Before anything else, this writer joins the nation in prayer, mourning, compassion, and urgent action for the millions of victims of Typhoon Yolanda. There is need now to set aside animosities and politicking to mobilize national and international efforts, expertise, and resources for succor, medical services, food, shelter and other essentials, recovery and reconstruction in the devastated areas. This is of paramount importance now.
What should the nation and the world do? First, let’s all stop the finger-pointing over the scale of the disaster, the failings of government response at various levels, and the breakdown of law and order in affected areas. Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras rightly called for suspension of public criticism in the race to save lives and deliver essential goods and services. Everyone should heed his call for verbal ceasefire—starting with his boss, President Benigno Aquino 3rd.
Action, not excuses
Cease the unhelpful and insensitive denial and defensiveness over eyewitness reports of absent or inadequate relief and law enforcement. Set aside too the debate over casualty figures, damage estimates, and other aspects of the calamity, which can only be known with reasonable accuracy after weeks of methodical assessment to be done mostly after the immediate work of succor and sustenance.
Authorities should have the maturity and single-minded purpose to treat reports and complaints as pointers to needed responses, rather than being drawn into unproductive arguments. Never forget: Far more than blame and excuses, the people want to hear what will be done to deliver what’s needed and address what’s amiss.
At the same time, while media has done a laudable job broadcasting the magnitude of the tragedy and the gaps in disaster response, often at immense risk and difficulty for reporting units, there is need to curb at times the urge to lay blame. There are ways of making responsible parties aware of pressing problems and constructive suggestions without castigating them. They may well deserve the dressing down, but not now when they have to focus all attention and effort on the calamity.
Who’s in charge?
Being far removed from relief operations and ground-level conditions, this writer will not presume to offer suggestions on relief, rescue and recovery activities, except to agree with this newspaper’s call for well-secured tent settlements where victims can safely gather and receive food, water, clothing, medical treatment, and other essentials. Not only will this efficiently and effectively deliver needed succor. It also opens up devastated areas for cleanup by the government and the military.
On disaster response management, however, there is one suggestion to make: designate a clear, proven and responsible Cabinet member to take overall charge of the Leyte rescue, relief and recovery operations.
Besides President Aquino, quoted and interviewed in media were the secretaries of Defense, Local Government, Energy, Social Welfare, and Health, plus the Executive Secretary, the Cabinet Secretary. But who’s overseeing and coordinating the complex and vast undertaking, which involves local governments, national agencies, the uniformed services, international bodies, foreign nations, and the private sector?
The quick answer would be the President, but he cannot possibly give the 24/7 focus needed by the crisis, given countless other national concerns demanding his attention and action. Hence, he should select and empower a Cabinet-level official to lead the Leyte relief and recovery effort.
Wanted: roadmap to normalcy
Among secretaries involved in relief efforts, the ones with executive ability plus strong ties with local governments in the Visayas are Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas and Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla, who was Leyte governor from 2003 to 2012. The official designated as calamity recovery chief may himself need to turn over much of his departmental duties to an acting secretary, while still checking on his agency from time to time.
Whoever is chosen, his first order of business is to convene a wide-ranging crisis management meeting with the governors and city mayors of Central and Eastern Visayas, the heads of relief agencies, police and armed forces, and officials of key sectors and international entities engaged in disaster response.
This indispensable and overdue discussion will define urgent priorities, mobilize needed resources and personnel, and draft a working relief and recovery timetable with clear tasking and responsibilities. Then the Cabinet secretary can outline to the media and the people, especially the stricken communities of Leyte, the only thing they want to hear: how and when normalcy will be restored in their lives and communities, and what they need to do to help make that happen.
Count the cost correctly
One key ingredient of the roadmap to normalcy is a realistic and expertly done damage and needs assessment. During the 2009 Ondoy and Pepeng mega-floods, the Arroyo administration received funding and technical support from the United Nations, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, among other donors, to document and quantify the disaster cost.
Included in the bill for Ondoy and Pepeng were infrastructure and property destroyed or damaged, the agricultural and other economic output diminished, the people displaced and dispossessed, and the livelihoods and incomes lost. The same competent needs assessment, free from politically driven distortions, is needed now to ensure that recovery expectations and resource mobilization are in line with the true extent of the damage. Minimizing the estimate would only engender false hopes of speedy upliftment and a gross mismatch of recovery needs and resources.
The estimated amount of damage and losses for Ondoy and Pepeng reached P200 billion or more than $4 billion. Albay Governor Jose Salceda, a topnotch economist, offers a preliminary estimate for the economic cost of Yolanda: P600 billion. Even if one cuts that assessement in half, it easily makes the current catastrophe the Philippines’ most devastating ever.
All Filipinos must share the burden
In helping Tacloban and the rest of the Yolanda-hit Visayas recover, every Filipino must share the burden. For starters, those of us spared from the calamity should set aside ample contributions—including money saved by downscaling Christmas celebrations and gifts next month, as many, individuals, firms and associations are now doing.
In addition, those who engaged in corrupt activities that cut into state coffers should stop their nefarious activities. Every centavo wrongfully denied the government is robbed from the desperate folk of the Visayas. This calamity should impress upon grafters the enormity of their evil ways.
Lastly, Yolanda must wake up the nation and the world to the imperative of redoubling programs and funding for climate change adaptation, to protect hundreds of millions of people from the escalating dangers of super-storms created by global warming.
There will be more Yolandas. We must join hands to protect our people.