Politics, lack of command hound Tacloban

LIVES AT STAKE. Over 5,900 people died after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) u2013 and a series of right and wrong moves by the government. Photo by EPA

LIVES AT STAKE. Over 5,900 people died after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) u2013 and a series of right and wrong moves by the government.

Photo by EPA

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Ghosts of political rivalry and a headless command center continue to hound Tacloban City a month after Yolanda (Haiyan), a super typhoon, unleashed its fury and left over 5,900 dead.

Shedding tears, Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez on Monday, December 9, said the national government refused to help his city unless he signed an ordinance to allow this.

Romualdez said he initially asked for “more foot soldiers,” among others, to help rescue Tacloban residents days after Yolanda. “I was never given that,” he said in a congressional hearing on the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010.

Then, around a week after he made the request, he said Roxas called him and other city officials to a meeting. He said Roxas “told me in that meeting we have to legalize everything here.”

“I asked, 'What is to legalize here?' He said that it is a gray area, that the national government is coming in and doing all this,” the mayor recalled.

He supposedly replied to Roxas: “Why is it illegal? As far as I know, the President is the President of the Philippines, and he's also President of Tacloban City.”

Nothing in the law says the national government needs an ordinance to help Tacloban, Romualdez said. “He answered me and told me, 'You have to remember, we have to be careful. You are a Romualdez and the President is an Aquino.'"

Romualdez comes from the clan of former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos, whose husband, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, put the President's father in jail. Aquino's father, Benigno Jr, was assassinated under the Marcos regime.

In a media briefing on Tuesday, December 10, Roxas said Romualdez took his words out of context.

Roxas said this is the exact statement he made: “You have to understand. We are talking very straight here. You are a Romualdez, and the President is an Aquino. So we are being very careful in just taking over because we do not want anything to be misconstrued, misunderstood.”

Roxas said this clearly shows he didn't threaten Romualdez, nor refuse to extend him help.

Hindi po. Kami nga 'yung nag-iingat. Nag-iingat ang national government dahil hindi naman natin ma-deny na 'yun ang sitwasyon talaga, 'yun ang katotohanan. At tingnan mo ngayon, one month from now, totoo nga, na, 'Hindi kami natulungan, napulitika kami, and so on and so forth,'” Roxas said.

(That's not true. We just wanted to be careful. The national government wanted to be careful because we cannot deny that this is indeed the situation, that this is the truth. And look – one month later, it 's true. Now they're saying, “We didn't get help. We've been victims of politicking, and so on and so forth.”)

Crippled responders

It was the latest in the bickering between Romualdez and the camp of President Benigno Aquino III over Yolanda. (Watch more in the video below.)

 

The exchange between Romualdez and Roxas not only displays political rivalry. It also brings a nagging issue to the fore: Who was really in charge?

 

Earlier, Roxas admitted no ground commander managed the crisis. For the first few weeks, however, he served as the crisis management team's most prominent face aside from the President. (READ/WATCH: Haiyan crisis: No ground commander.)

 

On Monday, Sen Antonio Trillanes IV questioned Roxas' role in the team that handled the crisis.

 

He said that based on the chain of command of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin “was supposed to be in charge.”

 

Gazmin, after all, chairs the NDRRMC. Roxas, who is seen as eyeing the presidency in 2016, is vice chair for disaster preparedness.

 

'Yung Secretary of Interior, sa preparedness lang 'yung nakalagay doon. So kung susundin 'yon, baka walang ganitong gusot,” Trillanes said. (The Secretary of Interior is supposed to handle preparedness. If we were to follow that, we would've avoided this problem.)

 

Sen Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense chief himself, also questioned why Gazmin took a backseat. (READ: NDRRMC: Too many cooks spoil the broth.)

 

“Why was the Defense chief relegated to a support position when he was supposed to be in command?” Enrile asked, recalling that during his time, the military always responded first. “That’s why we have the military manpower. The military is always the one in command.”

 

In the first few hours after Yolanda, another problem involved the operations base itself.

 

The top two NDRRMC officials, Gazmin and Roxas, stationed themselves in Tacloban City on the eve of Yolanda, November 7.

 

Gazmin and Roxas failed to bring satellite phones. When Yolanda toppled communication lines and isolated the city, both of them lost contact with Manila.

 

Trying to reach them became another problem. (READ: Communications down, Mar can't be reached.)

 

A squad for Tacloban

 

The general who would later head the army's Task Force Yolanda, Brigadier General Jet Velarmino, also found himself helpless after Yolanda made landfall. He, too, stationed himself in Tacloban City.

 

In an interview with Rappler, Velarmino said his troops coordinated with the police and other disaster officials in a “composite team.” “Wala pang nagmamando. We were just organizing, kasi wala pang bagyo,” he said. (No one was calling the shots yet. We were just organizing, because the typhoon had not made landfall.)

 

His soldiers braced for the worst.

 

Velarmino deployed a squad in identified areas, including Tacloban, two days before Yolanda made landfall. A squad is composed of 8 to 13 soldiers. In previous disasters such as Typhoon Pablo in December 2012, the entire division in the military's Eastern Mindanao Command deployed about 5,000 troops and equipment before the disaster struck.

 

Velarmino said he worked closely with Gazmin and Roxas, as well as local officials. They met at least twice on November 7, the eve of Yolanda, at around 4:30 pm then at 8 pm. They called it a day at 10 pm.

 

Then came D-day. From the Tacloban airport where Velarmino spent the night, he dressed up and prepared to go to their command center, the Leyte police headquarters.

 

The typhoon, however, foiled their preparations.

 

On November 8, flood waters almost trapped Velarmino, his wife, and his soldiers in the building they stayed in. Velarmino's soldiers managed to destroy the ceiling, and all of them took refuge on top of the roof.

 

When the waters receded, Velarmino visited the Leyte police, then the airport, to check the extent of the damage. He walked 8 kilometers to finally report to Gazmin: “Sir, nag-survive ako.” (Sir, I survived.)

 

By then, at least 12 hours had elapsed after Yolanda made landfall.

 

Experts say the first 24 hours after disaster spell life and death. (READ: After Haiyan: Crisis management and beyond.)

 

In the face of over 5,900 deaths, Velarmino defended the government. Who can prepare enough, he said, for a disaster that huge? The general said, “It's man versus nature.” (Watch more in the video below.)

 

The disaster, apparently, is politician versus politician, too. – Rappler.com 

 

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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