Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who are among Aquino’s most trusted men, checked in at a hotel in Tacloban City, the capital of Leyte. Little did they know that, hours later, the ferocious winds, speeding at 313kph and gusting up to 378kph, would slam communication and power lines and leave them incommunicado. They came, armed only with their cell phones.
About a week before, weather forecasters had warned that Haiyan was going to be an extraordinarily powerful typhoon. But Gazmin and Roxas did not bring any satellite phones (which some journalists who covered the typhoon did) or military radios.
Television footage and photos obtained by News5, a national TV news program, showed the two Cabinet members ordering the hotel guests to evacuate to the basement. When the winds subsided, Gazmin and Roxas emerged from the hotel, inspecting the damage. They later met with a few city hall and police officials, shocked by the devastation wrought by Haiyan.
Something was wrong with that picture, though.
Gazmin, who heads the agency in charge of disaster response, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (with a clunky acronym NDRRMC), was supposed to be at the command center in a military camp in Manila. The Council is always headed by the defense secretary who, in times of disaster, calls in the military to be among the first responders.
Roxas, who heads the interior and local government department, turned out to be the most visible leader on the ground but he told reporters that he wasn’t running the show. There is no ground commander, he said, adding that the decision-making process was “consultative.”
In Manila, Aquino initially tasked the executive secretary, Paquito Ochoa, to preside over the Council, assisted by Rene Almendras, the Cabinet secretary. These two officials have not worked closely with the Council; neither of them, in fact, is a key player in disaster response and management work.
All this was happening during the most critical hours of one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies, claiming a death toll of close to 6,000 although others estimate it at 10,000. It showed a facet of Aquino’s leadership style, his tendency to rely on personalities he’s comfortable with, rather than on rigorous institutional structures, to govern.
Yes, it is acknowledged that given the destructive force with which Haiyan hit the Visayas, “even the best-prepared government would have a hard time bracing itself against the effects of such a storm,” Kathryn Hawley, who has been conducting training on disaster response for more than a decade for the Asia Foundation, told me.
But weak, personality-centered leadership contributed to the slow response. The other major factor is the lack of military aircraft, boats and trucks to ferry relief goods and rescue victims. The armed forces has only three working C-130s; in addition, 16 helicopters were deployed to the disaster areas. At least two Navy ships delivered relief goods.
Roxas told CNN days after the extent of Haiyan’s devastation became shockingly clear that all they had in Leyte were 16 trucks, half of which distributed relief goods and the other half collected cadavers strewn on the streets.
The disaster management council does not have a single satellite phone. Gazmin said they borrowed satellite phones from the United Nations a day after the super typhoon hit the country.
Fast forward to almost a month after Haiyan.
Aquino named his political ally, former Senator Panfilo Lacson, as rehabilitation czar. As of this writing, Malacañang has not yet issued the order spelling out his detailed functions and Lacson’s relationship with the disaster management council. So far, his appointment is well-received because he is known for his forceful discipline and no-nonsense management style when he was chief of police. However, a lot will depend on the powers of this new office and its organizational set-up.
Lacson has huge tasks ahead of him. He will have an initial P40.9 billion ($934 million) budget for reconstruction, which includes rebuilding infrastructure, housing, agriculture, and creating jobs.
Lacson said in a forum that he envisions having the private sector implement the gigantic rehabilitation work with the government as its “enabler.” “We have to admit the private sector can do this faster and more efficiently. I do not want to be bogged down (by bureaucratic red tape) in the middle of this endeavor,” the Inquirer quoted him.
Moreover, “relief and rehabilitation are parallel processes,” Sanny Jegillos of UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Regional Center, told me. This means that Lacson will need to coordinate closely with the social work and welfare department, apart from the public works department and other government agencies.
The challenge is to deliver substantial tangible results before Aquino steps down in June 2016. This is not lost on the president who wants to anoint his successor—and needs a lot to show for it.
Marites Danguilan Vitug is one of the Philippines' most accomplished and respected investigative journalists, winning awards and public recognition for her books and reportage on Philippine justice, security, and political affairs. She is the author of the bestselling books, "Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court", and its sequel, "Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court".