Our Yolanda narratives

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THE lessons from Yolanda echoes strong, two years after the tragedy that we cannot gloss over what November 8 means to us. Yolanda is about leadership, decision-making and management. It is both the IQ and the EQ of leadership; being proactive, building consensus and making decisions on the spot; and of managing adequately, human and financial resources in order to respond to a natural disaster. Part of management is the ability to communicate effectively to all parties involved, never framing it as you versus us.

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Yolanda showed the maturity of our leaders and the ability to care for the greater number than the few, selected ones. Yolanda also showed that the most powerful man in the country does not have a team of seasoned implementers, setting aside the experts in the bureaucracy, both uniformed and civilian, to respond to the biggest calamity the country experienced.

Yolanda is also more and more about the Filipino people and their resiliency. It is about foreign nationals giving us a helping hand. It is about looking beyond relief operations and insisting on rescues just to account for all. It is about multilateral donor agencies and foundations instituting cash-for-work and cash-for-food programs that build the psyche back of Filipinos, standing up and putting back lives to what the new normal dictated.

Sad to say, Yolanda is also the epitome of a tragic politicization of disaster. Building back better is about having a shared vision and a common task of rebuilding lives. It is not about being an Aquino viz a Romualdez, or disaster happening in Tacloban, a Romualdez territory because Aquino is supposedly the president of all Filipinos, unless taxes are separated based on political color and affiliation.

Let us start with the basic. There was a pre-disaster fund at the local government level, which was discontinued. “A glaring fact that the administration cannot deny: In 2011, Aquino’s first year in office, he vetoed a P5-billion allocation of the Calamity Fund for disaster preparedness, a move that has come back to haunt him.” In his own words, Aquino said, “I caution the inclusion of pre-disaster activities such as preparation of relocation sites/facilities and training of personnel engaged in direct disaster in the use of the Calamity Fund.’ Aquino said that the money should instead be used for “actual calamities”, and he wished to prevent the Calamity Fund’s “full utilization for pre-disaster activities” since disaster preparedness had been “subsumed” by other implementing agencies.”

There was an elite group in the military that was responsible for rescue since time immemorial. The same was abolished. That has not been made public since then. They were always the first on the ground.

The needed real time data on the ground was nowhere thus people in Tacloban were saying that there could be a surge when in fact what happened was a tsunami. Communications were not immediately set up and the whole military establishment, so used to first on the ground protocol was immobilized because of failure of civilian leaders. The airport, the first needing clearing to ensure swift operation from rescue to relief took days to clear, led by an American officer who just declared the “airstrip and airport will be cleared and made operational by 1700H.” In those first four to five days, the Philippine government was nowhere.

Instead of rescue, relief became the center of government activities exactly almost a week after, 13 November, rice and sardines were distributed. Another four or so days came the second round. The cause of the bottleneck on relief goods: DSWD would first repack all donations. Instead of feeling government, it was in a state of shock and suspended animation. Meetings were happening all at the same time at the C-level while the ground was idly waiting for decisions to be made. Decisions that meant a life or two saved. Until this very day, we do not know the real total number of casualties.

Indeed as one report said, “there are competing narratives about the disaster response of Aquino’s government to Typhoon Yolanda: The government story on the one hand, and anecdotes from survivors and media reporters on the other.” And I add to that the various efforts of Filipino citizens banding together to help a government that needed a douse of cold water to respond ably and adequately. Filipinos had to stand up and do their share as government was in a sub-zero state.

There were already protocols under Republic Act No. 10121 or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act signed by President Gloria Arroyo in 27 May 2010. When was the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) made? Under whose leadership was the IRR formulated and rolled out?

Sections 21 and 22 of R.A. 10121 provided for several funding mechanisms. Sec. 21 sets aside “not less than five percent (5%) of the estimated revenue from regular sources” for the Local Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund or LDRRMF. The fund shall support “disaster risk management activities such as, but not limited to, pre-disaster preparedness programs including training, purchasing life-saving rescue equipment, supplies and medicines, for post-disaster activities, and for the payment of premiums on calamity insurance.” 30% of the LDRRMF shall be “allocated as Quick Response Fund (QRF) or stand-by fund for relief and recovery programs in order that situation and living conditions of people may be normalized as quickly as possible.”

Section 22 provided for the Calamity Fund or the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund (NDRRM Fund) with a similar trust, albeit, national coverage. Thirty percent (30%) shall be allocated as Quick Response Fund (QRF) or stand-by fund for relief and recovery programs in order that situation and living conditions may be normalized as quickly as possible.

The law likewise provided a one billion pesos revolving fund for the Office of Civilian Defense, the lead agency to carry out R.A. 10121. Mind you, it was a revolving fund the law mandated. “Yet a glance at the National Expenditure Program of the Department of Budget and Management shows that the funding for OCD in the first half of Aquino’s term was highly variable: The OCD budget allocations were P85 million in 2010, P90 million in 2011, P1.22 billion in 2012 and P657 million in 2013. What happened to the aggregate balance in the amount of Php 4.2 billion from 2011-2013?

What do we institutionalize two years after? An Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCT) done by UNICEF or by the Tzu Chi Foundation? Clearly, we should go beyond food and have a menu of options to bring back better. Giving beneficiaries cash makes the economy move. How long should financial assistance be? UNICEF had theirs for 6 months while Tzu Chi’s was a one time, lump sum? What intervention can make them better off after a tragedy like Yolanda? Should we link UCT with CCT? Because one of the findings of the UNICEF was that beneficiaries went to being marginalized at the end of the UCT. How long does a community take to recover? Should we build evacuation centers in identified geo-hazard locations?

The narrative of Yolanda is still to be completed. That would probably be after the Aquino administration when light is brought in to make public what was kept away from the glare. It is only through such discovery can we learn and better the disaster mitigation systems we need to set in place. As PGMA once said: “As a country in the path of typhoons and in the Pacific Rim of Fire, we must be prepared as the latest technology permits to anticipate natural calamities when that is possible, to extend immediate and effective relief when it is not.”

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