President Aquino and Secretary Mar Roxas got it right the first time, although they garbled the message when they said it. Local governments—provincial, city and municipal—are logically and properly the “first responders” in a natural disaster or emergency like Typhoon Ruby and Typhoon Yolanda. They said it in 2013 in high-profile interviews on CNN and BBC, and on the local networks; and they repeated it in countless statements and speeches aimed at dispelling the impression that the President had dropped the ball and could not rise to the occasion.
With Yolanda/Haiyan, the message got mangled by all those dreadful statements that came out of their mouths while they were in Tacloban ostensibly to help in responding to the emergency.
“You’re a Romualdez, the President is an Aquino.”
“Buhay ka pa naman, d’ ba?” You are still alive, right?”
“Bahala na kayo sa buhay niyo.” “You are on your own.”
On national and international TV, it all sounded as though the Aquino government was trying to shift responsibility from the national to the local governments for the chaotic and inadequate rescue and relief efforts in the early days of the emergency.
Like the nation and the rest of the world, our government was stunned by the magnitude of the devastation wreaked by the perfect storm. Our commander-in-chief lost command of his words and his thoughts.
With Ruby, which took a long while in arriving and now is taking its time in departing from the Philippine area of responsibility (PAR), the national response is more organized and better coordinated. Government at all levels is better prepared this time. This is partly because Ruby packed winds of considerably less speed and intensity, and the rains and flooding are much easier to cope with. And partly because the swath of the devastation was much smaller in area and impacted fewer people and families.
Most of all, the nation – the government and the people together — had learned invaluable lessons from Yolanda’s ferocious hammering. In every phase of the rescue and recovery effort—in rescue, relief, recovery and rehabilitation—we learned lessons that won’t be forgotten.
And it is all showing in how the nation has responded and is responding to Ruby.
President Aquino is feeling more empathy and concern for all who stood or stands to be affected by the storm.
Mar Roxas is again first at the scene to witness the oncoming cyclone. He has mobilized his Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). He has been in full charge of distributing funds for disaster preparedness and relief to local governments. He has deployed adequate police and military troops to keep order in affected areas.
This is too early to say at this point because Ruby is still very much around, preparing to make further landfalls. But it is already evident—and soon will be confirmed by facts on the ground —that the preparedness and readiness of local governments to take on the challenge of coping with Ruby is ensuring the provision of assistance to people in distress and in stiffening the resolve of communities to cope.
While Ruby may have piled further misery on families still homeless and communities still recovering from Yolanda, it has not reduced them to despair and helplessness.
Local government as first responder
The idea of local government as first responder is actually the orthodox thinking in dealing with natural disasters in advanced countries, including the US.
Two books on disaster management—The Politics of Disaster by Marvin Olasky (W publishing group, 2006) and Disasters and Democracy by Rutherford Platt (Island press, 1999)—underscore the importance of local government in dealing with natural disasters.
“Proximity is powerfrul,” Olasky writes. “Local and state authorities know the local situation and have an intimate familiartity with local conditions, which allows better improvisation. Reliance on [the federal government]creates not only immediate problems but also long-term ones, because local and state muscles can readily atrophy. Disasters that close-at-hand leaders could have handled in past years seem beyond their capacity.”
Platt seconds Olasky’s observation: “Where local government was in charge, the work was going faster and at a much lower price.” Oftentimes, the national government pays an extraordinary amount of money for services that are not being performed adequately.
The point is that a national official sitting in Manila will not see and seize the opportunity to be of help as well as an official who knows his town, his city or his province.
When the national government always takes the lead in disaster response, says Platt, “It becomes good politics for local governments to neglect their own disaster response capabilities in order to qualify for a presidential declaration.”
If we assume that national officials and departments will be the first responders, local governments will become inadequate to deal with disasters. Any chance of reviving local officials’ control of their own situation will disappear.
In the United States, there is a practice and there is legislation that insists that the federal government should not pay more than 75 percent of relief costs— but presidents have the option to raise the federal share beyond that, and few have had the power to resist doing what makes them appear warmhearted.
Assistance too little and too late
In the past, the national government was often accused of providing assistance that is too little and too late to local communities.
Learning from the lessons of Yolanda, the Aquino administration has commendably mobilized more funds to enable local governments to become more prepared and resourceful in coping with disasters.
It is shifting more of the burden to local communities, and local governments are apparently responding with vigor to the challenge.
So, yes, Aquino and Roxas were right about “the first responder line” the first time around. With this second test, let’s hope they will really prove and redeem themselves.