TOMORROW, Sunday, November 8, will mark two years since typhoon Yolanda smashed ashore just south of the city of Tacloban in Leyte and shredded lives and property on its path across the nation’s central regions, leaving a mind-boggling trail of destruction in its wake. Yolanda, known internationally as Haiyan, is still the strongest cyclone to make landfall anywhere in the world since meteorological records have been kept.
Estimates of the human and material costs of the catastrophe—which virtually everyone outside the government still assume are far too low—are that about 6,300 people were killed, 4.1 million displaced, and about $3.3 billion in physical damage done. What makes it even more painful for this nation to accept, the typhoon struck almost exactly a month after a strong earthquake caused widespread destruction in Bohol and Cebu; while those places were spared the worst of the storm’s fury, the earlier crisis they were nowhere near being recovered from was, for at least a time, completely forgotten.
On Nov. 12, four days after the storm, I devoted my column to sharing my initial impressions of the government’s management of what turned out to be the worst disaster suffered by the Philippines since World War II, and I find it interesting to revisit them now, as assessments of how far the recovery effort has progressed are again, at least temporarily, a topic of public conversation:
“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. Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin and Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) 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 narrated in a report how she traveled to Tacloban on a military plane that was carrying a van as its primary cargo—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 is according to one of my colleagues at The Times 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. Then he 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?’”
One would hope that, given the “nowhere to go but up” nature of that starting point and the approbation it earned Aquino and his henchmen, not only from the Philippine public but the international press as well (this particular assessment of mine caught the attention of the New York Times, and, of course, everyone remembers CNN stalwart Anderson Cooper’s famous on-air rant that “there is no government here”), many corrections in the approach and performance of the Administration in the recovery effort would have been made.
One would hope, but in vain.
Over the past few weeks, culminating in a NEDA-led briefing on Thursday, we have learned that the Aquino Administration has accomplished very little and learned even less. At this point, two full years after the disaster, only about half of the P150-billion recovery plan has been completed. Out of 16,000 dwellings that need to be built to relocate residents out of danger zones in Tacloban alone, only a little more than 1,100 have been completed; in that city, more than 2,000 families, nearly 10,000 people, are still living in temporary shelters after having been promised a stay of no more than six months. The Commission on Audit at the beginning of this month released a report detailing P923 million in donated disaster funds—P384 million received after Typhoon Yolanda—that are sitting, unused, in government bank accounts. Back in September, another report revealed that 500 small fishing boats donated by the real estate and construction conglomerate DMCI—a small part of the more than 10,000 boats destroyed by the storm—had rotted away to the point of uselessness in a warehouse, because no government official has ever been available to conduct the ceremonial “turnover” to their intended recipients.
To this day, the Philippine Statistics Authority excludes unemployment data for Leyte, citing difficulties in conducting the labor force survey in the affected areas. Most assume, however, although anyone in the government who is challenged with the question hotly denies it, that the omission is mainly intended to maintain the veneer of an acceptable national unemployment rate.
And the list goes on and on. As the calendar marks the second full year since the arrival of typhoon Yolanda, we are not celebrating an anniversary, but rather the second year of a disaster for which an end is not yet in sight, and which will continue to depress the entire country’s prospects for some time to come.