Poor Chief Superintendent Elmer Soria. Until several days ago, he was police commander for Eastern Visayas. Now he’s been unceremoniously reassigned to a desk job at PNP headquarters in Camp Crame.
What cost the chief superintendent his job was an estimate he gave of the number of deaths from Yolanda that tore across central Philippines on November 8. He told reporters that the super typhoon could have killed as many as 10,000 people, culling initial reports from police and local officials.
The figure drew a quick response from President Benigno Aquino 3rd. It’s way too high, the President said. A more realistic estimate was 2,000 to 2,500, he said.
Chief Superintendent Soria must have been suffering from “emotional trauma” when he quoted the officials who themselves “did not have a basis for it,” Mr. Aquino said.
Soon after, Camp Crame announced that Soria was being relieved of his command and will undergo “a stress debriefing because of the trauma that he may have experienced on the ground during the typhoon.”
The government could have crafted a more believable explanation for sacking Soria than claiming he was emotionally overwhelmed by the tragedy Yolanda had brought.
So what did Soria do for him to deserve such a sanction?
The police officer simply made the mistake of embarrassing the President, although we are sure Soria never meant to. Mr. Aquino has been obsessed with keeping a “zero casualty” count during natural calamities. He has woven his administration’s disaster preparedness program around it.
A death toll of 10,000 derides the zero casualty policy. It is unacceptable because it indicates that the government’s much-vaunted disaster preparedness program failed miserably.
But the President is forgetting that Yolanda is no ordinary storm. It is the strongest ever recorded to hit land. Even before Yolanda struck the country, weather experts were warning that its effects would be catastrophic.
Indeed, the scale of destruction is something the country has never experienced before. The complete picture of the tragedy is still unfolding; the casualty and damage figures are still rising.
Already the official number of dead is inching is about to breach 4,000. That’s far beyond the President’s estimate.
What happens if the number comes close to 10,000? Would the President acknowledge that Soria was right all along and absolve him?
The Soria episode adds to the many missteps of the Aquino administration as it struggles with the humanitarian crisis in Yolanda’s aftermath. Already the government is reeling from a barrage of criticism for the slowness in delivering food and other relief goods to the people who need it most. There is also an outcry over the lack of competent leaders on the ground to supervise relief efforts. Order has not been completely restored in many ravaged areas, and reports of rapes and looting are on the rise.
President Aquino is doing his best to cope with the unprecedented tragedy that has shaken the nation, that much is certain. But this is not the time for knee-jerk decisions that only feed the people’s anger and frustration. The decision to relieve Chief Superintendent Elmer Soria is one such decision. Soria could have been quietly admonished to be more prudent with his remarks next time. To remove him outright from his post was an overreaction, and to explain that he needs to be treated for emotional trauma insults the intellect.