of them were displaced.

The figure of 10,000 came from a police officer and may have arisen from “emotional trauma,” Aquino said. He summarily dismissed the police officer, a case of shooting the messenger who brings the bad news.

The international media, which came ahead of Mr. Aquino’s officials to survey the carnage and destruction, had a vastly  different picture from the ground. CNN journalist Anderson Cooper reported that what was happening in Tacloban was a “demolition, not a construction job.”  He added “there is no real evidence of organized recovery or relief.” He said five days after the storm, it was still unclear who was in charge in providing assistance in the area. Another journalist said the search and rescue never materialized. “It is a very desperate situation, among the most desperate I’ve seen in covering disasters. You would expect perhaps to see a feeding center that had been set up five days after the storm. We haven’t seen that, not in this area.” He compared the Philippine government’s response to that of the Japanese government during the earthquake of 2011 where after two days, they could barely see scattered bodies around devastated areas. BBC’s Don Johnson reported  that “there does not seem to be an effective operation  to get help to those in need.”

In an exclusive interview, CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour impressed on the President that his administration’s response to the disaster would probably define his presidency.

“Mr. President, you talked about moral responsibility from  the world,” she told  the President. “Let me ask you about your responsibility as president. Clearly, I don’t know whether you agree, but the way you respond and your government responds to this terrible devastation will probably define your presidency,” Amanpour said. “Many have talked about how much reform you have done, how much work you’ve done on corruption. But many people might end up judging you on how your government has responded. What do you say to that?” she asked.

The President did not answer the question, and instead mentioned other areas in the Visayas, “with the exception of” Leyte and Eastern and Western Samar, where the number of casualties, according to officials, was “minimal.”  This is what Mr. Aquino wanted to hear from his officials about deaths and casualties after he had laid down his own assessment: to keep the figures to the minimum.

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Asked by reporters who was calling the shots, Cabinet  Secretary Jose Rene Almedras said, “The one calling the shots is actually the President and Cabinet members, who they are is not clear.”

How can you run a government in a crisis with an invisible president?

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TAGS: amando doronila, Aquino iii, column, disaster response, Government, typhoon `Yolanda
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