Blame game begins

PNoy orders probe of lapses by LGUs
President Benigno Aquino III on Monday ordered a probe into possible lapses by local government units that he said led to massive devastation and the loss of lives, even as a UN official said this was not the time to point fingers or to assign blame.

“That is a matter that is subject of investigation,” Aquino said in an interview in Alang-alang, Leyte yesterday.Asked how he felt about the perceived shortcomings of local government units, the President said: “I’d rather have the investigation finished before I accused anybody.”“I have supervision overall. But again the system has to rely on the local government unit which is already in place to provide the necessary permission so that the adequate responses can be generated by the national government. That’s why I call it a backbone. When the backbone doesn’t exist, what do you actually augment? The national government had to fill in, in so many roles.”

Giving and getting relief. From top: A typhoon survivor walks past signs asking for help in a fishing village in San Jose on the outskirts of Tacloban; President Benigno Aquino III, assisted by Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, distributes relief goods to residents of Palo in Leyte; a door gunner on a Huey helicopter prepares to drop relief aid on a village near Tacloban; desperate villagers race to pick up food dropped by an Air Force helicopter near the town of Pastrana in Leyte. AFP and Marcelino Pascua
Aquino also blamed the slow response to the ravages of typhoon Yolanda on the total collapse of local government in the face of the storm’s unprecedented destructive power.

“The systems failed,” Aquino acknowledged as he toured areas devastated by the super typhoon that smashed through the central Philippines on Nov. 8, killing thousands and laying waste to entire towns and villages.

“We had a breakdown in power, a breakdown in communications... a breakdown in practically everything,” Aquino told reporters.

The President, who was criticised for the initial delay in getting relief to the worst-hit areas, argued that the local authorities had primary responsibility as first responders.

“But the destructive force of this typhoon was of such a magnitude that even those personnel... were themselves victims,” he said, noting that only 20 police officers in Tacloban -- the affected region’s largest city -- were able to report to work the day after the storm.

“So we have to admit, there was a breakdown in terms of government and there was a cascading effect,” said Aquino.In Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez said the national government was aware of the preparations they undertook ahead of the calamity.

A check with the Twitter account of Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, who was in Tacloban City a day before super typhoon Yolanda made landfall, showed a tweet that supported the statement of Romualdez.

“Just finished local DRRMC (disaster risk reduction and management council) review. Mukang nagawa naman na ang lahat. Crossing fingers. God bless everyone,” read Roxas’ tweet.

Romualdez also took exception at Aquino’s criticism of local officials.

“Will we insult the dead, and say they died because they were unprepared?” Romualdez said.

In the Senate, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile used a prayer to seek forgiveness for those who “blamed others for [their] inability to lend complete relief to those who are suffering.”

He also sought forgiveness for those who “in moments of blind hubris” became “quick to impute malice on the action of others.”

“Energize our capacity for silent charity as we dig deeper into our resources to help our brothers and sisters who have taken a beating and suffered more than what is expected in one lifetime,” Enrile said.

A UN country representative for the High Commissioner for Refugees Bernard Kerblat appealed to the public not to start pointing fingers and assigning blame.

In a press conference, Kerblat said that instead of bickering and blaming, Filipinos must focus on giving assistance and relief to the victims of TYphoon Yolanda, which devastated Leyte, Samar and other Visayan provinces.

“There are some bickering and blame and finger pointing.. sorry, this is not the time,” he said.

“We have to think of those people who have died and unfortunately there’s not much that we can do except to offer them a dignified burial without entering into a debate of how many of them have died,” Kerblat said.

He said that it is not only the government but everybody that must work in the spirit of “bayanihan.”

“All of us have now to focus, beginning from your kababayans who have demonstrated the spirit of bayanihan. That spirit must be preserved, strengthened and continue to exist in support of the survivors. We need to close hands to reinforce that spirit,” he said.

Kerblat said based on data they had, between 10 million and 12.9 million people have been affected by typhoon Yolanda.

Eleven days after the typhoon struck, the Philippine government continues to receive aid from all over the world, in cash and in kind, he said.

“As each day passes we are overcoming challenges in getting the aid to people, food is being delivered. The government is very much in the lead, we are here to support them,” he added.

He admitted that with the plenty of countries helping out, the entire Leyte-Samar area was now congested.

“Everybody is driving with his own truck and cars to bring in huge amount of goods. The PNP (Philippine National Police), the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines), and Philippine aircraft have responded well not to mention the DOTC (Department of Transportation and Communication) and ports authorities in establishing a bypass to allow the convoys of trucks,” he said.

He also said that given the sizable number of aircraft which already landed in Cebu, the airbase there was already congested, posing a serious challenge.

“We are in coordination with DOTC just to see if we can do something and we are ready to respond to mobilize assets in order to expidite the transfer of cargoes and resolve the logjam,” he said.

“I’ve been in this business for 32 years and I rarely see people working round the clock to efficiently try to decongest the airspace. No need to give in to anxiety and panic and with patience that will be resolved,” he added.

He said that there are also additional contingents coming from nations like Canada, Switzerland, Israel, French, Germany, Belgium and the US that are being deployed to extend assistance to expedite the distribution of relief goods.

“Eleven days are too long for the survivors. Millions of people for the past 11 days are still walking on the debris of their shelter completely destroyed, looking for their loved ones. We need to act decisively to support the survivors,” he said.

He said that they still face some challenges in the distribution.

“We are still facing coordination problems and bottlenecks, especially in Cebu,” he said, adding that it will take some time to reach all the affected areas, given the magnitude of damage wrought by the typhoon.

“The objective of UN is to spread as much assistance as possible, food, water, non-food items, together with our NGO partners in support of the DSWD effort in order to stabilize the population as early as possible,” he said.

“We have right now a population on the move forcibly displaced from their habitual place of residence who are facing atrocious conditions for the past 11 days,” he added.

He said the rehabilitation of Tacloban could take years.

“It’s a work in progress. With the magnitude of the problem, we are not talking about months, we are talking about years before that portion of the territory of this beautiful country can get back on its feet,” he said.

“This is massive, this is huge. I don’t think that everybody around the world has realized the seriousness of this crisis,” he added.

The UN said that they have only received 26.1 percent of the $301-million flash appeal for its action plan to help the people of Tacloban and other provinces get back on their feet.

President Aquino on Sunday took an active role, touring the worst-hit towns and cities and announcing that he would set up base in the region until he was satisfied that the relief operation was running as effectively as it should.

He also continued to make thinly veiled criticisms of local officials, suggesting they had been under-prepared and provided inaccurate data which had hampered the relief effort.

“As President, I should not show my anger. No matter how irritated I am,” he said.

Aquino’s image has taken a beating in recent months as anger has grown over a government corruption scandal.

At the end of October, he felt compelled to go on national television and publicly declare he was “not a thief” as he defended hundreds of millions of pesos in government spending that has come under scrutiny.

Typhoon Yolanda was always going to be a major test, but the unprecedented ferocity of the storm was overwhelming and exacerbated by a five-meter (16-foot) storm surge that sent tsunami-like waves crashing into coastal cities, towns and villages.

As the scale of the destruction became apparent, Aquino was initially criticized for what was seen as some insensitive quibbling over the likely death toll.

His initial estimate of 2,500 now appears unduly optimistic with the number of confirmed dead standing at almost 4,000, with another 1,600 missing and many remote areas still to be properly assessed.

At the same time, the delay of several days in getting the official relief program up and running was taken as a lack of preparedness, and that played badly with the gruesome video footage coming out of the worst-hit zones.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the president,” said Rene de Castro, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

“But I don’t know that anybody else in his position would have been able to handle a disaster of this magnitude.”

Aquino’s decision to move down to the devastated region was clearly aimed at demonstrating a hands-on appreciation of the situation, and on Monday he toured other devastated towns where he was filmed helping out at distribution centers.

“We have to raise people’s morale, we have to encourage them to get back on their feet as soon as possible by giving them positive signals of assistance and encouragement,” Aquino’s spokesman Herminio Coloma said Monday.

“The President wants to ensure they have ample supplies and that they could be sustained so that we can move on to the next stage which is rehabilitation.”

There was an element of political and personal bad blood to the spat in Tacloban, with Aquino and Romualdez belonging to two of the most powerful political clans in modern Philippine history.

Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, led the “people power” revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Her husband, also called Benigno, was assassinated at Manila airport when he returned from exile in 1983.

Romualdez is related to Marcos’s widow, former first lady Imelda Marcos, who remains a powerful political figure as a congresswoman. Her son, Ferdinand Jr., is a senator eyeing a run at the next presidential elections in 2016.

“The whole relief effort has been politically polarized,” said Prospero de Vera, a political analyst at the University of the Philippines.

“This will be the defining moment of Aquino’s administration, and he needs to act very strongly and be very focused, and rise above any political bickering,” De Vera said. With Sara Susanne Fabunan, Macon Ramos-Araneta and AFP


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