Another Yolanda storm brewing – and what a howler!

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MAURO GIA SAMONTE

The huge howler that was Yolanda in 2013 does not seem to have ended after all. Four years into its anniversary four days from today, the killer typhoon (death toll more than 6,300, with bodies continuing to be found into 2014) is once more a-forming, its howl now certain to duplicate that which made Yolanda the most destructive on record to have hit humanity ever.

This time around, Yolanda’s winds and storm surges are attuned to a windfall of P800 million, culled from an avalanche of financial and material support from the international humanity for the rehabilitation of victims and their homes in Samar, Leyte, and elsewhere in Western Visayas.

P800 million is reflected in the accounting books of the National Housing Authority (NHA) as the amount of housing units erected by the agency here and there in Samar and Leyte for awarding to those who lost their homes, not to mention their loved ones, in the Great Flood.

This seems good, even laudable, as far as it goes.

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Trouble is, there is Negros Occidental Rep. Alfred “Albee” Benitez, chairman of the House Committee on Housing and Urban Development. A no-nonsense lawmaker, whose roots go down to the famed Conrado Benitez of the revered “Seven Wise Men” who drafted the 1935 Philippine Constitution. Cong. Albee, as he is fondly called, began looking into the matter when complaints cropped up from among their early beneficiaries that the housing units were sub-standard and veritably unlivable.

Not content with media accounts on the anomaly, Albee on his own went to Samar and made on-site inspection of the houses. Realizing who Albee was, an informant, claiming to have had a responsible hand in the relocation project, came forward and volunteered the information that those housing units are really of sub-standard quality.

To prove his contention, the informant took an easy time cracking the wall of one such unit, and voila, there appeared in their eyes oh so tiny round bars as steel support for the hollow-blocked wall.

“What’s the size of this round bar?” asked Cong. Albee.

“6.5 mm.”

“What was the specification in the plan?” Cong. Albee again asked.

“16mm.”

Anybody familiar with the construction business would say that you don’t use a 6.5 mm round bar as studs for layering concrete hollow blocks (asintada in the vernacular) to put up a wall. That kind of steel is even smaller in size than the standard one used for girting (anillo in construction lingo) the steel frame of concrete posts which is 8 mm.

Cong. Albee walked inside a few of the houses and experienced a common characteristic. The walls appeared to shake, as from an earthquake aftershock. That characteristic, contended the informant, is common to all the houses recorded in NHA books to be worth P800 million.

Convinced of the informant’s contention, Cong. Albee asked if he was ready to testify on the matter under oath. The informant agreed.

Alas but on the day of the congressional hearing on the anomaly, the informant backed out. And that’s where the issue appeared to come to a rest until Congress went into its current recess.

But, as John Paul Jones would word it, for Cong. Albee, the fight has only just began. He believes he has uncovered a big anomaly in the NHA and he is dead set in curing it for good.

In an interview with select members of the media recently, Cong. Albee disclosed that his committee will recommend the filing of plunder charges against contractor Juanito Tayag of the J.C. Tayag Builders, Inc. and several officials of the NHA. He declined to name names.

Cong. Albee declared that he is so convinced by the evidences he has in his possession of collusion between contractors and NHA that if it came to it, he would in his personal capacity file plunder charges against them.

“J.C. Tayag was only a Double A contractor,” said Cong. Albee. He explained that this meant Tayag is entitled to engage in government projects of only up to P200 million.

“But by breaking up an P800 million project into smaller ones with each amounting to lesser than P200 million each, J.C. Tayag was able to qualify to bid and corner all of them,” said Cong. Albee.

According to the Negros lawmaker, all four chopped-up projects cornered by J. C. Tayag, each amounting to P200 million, are located in one contagious area, so that the contractor cannot claim that those four are different from one another.

Cong. Albee said at one point, Tayag struck up a compromise with the Housing Committee for the latter to make disclosures in executive session in order to clear up the NHA mess.

“However,” the lawmaker said, “Tayag, up to the last minute, still refused to admit guilt.”

He later learned Tayag was still hoping to collect the hundreds of millions of pesos from his unfinished projects with the NHA, thus his reluctance to compromise the situation of his “contacts” inside the agency.

“Apparently, his contacts are still with the NHA,” said Cong. Albee. “I believe collusion between the NHA and private contractors have long been in existence even before the Yolanda housing controversy.”

According to Cong. Albee, NHA used to get only a budget of about P5 billion to P6 billion. At that level, even if there was the possibility that there already was corruption, people failed to notice it as the projects then were not so huge.

“But in the case of Yolanda, NHA was flooded with funds of about P60 billion and projects of gargantuan proportions that they could no longer control and hide the extent of corruption,” said the lawmaker.

At any rate, the Negros Occidental representative needs every support in his effort, undertaken with almost private passion, to get to the bottom of this housing controversy. Another windfall in this genre must be upcoming, what with another avalanche of support the country is currently getting from the international community for the rehabilitation of Marawi.

NHA stands to be a far greener pasture for its herd of contractors to graze on.

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