REPORTS of lawlessness and massive devastation – and even a call to impose emergency rule – caused President Benigno Aquino III to walk out briefly of a meeting Sunday with local disaster officials in Tacloban City, which was hardest hit by super typhoon Yolanda.
At the meeting, the President expressed displeasure over what he called “inconsistent reports on the extent of devastation and the breakdown of law and order, after officials told him of looting and ransacking in the city.
The President questioned the basis of the disaster team’s assessment that the city was 95 percent devastated.
He pointed to the Tacloban City Jail building, whose roof was damaged and some parts were blown off at the height of the killer storm and asked the team how it categorized and assessed that kind of damage.
National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) Executive Director Eduardo del Rosario told the President that that kind of damage was assessed and labeled as just “minor devastation.”
“There is no such thing as minor devastation,” the President snapped. “You have to have a clear policy on which to base your assessment.”
“I’m running out of patience,” the dismayed President declared.
But what seemed to irk the President most was a businessman, who asked him to put the city under martial law after his store was ransacked by looters.
“Martial law is not in the Constitution. What is your basis for the state of emergency when it looks like you are the only one affected?” the President said.
The businessman said he got shot at by an armed looter but he was able to take cover.
The President retorted: “Buhay ka pa naman di ba? (You’re still alive, aren’t you?)”
Other businessmen however said killings would follow in the chaos. “No one follows the law anymore,” one of them said.
Members of the Presidential Security Group intervened and asked the businessman to stop debating with the President, and escorted him out of the meeting.
The President, who was sitting down, abruptly stood up, raised his hands as if in surrender and stormed out of the meeting.
He returned to the meeting a few minutes later and said he would study the resolution passed by the city council asking him to declare emergency rule.
Amid reports of looting, Philippine Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon alerted authorities through a television interview that the convoy of trucks carrying relief to some 25,000 families was mobbed by starving residents and ransacked.
Gordon said he was forced to announce the incident on TV because no one responded when the Red Cross tried to reach the police.
“I thought of announcing it on TV and hoping that this would reach the authorities and alert them. We need a police escort so we could safely reach our destinations because those isolated families are also hungry and it is unfair to them if we could not reach them on time,” Gordon said.
In the aftermath, TV footage from local television networks showed residents looting malls and various stores.
The loot included food, appliances, furniture, GI sheets, woods and cement, apparently for rebuilding of their houses.
Southern Leyte Rep. Roger Mercado said he has also received reports that people have resorted to looting automated teller machines.
There were no policemen to stop them because they had either perished in the storm surge or were still recovering from shock brought about by the super typhoon, Mercado said.
Before the President’s walkout, the city council, led by Vice Mayor Jerry Yaokasin, attended the disaster meeting to relay their message to the President. They asked the President to declare martial law in the city.
Yaokasin said even those from neighboring towns have started coming into the city to ransack business establishments.
He also told the President that the city hall employees could not report back to work because they themselves were victims and were trying to find ways to rebuild their lives and homes.
The President said he would study the matter but suggested that they pass a city council resolution as mandated by Republic Act 10121 or the NDRRMC Law.
Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon slammed President Aquino’s “insensitive remarks” when he said the Tacloban officials seemed “unprepared compared to other hard-hit areas.”
“At a time when our people have barely recovered from the devastation wreaked by super typhoon Yolanda, it is simply in bad taste to blame the extent of the damages and casualties to the locality which suffered the most.
“In fact, the Aquino government should actually reassess the disaster preparedness program of the national government, which up until now is mostly focused on relief and rehabilitation – not preparedness,” Ridon said.
Instead of blaming the local government of Tacloban City, the national government should assess the absence of a “clear and rational disaster plan,” he said.
“We’re a country that encounters over 20 typhoons each year yet up until now, the national government has yet to install a clear and rational disaster plan that puts premium on disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction. Despite the allocation of a P7.5 billion calamity fund for 2013, the absence of proper disaster battle plan that should be created and installed by the national government to mitigate disasters renders the billions of pesos for calamity fund questionable,” Ridon said.
“The utilization of calamity funds should not remain limited to monitoring and reactive response but should first and foremost be geared towards pre-disaster activities and infrastructure such as typhoon drills, pre-positioned relief goods, proactive warning systems, and a nationwide emergency response system, among others, that is based on a clear disaster-risk reduction and climate adaption plan,” he said.
Ridon said he plans to file a resolution in the House of Representatives this week to urge the national government to create such a disaster-risk reduction plan.
On Monday, the members of the independent minority bloc, led by Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, will also file a resolution asking the President to declare a national state of calamity.
House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said he was told by An Waray Rep. Neal Montejo that it is now possible to reach Tacloban City by land, passing through San Juanico bridge.
“This means that relief goods can be transported by land,” Belmonte said.
“There’s hardly any food and water for the people in Tacloban City. Tents are also needed as sleeping quarters. A serious problem is peace and order. People are looting stores for food and water and supplies. Local police need to be augmented as they have lost control of the situation,” Belmonte said, quoting Montejo.
The Speaker said Montejo had discussed the problems with Interior and Local Governments Secretary Manuel Roxas II, but stressed that immediately police deployment was needed.
On Monday, the Speaker said he would summon some congressmen to discuss the kind of assistance they extend to the typhoon-hit areas.
The military and police appealed to residents devastated by Yolanda Sunday not to resort to looting as relief was being moved to them as quickly as possible.
A statement from the military said at least 100 soldiers were deployed to help restore peace and order in Tacloban City.
Philippine National Police Public Information Officer Senior Supt. Reuben Theodore Sindac said they are also sending additional 500 policemen to help maintain order in the city.
“Looting should not happen because our police personnel in that area were also devastated by the typhoon. So we’re sending additional troops there,” he said in a television interview.
Government troops have also established command and control in affected areas to hasten the facilitation of relief goods, search-and-rescue and retrieval operations.
Technicians from Smart Communications, three personnel from the United Nations, 22 foreign medical volunteers of the Mammoth Medical Mission, and an air traffic controller from the Air Traffic
Organization have been sent to Tacloban aboard an Air Force Fokker aircraft.
The PNP also established a communication cell in the Tacloban City Police Station.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development said Sunday that the number of affected famlies had reached 2 million or about 9.53 million people.
The department said some 96,039 displaced families with 449,416 persons are staying in 1,790 evacuation centers, while 36,627 other families with 182,379 persons temporarily sought shelter in their friends and relatives’ houses.
Relief operations were hampered, however, by the lack of communication and inaccessibility of the worst-hit towns, cities and barangays, the department said. With Florante S. Solmerin and Francisco Tuyay