Sunday, March 16, 2014

Aquino’s apology is better late than never

On reading the title, you probably thought that President Benigno Aquino 3rd has finally issued an apology to Hong Kong for the hostage-taking tragedy in August 2010. But he has not.
I’m referring rather to the President’s apology for the government’s slow and inadequate response to the Yolanda disaster last November and the still halting and erratic effort for East Visayas’s recovery and reconstruction. Aquino issued the apology in reply to a student from Tacloban City during an open forum.

For President Aquino, an apology is a very big deal, because it seemed that neither “apology” nor “sorry” exists in his vocabulary. He abides by John Wayne’s advice in the film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “Never apologize and never explain—it’s a sign of weakness.”

Yet in his encounter with student Zar Agustin Yu, Noynoy did not only apologize, he explained.

Apology doubling as an excuse
Yu’s question was brief and to the point. He said:

“Based on my own experience in Barangay 48 (Tacloban City) where I live, we did not receive any help from the government—no relief, no medical care, nothing. It took three days before the help came. So why did it take a long time before the government helped the people of Tacloban during Typhoon Yolanda?”

“I apologize if we couldn’t act even faster,” Aquino told the Hope Christian High School student. He admitted that the response could have been faster, and then launched into a lengthy explanation of why government was not more responsive. (I recount his words at length below, because they show how his mind works.)

Aquino first explained that the magnitude of Typhoon Yolanda was “unprecedented in our history,” saying that it was considered “the biggest storm to make landfall anywhere in the world.”

He declared that 44 of the country’s 81 provinces were affected by the typhoon. “You have something like close to 4 million families affected by it. So 4 million families, something like 20 million people,” he added

He insisted that his government did everything it could. He said that Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin were deployed to Tacloban to serve as “ground commanders for all the efforts” in the region.

“That wasn’t an easy thing to do given that the airport, the terminal, the runway itself were very hard hit by Yolanda,” he noted

“Now getting all of the food, getting all of the water, getting it from where it was to bringing it there. Clearing the roads so that the trucks will be able to get there, not just in Tacloban, ano, but even if we use the land route coming from Sorsogon and crossing through Samar, we had to also clear all of those roads. Iyong plane, a C-130 aircraft can carry about 1,500 food packs, not enough. We have only three C-130s, parang I think I should add that,” he explained

The President lamented that local government which is supposed “to provide the backbone,” was “not existent” in the province. He said that the national government had to deploy more policemen and soldiers in the affected areas to bring relief aid.

“Our people were there beforehand. We made mistakes in terms of being able to call on the indigenous government entities at the outset,” Aquino said.

Aquino was also asked during the open forum by another student on whether he was blaming the local government, led by Mayor Alfred Romualdez who belongs to the Romualdez-Marcos clan, which is a political rival of the president’s own family.

The President said that he left the area with the impression there was already “smooth coordination” between the national government agencies and the local government about the relief and recovery efforts.

“I really believe that everything that could be done was done or was being done already. We were given assurances that things were already moving,” he said.

“So if I had known that it would not happen then perhaps I would have waited until they started constructing the first bunkhouse amongst other things, including the cadaver recovery and so many other things,” he added.

President Aquino ended the encounter on a promising and self-effacing note: “We are also students, we want to learn from this experience and do even better next time,”

Stark reality must be faced
Paltry as it is, President Aquino’s apology is at least a start. Better late than never. And a small step forward because he admitted for the first time that he and his government did not perform as well as they should have.

But then we must ask, where do we go after this apology?

127 days after November 8, 2013, when Yolanda/Haiyan struck, the situation in Tacloban and East Visayas remains bleak and depressing,

There haven’t been any significant changes on the ground after the grim portrait provided by various journalists and aid workers during the observance of the 100th day after the catastrophe.

Among these reports are:
1.Ted Failon’s special report for ABS-CBN on February 15, which was a veritable horror tale:
After the clean-up of debris and corpses, after all the drama of the donors extending their helping hands, the poorest of “Taclobanons” and even the middle-class were still mostly without work, barely surviving through their small businesses, staying in make-shift shelters, or have given up, abandoning the city to move to Cebu or Manila.

2. The New York Times front-page story of February 3 entitled “Months After Typhoon, Philippine City Suffers From an Exodus of Jobs.”

Datelined from Tacloban, It reported: “Nearly three months after some of the strongest sustained winds ever recorded drove ashore a wall of water up to 25 feet high, this once-thriving university city and provincial capital shows relatively few signs of economic recovery despite an international rescue effort….

“At night, it is mainly plunged into darkness, and the few temporary houses completed by the government have been declared too cramped for human habitation.”

3. The report on February 16 of Luiza Carvalho, United Nations resident humanitarian-aid coordinator, which detailed how “millions of survivors” of the country’s deadliest typhoon were still without adequate shelter, and that the “need is critical.”

4. The report of Manila Times columnist Rigoberto Tiglao (“101 days after, little done, no plan for Tacloban”, February 17), which gave acutely disturbing information:

Former Senator Panfilo Lacson, whom President Aquino designated as his point-man and rehabilitation czar for Yolanda- hit areas, told the media that he had not accomplished even “10 percent” of his job.

Three months after Yolanda hit, government officials are still coordinating. The national government is still doing research on how bad the typhoon’s damage was and assessing what’s needed by Visayans hit by the typhoon.

The National Disaster Risk and Rehabilitation Management Council will only finish its assessment of the devastation this March,

Most disturbing of Tiglao’s observations was this. “More than three months after the biggest catastrophe to hit the country, there is no real plan for the rehabilitation and recovery of Tacloban and other devastated areas.

“What stands for a plan are three and half pages of mostly motherhood statements.”
Since the 100-day reports and review, nothing much has changed or improved. Indeed, more grim news have occurred

In a headline story last March 11, the Manila Standard reported that the Department of Social Welfare and Development has come under fire from Leyte residents and officials for the dumping of truckloads of food and material aid in an open dumpsite in Barangay San Jose in Palo, Leyte

Succumbing to the law of inertia
I fear that not much is happening in East Visayas because government has succumbed to Newton’s law of inertia: “it keeps on doing what it is doing unless acted on by an irresistible force.”

The DSWD under Dinky Soliman is a prime example of this. Energy secretary Jericho Petilla, who is from Leyte, has been exposed as incompetent and has no more promises to offer. DPWH secretary Mel Singson is another misfit. It’s a mystery why the task of building houses for Yolanda victims was assigned to him, since he’s clearly no engineer or builder. There are more competent housing agencies of government to do this.

The real story is not reaching Malacanang because it does not want to listen to unhappy truths
As Barbara Tuchman once observed: “Of all the barriers that reports from the field must beat against, the most impenetrable is the disbelief of policy-makers in what they do not want to believe.”

This is the wall that our hope and prayer for East Visayas recovery and reconstruction must face. Like the Berlin Wall, it must be torn down.

Its initial response having proven inadequate and the Lacson appointment being a dud, the government should now fix its attention on the drafting of a comprehensive plan for East Visayas recovery and development.

Congress should get into the act by drafting a law commensurate to the challenge. What government did in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which transformed Subic Bay and Clark Field into zones of enterprise and development should be similarly done for East Visayas in the aftermath of Yolanda.

More provinces are affected. Many more lives are on the line. And more are ready to contribute to an earnest effort of change and transformation.

The nation owes East Visayas, the historic gateway of the archipelago, this precious chance of regeneration.

This is the mission that must now be embraced.

I am pleased to report that I have joined a group that is drafting legislation on East Visayas development for Congress to study and consider when it resumes session in May. I will discuss the details of this proposed legislation in my column on Tuesday, March 18.

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