When Super Typhoon “Yolanda” smashed into central Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013, the first town it devastated was Guiuan in Eastern Samar. Like Tacloban and other places that stood in the megahowler’s path, Guiuan was nearly wiped off the map. One week later, the Wall Street Journal reported that Guiuan “looks like the aftermath of a bombing… Miles of smashed coconut trees roll up a beach that now looks more like a garbage dump. Heaps of mangled concrete, wood and steel line every street. The only vehicles moving are motorbikes, with three-wheeled auto rickshaws and cars mostly idle for lack of fuel. People queue for hours in long lines for food, fuel and to make a free, one-minute satellite call to relatives.”
But while its landscape of destruction looked nearly identical with Tacloban et al., Guiuan turned out to be different in one respect: It registered a remarkably low casualty count—101 dead in a town of some 47,000 residents, and some 900-plus injured.
It wasn’t all due to luck, though Guiuan, by reason of its peninsular geography, did manage to be spared the apocalyptic storm surge that flattened much of Leyte’s capital. Rescue organizations, and President Aquino himself, cited the town mayor, Christopher Gonzales, as having had both the foresight and the bullheadedness to force many of the residents to move to evacuation centers that were sturdier than their dwellings. The 33-year-old mayor’s quick action effectively minimized the fatality rate in Guiuan.
Was he especially trained or particularly equipped to deal with an unprecedented disaster like Yolanda? Apparently not. From accounts, Gonzales, an information technology graduate before he became a politician, merely used his wits, his common sense, and the persuasive powers of his office to convince his town mates—many of them long accustomed to typhoons and therefore blasé about another one coming—to heed official warnings and take greater security precautions. It was his quick thinking and decisive action that saved the day for many of his people.
If other local government officials were intent to learn lessons about how to prepare for and cope with the devastation wrought by calamities such as Tropical Storm “Ondoy” in 2009 and Yolanda last year, the logical, sensible thing to do would be to trek to Guiuan and learn from someone like Gonzales, right? There, the lessons would be as stark as could be—in situ, in real time, with Guiuan itself and its mayor’s actions as Exhibit A. As opposed to, say, traveling to a plush mall in Manila for a days-long, all-amenities-covered conference that would ostensibly be about how the local executives could learn from their counterparts in the National Capital Region about disaster survival and recovery.
The disconnect becomes even more jarring when those same officials come from towns or provinces that remain in ruin—their junket, in effect, rubbing salt on the wounds by wasting time, personnel and funds that should all be directed toward rehabilitation. The reported case of a group of village chiefs from Iloilo is a perfect illustration. They are dead-set on attending a nationwide convention at SM Mall of Asia on March 22-24, with the provincial government footing the bill for their trip and participation. The registration cost alone per participant is P16,800. Add to that hotel accommodations and travel and incidental expenses for the group, and Iloilo is sure to end up holding a whopper.
As it happens, Iloilo is one of those provinces still reeling from Yolanda. Many survivors are still homeless and subsisting on relief aid, and wide swaths of the province remain devastated. On top of that, the town of Estancia endured additional suffering when a power barge hit by the typhoon spilled 900,000 liters of bunker fuel on its waters and coastline.
Some 25 elders from Estancia have reportedly decided to skip the convention. But their colleagues are adamant about making the trip despite criticism about the insensitivity and inappropriateness of their junket. A provincial board member said the trip “is not due to caprice” because, among others, it is also a chance for the local executives to “familiarize” themselves with national government processes.
What nonsense. If these local chiefs are sincere about learning disaster preparedness, there are far cheaper ways of doing it. As far as we know, Gonzales in Guiuan didn’t have to go to a mall convention to do his job. He just did it.
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