SUPER Typhoon Yolanda—which even here seems to be destined to be better-remembered by its international name Haiyan—was, to put it mildly, an unusual storm. Because of its unprecedented intensity, international media focus was on the Philippines well before the typhoon’s landfall on Friday morning, and perhaps because of that attention various levels of the government (with one glaring exception, which I’ll get to in a moment) were exceptionally proactive in attempting to prepare the country for the impending calamity.
It was encouraging, actually. At long last, it seemed the country’s institutions were finally seizing the chance to get ready for a disaster; even President B.S. Aquino 3rd, often criticized (and rightly so) for being uncommunicative and insensitive in the face of natural disasters, made a brief but welcome appearance on TV to warn the country of the danger, and reassure the Filipino people steps to respond to it were being taken. Information being shared through the regular and social media by relevant agencies was both timely and useful, and it seemed that in comparison to other recent typhoons, Yolanda/Haiyan was being tracked with a significantly improved level of accuracy.
Yet while the rest of the government seemed to be making an honest effort in the run-up to the storm, that utter waste of public resources known as the Philippine Senate was determined to be the sabot in the cogs, by going ahead with the pointless charade of Janet Lim-Napoles’ appearing to repeat, “I don’t know,” and “I invoke my rights” over and over again in response to softball questions posed to her from the Blue Ribbon Committee “investigating” the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scandal. How many more people could have been prepared if they had not had precious hours wasted by a group of self-absorbed blowhards conducting an inquest on a crime in which they themselves are among the prime suspect is unanswerable, of course. What is not uncertain, though, is the lack of demonstrated leadership, or a sense of urgency in the face of an impending crisis.
And in hindsight, maybe the cluelessness of the Senate on Thursday should have been a warning of things to come for the rest of us, especially for the millions in the swath of destruction across the heart of the country. In the aftermath of the typhoon, the response of the Aquino administration, as usual, has been an uncoordinated, fumbling embarrassment. Before Typhoon Yolanda had even finished wreaking havoc on the Philippines on Friday night—in fact, before its effects, which were thankfully negligible at this distance, were even felt around Manila, various government personalities were on the air to congratulate the country on achieving “low casualties,” and the initial reports of only three killed were given wide circulation.
By later Friday, the news was already becoming very grim, and the first light of day on Saturday revealed a catastrophe of astonishing scale—sending those same optimistic government officials back to the airwaves to hastily retract their earlier assessments. In the face of what is probably the biggest natural disaster in the country’s entire history, the Aquino administration apparently decided it was time for Amateur Hour, because the silly missteps quickly piled up. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas hastened to the Tacloban area at once, which was commendable, but neglected to bring along satellite phones or some other secure communications, and thus were out of touch for a few crucial hours. CNN’s Paula Hancocks related in a report that she traveled to Tacloban on a military plane whose primary cargo was a van—to a place that everyone already knew was completely inaccessible to any sort of vehicles.
And as for the nation’s supreme leader, he apparently has taken on board the criticism leveled at him for the past three years about his habit of becoming invisible in the first critical hours and days after a calamity, which we could consider a sign of progress. We could, if he showed any indication that he actually understood why his visibility was important and what purpose it should serve, which he clearly does not. In successive public briefings, President Aquino first suggested that the people of Tacloban were partly to blame for their own misery for not preparing adequately, used the tragedy to highlight the necessity of retaining his personal control of a large proportion of the national budget under the so-called “Disbursement Acceleration Program” (this according to one of my The Times colleagues covering that particular meeting of President Aquino with disaster-management officials), used the same availability of funds—which most expect will be declared illegal by the Supreme Court in the very near future—as an excuse to off-handedly dismiss offers of recovery aid from foreign donors, and then angrily walked out of another briefing after hearing complaints from a Tacloban businessman about being held at gunpoint by looters who are overrunning the city, to which President Aquino is reported to have sarcastically responded, “But you’re still alive, right?”
In his Sunday column, fellow The Times columnist Bobi Tiglao set out—not for the first time, and probably not for the last—a sound plan for addressing the Philippines’ chronic typhoon risk (Nation must confront the curse of typhoons, November 10), a framework many have been advocating for some time. But to even get to that point, the point at which “risk preparedness” can be considered a marketable advantage for the country instead of a gross liability and investment disincentive, the Philippines must demonstrate basic competence in recovering from a disaster. Now is not the time for overweening concern about image maintenance, an aversion to honest and accurate information that may be grim or unwelcome, ulterior political motives, or irrational pride. Thousands are dead, many thousands more are in serious jeopardy, and a wide swath of the Philippines’ economic and social fabrics have been torn to shreds. What is needed now is leadership and direction; with the eyes of the world now on the tragedy, maybe the attention will oblige those who have the responsibility to do so to actually provide that.