(STAR) TAKIN' CARE OF BUSINESS By Babe Romualdez - While the anger and disappointment felt by victims of Ondoy is understandable, one cannot totally blame government for the aftermath of the disaster that hit Metro Manila. The magnitude of the tragedy was such that even first world countries would have been hard-pressed to cope with it. Even in the United States – specifically in Atlanta and other parts of Georgia that recently experienced the worst kind of flooding that has not been seen in 500 years, it took time for authorities to respond because the wide scope of areas needing help necessitated longer assessment and operation set-up time than initially anticipated.

Obviously, climate change is upon us, and has in fact been around for so long. Yet Filipinos never fully grasped just how seriously it can affect their lives. What is most glaring, however, is the lack of preparedness not only of government but of everyone in facing a disaster like the recent flood. As a disaster management expert said, Filipinos must be prepared to rescue themselves and not just rely on authorities because it would be impossible for government to attend to each and every person needing help all at the same time. Considering that an average of 20 typhoons strike the country every year, it certainly makes sense for people to put together a “disaster kit” containing a flashlight, extra batteries, noodles, canned goods, water, clothes, lighter, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and important documents in a waterproof envelope. Knowing one has this survival bag handy can keep people from panicking in case a disaster occurs.

There are many horror stories about people drowning in their homes and cars, of children being swept away by the rampaging waters, walls crashing down on people, houses broken apart as if they were mere toys. Yet the wrath of Ondoy also brought out the best in Filipinos, like a Quezon City judge who mounted his jet ski to save more than 30 people in Novaliches. A rich Chinese couple opened up their home and fed a thousand neighbors who sought shelter. And then there was this teenager who saved many including a six-month old baby – only to himself drown due to sheer exhaustion.

But what made it really difficult to conduct rescue and relief operations were the clogged and impassable roads, compounded by the ensuing power outages which made it difficult to look for survivors especially at night. Add to this the lack of motorboats and other small watercraft that would have made a lot of difference in fishing out survivors, and helicopters to rescue those who were trapped on rooftops. Businessman Robby Delgado is now forming an association of helicopter owners that would be organized down the road to train helicopter pilots to drop goods in stricken areas and conduct other rescue and relief operations. Perhaps trucking companies can also do something similar in the future since the fast delivery of relief goods is also critical.

With a megacity like Metro Manila and its 12 million – some say 15 million – residents, there is certainly a need for government agencies to coordinate efforts in conducting rescue and relief operations. There are suggestions for changing government structure regarding disaster response, like making the lead agency the Department of Interior and Local Government instead of the Department of Defense since disasters are in essence, localized events.

Certainly, local governments must have disaster preparedness plans and be better equipped to face calamities, which is why Congressman Ruffy Biazon is urging GMA to certify the House Bill on disaster risk management as urgent because it would allow LGUs to respond more swiftly during calamities. Under the bill, risk reduction measures will be integrated into emergency preparedness, response and recovery programs, although Biazon claims the bill’s passage has been delayed because NDCC has not given its inputs.

Perhaps it’s time to bring back a “super body” to consolidate all the activities and efforts of various government agencies involved in disaster management and relief operations in Metro Manila. The head of this super body could be elected by Metro Manila residents, or the mayors can elect one from among themselves to head this super agency. What is important at this point is that the head of this agency should be an elective – not an appointive – official to give him more autonomy and flexibility in performing his task.

Just take a look at the MMDA whose powers are limited. Since BF is a mere “appointee,” his policies can be counter-manned by mayors, and this can even be made worse if the local executive – like Jojo Binay for instance – does not particularly like the MMDA chief. During a discussion I had with Russian Ambassador Vitaly Vorobiev, he said the lack of coordination was glaring. There was no central agency consolidating the responses since the disaster was wide-ranging and the situation in many areas was interconnected. In many cities like New York and Moscow, there is only one agency directing efforts, providing data on available resources, determining which places should be prioritized, etc., hence the response is more swift and efficient.

We certainly have to find out how and why this kind of disaster happened. But one obvious answer is that many people have been apathetic when it comes to protecting the environment, throwing their garbage indiscriminately and putting up illegal structures along creeks and waterways. People can have all kinds of arguments – but there is no arguing with the wrath of nature. Which is why instead of pointing the finger at each other, everyone should look for man-made solutions to prevent the occurrence of “man-made” disasters. At the end of the day, what is important is for government and the private sector to join hands and be ready for the next one – which would inevitably come. As I’ve always believed, it is better to do something even if it’s a mistake rather than doing nothing at all.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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