Benigno Aquino

President Aquino's handling of typhoon disaster under scrutiny

As the Philippines struggles to cope in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, the president is facing criticism over his handling of the disaster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 5:21pm

Four days after the strongest storm in history ravaged the central Philippines, CNN asked President Benigno Aquino how he felt about the idea that his presidency would be defined by the way it handled the disaster.

He didn't answer the question, but two days later a presidential spokesman announced what amounted to an unequivocal reply: President Aquino was assuming command of all relief operations. His communications secretary, Sonny Coloma, said that "the president, as chief executive, is supervising the entire operation and he is directly assisted by the executive secretary and the cabinet secretary."

In taking control, the 53-year-old Aquino was in effect publicly taking full responsibility, staking his name on the outcome of the colossal rescue and relief efforts. He might not have had much choice. According to congressman Barry Gutierrez, an Aquino ally, "he's the president, he has to be the one on top; whether or not he personally takes charge, it's still going to be laid at his doorstep, particularly if government handling is not that good."

Aquino's move was inevitable: normally, in any Philippine disaster, it's the officials of the affected provinces and cities who take the lead. But with their police and workers dispersed or killed, equipment destroyed and supplies washed away, mayors found themselves helpless. In the case of Tacloban city, there was a complete breakdown of local government.

So far many Filipinos have been critical about the government's handling of the disaster. In the week that followed Super Typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, relief efforts were marked by frustrating slowness, confusion and a lack of clear lines of command.

For the first six days, the government distributed only 50,000 "food packs" containing 6 kilos of rice and canned goods each day, covering just three per cent of the 1.73 million families affected, according to government figures

Gutierrez said that "people seem to be disappointed with the apparent slowness of the government response, particularly in the first five days there was a growing dissatisfaction with everyone I talked to."

Newspaper columnist Wilson Lee Flores noted how "it took the government three days to declare a state of calamity when the whole world knew it was a calamity from day one. I don't know if it's the president's fault, but somewhere along the way there was something lacking".

A former senior government official, who asked not to be named, told the Sunday Morning Post that "the way the disaster relief is handled will define this administration for many people". He added: "I think there are faster and more efficient ways to provide disaster relief."

Some have compared the handling of the aftermath to the much-criticised response by George W. Bush's administration in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans in 2005. Activist musician Nato Reyes wrote on Facebook that "Yolanda is to Aquino as Katrina was to Bush".

But Gutierrez called the comparison to Bush and Katrina mistaken because "in Katrina there were indications they had advance information but they downplayed it. I don't think Aquino was really clueless. It's more that they didn't expect the level of destruction caused by [Haiyan]."

Nobody did. The power and ferocity of Haiyan was unprecedented, even in a country that experiences at least 20 typhoons every year. Packing winds of 313km/h which created a tsunami-like wall of water, the super typhoon obliterated communities across several large islands in the central Philippines, wiping out first-response capabilities.

It destroyed roads, bridges, power plants, communications, stocks of food and fuel. Relief operations had to start with restoring destroyed airports and then laboriously flying in supplies, men and equipment so that roads could be cleared and communications re-established. In decimated Tacloban, government rescuers couldn't rebuild roads fast enough because they were uneasy about bulldozing debris that contained bodies.

Compounding the difficulties, government resources were already stretched by a devastating earthquake that had rocked the same area a little over three weeks before Haiyan.

None of this is of any consolation to the thousands of survivors left with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Without houses, food, water and medical support, they have been wandering the streets of Tacloban. Even after a week there seemed to be no system for handling the thousands of destitute refugees crowding Tacloban airport.

Aquino has faced flak for underestimating the storm. Two days before it struck, the president had a simple but ambitious target for all government agencies: zero casualties.

On Tuesday, four days after the typhoon, he floated a death toll of 2,500, a figure aid agencies and analysts considered too low in the absence of accurate reports from far-flung areas and with thousands missing.

"Downplaying the impact of the disaster, including the death toll, does not do anybody any good," said Mars Buan, analyst at political risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments.

Others have circulated fake reports and speculation, including a rumour that aid to Leyte province is deliberately withheld because it's a stronghold of the Marcos family, political foes of Aquino. Journalist Ledrolen Manriquez, who was in the disaster area, wrote how "Facebook is more toxic than Tacloban".

In a scathing Facebook post, film director Peque Gallaga said, "this man is totally unprepared for the most difficult job in the country".

Aquino's qualifications have been questioned since before he ran for president. According to Gutierrez "it's hard to say what qualifies a person as president. It can't simply be a degree or experience in governance; at some point it has to be about character, and Aquino's proven he has the gumption to make the hard decisions when they come".

The question is whether his assertion of control will improve government performance. According to columnist Flores, "if he doesn't respond in the next few days, people will blame him."

Gutierrez claimed the president can be a focused manager. "For issues he feels very strongly about, he tends to actually take a direct hand. I've seen him do it in other issues," he said.

Dealing with calamity isn't unfamiliar to Aquino. The worst storm of 2011, Washi, brought catastrophic flash floods that killed more than 1,200 in Mindanao. The same region was hit in 2012 by Typhoon Bopha, killing hundreds. Last month a strong earthquake that hit the central Philippines killed hundreds more. Yet those disasters don't come close to the devastation seen over the past week and Aquino appears to have been caught off guard by the magnitude of the disaster.

According to Flores, "50 per cent, I want to blame the government, but 50 per cent I realise I can't blame the government because of the magnitude and scale ... this is unprecedented."

The challenge now for Aquino, a week after Haiyan, is to speed up the flow of aid, rebuild the confidence of a nation shattered by one of its worst natural disasters, and harness the volunteerism of millions of Filipinos.

"Who's in charge here?" ran a headline in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Thursday. Aquino has a lot to do to show it's him.

Additional reporting by Reuters