SORSOGON: LACK OF FERRIES CAUSE GRIDLOCK IN MATNOG / UN DEATH TOLL: 4,460; PH GOVT DISPUTES FIGURES, INSISTS CASUALTIES ONLY 2,360
 


A cargo truck, one of hundreds of vehicles bound for Samar and Leyte provinces, prepares to board a ferry in Matnog, Sorsogon province, for the mercy trip to the Visayas on Friday. PHOTO FROM PNP INFORMATION OFFICE-BICOL

MANILA, NOVEMBER 16, 2013 (INQUIRER) By Niña P. Calleja, and Marlon Ramos - Port officials in Matnog town in Sorsogon province on Friday appealed to shipowners to deploy more vessels as a lack of ferries caused a traffic jam in which trucks carrying relief for typhoon victims were caught in a tailback that stretched for 6 kilometers from the Port of Matnog.

The gridlock here proved to be a kink in the US-backed rollout of relief for typhoon survivors a week after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: “Haiyan”) flattened central Philippines, killing thousands of people and leaving hundreds of thousands of others homeless.

Using US aircraft, aid workers reached typhoon-ravaged towns for the first time since Yolanda whipped across the region, easing criticism of the government for its slow response to the crisis.

Among the vehicles stuck in the lengthening tailback in Matnog was a bus from Metro Manila carrying relief for typhoon survivors in Balangiga town in Eastern Samar.

But the bus had gone through traffic snarls elsewhere before being halted by the congestion at Matnog.

“We were told that too many vehicles were headed toward Eastern Visayas, but there were few ferries making the crossing,” said Gemma Balmaceda, leader of a group of Metro Manilans who had come together through social media to bring aid to their families and friends in Balangiga.

Carol Mendizabal, Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) division manager in Matnog, said only eight ferries carried traffic between this town and Allen town in Northern Samar, making 10 to 14 trips a day.

The lack of ferries kept travelers waiting outside the port area along Maharlika Highway in Caloocan village for at least a day, Mendizabal said.

Hundreds of trucks carrying relief supplies and public buses bound for Samar and Leyte provinces were caught in the mammoth tie-up outside the port.

“The line is increasing by the day because of this extraordinary event. Imagine we only have four working ramps and eight vessels,” she said.

From the usual 2,500 passengers a day, the number of travelers increased to 6,500 a day since Yolanda struck.

“We need more vessels. We ask the private shipping companies to send more seacraft so we can accommodate our private clients and the government and nongovernment agencies on relief missions to Samar and Leyte,” Mendizabal said in an interview with the Inquirer.

With all airports in Samar and Leyte damaged by Yolanda, the Port of Matnog is the only gateway to the Visayas from Luzon.

Mendizabal said the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) promised two additional vessels coming from Masbate and Batangas provinces on Tuesday.

Rosenda Sumagaysay, PPA regional port manager, said tons of relief supplies kept arriving at the Port of Matnog.

On Friday, a long line of cargo trucks and 60 public buses from Metro Manila, including the bus carrying Balmaceda’s group, clogged the road leading to the port.

Army trucks

Among the cargo vehicles were 25 Army trucks carrying relief supplies, according to Maj. Angelo Guzman, military deputy information officer, who was aboard one of the trucks.

Travelers from Manila spend 12 hours by bus or car to reach the port at Matnog and 45 minutes to make the crossing to Allen.

The eight ferries operating between Matnog and Allen are owned by Montenegro Lines, Phil. Harbor Ferries, 168 Shipping Lines Corp., Santa Clara Shipping Lines and Peñafrancia Shipping Lines.

Sumagaysay asked the shipping companies to dispatch more vessels to handle the relief traffic to Samar and Leyte.

Starlite responds

Starlite Ferries, a private shipping company, said on Friday it had offered its vessels to the Philippine Red Cross to carry relief supplies and aid workers to Ormoc and Tacloban in Leyte and to Cebu province.

Starlite said it would deploy a ferry for one week on the Cebu-Tacloban-Ormoc route to deliver goods to Ormoc and to carry evacuees from Ormoc and Tacloban to Cebu.

The company said it would shoulder all maintenance expenses, including that for the crew and fuel, for the weeklong operation.

Sumagaysay said she had been personally supervising port operations since Saturday, when the port began 24-hour operations to allow relief supplies to go through.

She said she had ordered port employees to give top priority to cargo trucks carrying relief supplies to Samar and Leyte.

Sumagaysay said she had designated the port in Bulan town, also in Sorsogon province, as a holding area for incoming cargo trucks and public buses while waiting for the signal to board ferries at Matnog.

She said she planned to open the Bulan port to additional ferries to ease the congestion at Matnog.

Other routes

The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) said on Friday there were other routes that could be used for relief operations.

Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson said that besides the Matnog-Allen route, relief supplies coming from Cebu could be carried on the Ormoc-Tacloban route.

Relief bound for Borongan and Guiuan in Eastern Samar could be carried on the Catbalogan-Guiuan route.

Singson said all national roads in Eastern Visayas had been opened. The DPWH was clearing secondary and city roads in Tacloban, he said.

The gridlock at Matnog angered travelers desperate to cross to the Visayas.

“We have medicines and food with us, too!” a woman shouted on seeing people from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) on retrieval and relief missions to Guiuan and Basey in Eastern Samar and Palo, Leyte, asking port officials to put them on their priority list.

The woman said her grandfather and relatives in Tacloban were in dire need of food, water and medicine.

Faster delivery

On the other side, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas supervised from Tacloban City the rollout of relief for typhoon-ravaged areas in the Visayas.

Riding on the air power of the US military, government teams involved in relief distribution finally reached coastal municipalities in the southern part of Eastern Samar.

Roxas said search and rescue helicopters of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington had been authorized to use the airport in Guiuan town as a hub for relief missions in Eastern Samar.

“We expect things to improve [every day]. Our work will continue. You yourselves can see that all available assets, resources and manpower of the government are being used,” Roxas told reporters.

“None of us is resting. None of us is relaxing. I believe that we can rise from this. We can rebuild Tacloban,” he said.

Roxas flew to Guiuan to look at the situation in Eastern Samar on Friday afternoon. He also met Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, commander of the US Navy’s Task Force 70.

Roxas said the airports in Borongan, also in Eastern Samar, and Ormoc City in Leyte would also be used as hubs to speed up aid missions.

Roxas, vice chair of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), admitted that the government had been having difficulties in delivering food, water and other donated goods to typhoon survivors due to logistical constraints.

He said only 11 trucks were available to deliver relief supplies to all towns in Leyte, some of which were located hundreds of kilometers away from Tacloban, the NDRRMC’s main hub.

“We admit that we cannot provide supplies to all areas equally and at the same time,” Roxas said.

Besides the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Indonesia, Sweden, Singapore, Malaysia, Kuwait, Taiwan and China have joined the relief effort. (See story on this page.)

At least seven more C-130 Hercules cargo planes of the US military arrived on Friday to ease the burden of the Philippines’ aging cargo planes.

The other countries were also sending planes and helicopters to beef up the air support for the relief operation, officials said.

Mother of all disasters

“If you want to make it fast, the government can open every airport in the Visayas then the [United Nations] and other entities can come in immediately,” Abdul Mutalis, of the private Putera Malaysia club, said.

“People are hungry. People need help,” he said, adding that the slow delivery of relief is prolonging the suffering of the typhoon survivors.

“We have to expedite [the delivery of aid] if we want to help them now. Action speaks louder than words,” he said.

For the last 20 years, Mutalis’ club has been responding to disasters, including the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“This is the mother of all disasters. There’s no word I can use right now (to describe this Philippine tragedy),” Mutalis said.

As of Friday, Malacañang said, aid had reached 23 towns from the Tacloban hub.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the government had also launched a food-for-work program for typhoon survivors (one food pack in exchange for three days of work) with an initial budget of P15 million.

Valte said Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz was overseeing the program, which would involve the DPWH and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

For security in worst-hit Tacloban, Valte said the government had sent 800 police officers to support the 1,200 police and military forces already in the city to contain looting.

Answering questions about the death toll, which remains low by the government’s count, Valte denied the government was trying to conceal the actual number of deaths. With reports from Julie M. Aurelio, Gil C. Cabacungan and Tina G. Santos in Manila; Michael Lim Ubac in Cebu; and Mar S. Arguelles, Inquirer Southern Luzon

FROM MANILA STANDARD

UN: Death toll 4,460 By Joyce Pangco Panares | Nov. 16, 2013 at 12:01am

Govt disputes figure, insists casualties only 2,360

THE United Nations said Friday the death toll from super typhoon Yolanda was at least 4,460, citing regional officials, but the national disaster council maintained a much lower figure.


Views from above. The United Nations and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration released satellite images of Tacloban City showing the man-made structures destroyed by Super Typhoon Yolanda.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the number of 4,460 was given from the regional task force of the Philippines’ National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council on Wednesday.

But NDRMMC’s spokesman Reynaldo Balido insisted the official toll from the typhoon that ripped through the central Philippines on Nov. 8 remained at 2,360.

“As of 13 November, the government reported that 4,460 people have died,”an OCHA statement said.

Asked for the source of the figures, Manila-based OCHA spokeswoman Orla Fagan said: “We are getting it from the operations center of the regional task force set up by the NDRMMC.”

When asked about the UN’s statement: Balido replied: “Not true.” Then he repeated the NDRMMC’s published figure.

But the executive director of the NDRMMC, Eduardo del Rosario, pegged the death toll at 3,621and said counts forwarded by local government units still had to be validated.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II, on the other hand, said the toll had reached 2,600 or more by Thursday night, quoting the Office of the Civil Defense (OCD).

President Benigno Aquino III said on Tuesday that he estimated the final death toll would be around 2,500.

The Palace on Friday denied that a regional police chief was sacked over his early estimate of 10,000 deaths.

Deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said Chief Supt. Elmer Soria was relieved because “he has been through so much stress.”

“The chief of the PNP decided to relieve him because, apparently, that particular police officer has been through so much stress and he also needs some rest,” Valte added.

A day after the super typhoon battered the Visayas region on Nov. 8, Soria said he received information that there were 10,000 deaths in Leyte.

Soria has been replaced as regional director by Chief Supt. Henry Losanes.

Like the NDRRMC, the Palace disputed the UN report of 4,460 deaths.

“I am unaware of the source of the UN figure,” Valte said.


UN photos show Tacloban last March and on Nov. 13 after the storm (Story on Page 3). The red areas in the NASA photos (left) show the damaged areas in the city. AFP/CNES, NASA

Valte also assured the public that there was no attempt by the government to play down the casualty count.

“There is no attempt to hide or fudge any figures. Any assertion otherwise would just be pure speculation at this point,” she said.

On Thursday night, a radio reporter from dzRH, Edmar Estabillo reported that the fatalities in Eastern Visayas rose to 5,016 based on the figures he saw from the tally board of the Office of Civil Defense office in Tacloban City.

Estabillo, who was in Tacloban City to cover the devastation wrought by Yolanda, said he was surprised to see the death toll was changed to 3,422.

Both figures surpassed the estimate of 2,000 to 2,500 that the President mentioned in his interview with CNN.

Estabillo told Manila radio news anchor Dennis Antenor that Roxas had allegedly ordered an OCD staff member to change the figure, but Roxas could not be reached for comment.

Confusion over the slow rise in the death count was accentuated by a rush to collect cadavers that littered the streets of Tacloban City six days after the typhoon struck.

Estabillo said the OCD explained that the official death toll should come from the NDRRMC.

Del Rosario on Friday said relief had not yet reached isolated areas of the province due to logistical problems.

“This is a big and massive logistics problem,” Del Rosario said as he urged patience and sincerity among those willing to help victims of Yolanda.

Roxas added that food supplies and equipment that were positioned in the province ahead of Yolanda’s arrival were washed out by the storm surge that hit the coastal areas.

“Imagine if the water from Manila Bay swept past Roxas Boulevard and entered Airport Road and reached the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, with waves as high as 20 feet,” Roxas said.

He acknowledged that the government was caught off guard by the magnitude of the disaster brought by Yolanda, and would have to review its disaster preparedness and response plans.

Local and international media have criticized the slow delivery of relief despite the outpour of aid and donations.

They described the relief efforts to date as disorganized and unsystematic.

In Tacloban City, bodies still lie where they fell or were washed up, the defining motif of a tragedy that has killed thousands.

The stench of bloated and discolored human flesh decomposing under the tropical sun hang everywhere in Tacloban, where wretched survivors and rescue workers cover their mouths to keep the cloying smell from their throats.

Hundreds have been collected, put into body bags and trucked off to wrecked municipal buildings to await burial in mass graves, a process that city authorities began on Thursday.

Officials and aid volunteers say those bodies that have been recovered are just the beginning, a small fraction of those that could be seen when the storm surge subsided. Many more, they say, lie under the mountains of debris.

“Leaving them (the bodies) just decaying on the roadside, uncollected, is next to unforgivable,” local Catholic priest Amadeo Alvero said.

Officials initially said picking up the bodies had to take second place to the effort to help those still living, many in utter destitution, their homes swept away and with precious little food or clean drinking water.

But they also conceded they had simply been overwhelmed by the number of dead, and had temporarily run out of body bags.

Echoing a fear expressed by many, Alvero said the dead could be the source of contagious disease.

“The government needs to act fast because this could also become a health issue,” he said.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona insisted the bodies did not pose a serious risk. Experts point out that a corpse can only carry a disease such as cholera if the disease was present before the person died.

“We have to assure our countrymen that... there will not be an epidemic,” he said. “The one thing we want is to identify them so we can give some peace to their relatives.”

Identification is not always easy, for instance when whole families have died, leaving no-one to ask.

Teams have been dispatched to Tacloban from the Justice Department’s investigating arm and the national police’s crime laboratory.

They know they will not identify every body they find straight away, but hope to collect enough evidence to allow that to be done later.

“On the scene, our doctors begin the documentation,” said Chief Supt. Liza Sabong, head of the national police crime laboratory and part of the contingent sent to Tacloban.

“We tag them as male or female, they photograph them, list the belongings on the cadaver itself. We do fingerprinting. We measure the body and then they are placed in cadaver bags.”

This “processing” will allow any surviving relatives at a later date to identify the body, possibly through its clothes or appearance, she said.

But the sheer scale of the task is overwhelming.

Only 13 of the 182 bodies collected by Sabong’s group have been picked up by their relatives, she said. The rest have been left behind.

Tacloban on Thursday began mass burials of some of those bodies that had been bagged and laid out by the shattered city hall.

The plan, said Mayor Alfred Romualdez, was that all those whose name and family were known would be placed into one huge pit. The unidentified rest would go into a separate mass grave.

Romualdez, who has been an outspoken critic of the rescue effort, said he believes three-quarters of all bodies collected had still not been claimed by family. In these circumstances, mass burials were the only option.

“Let’s get the bodies out of the streets,” he said. “They are creating an atmosphere of fear and depression.”

The head of the Justice Department’s forensics division, Wilfredo Tierra, said the collective burial was only intended as a stop-gap measure.

“They will be buried temporarily in a shallow, mass grave and when everything has settled down and the peace and order situation is not an issue anymore, then we will proceed with the proper disaster victim identification,” he said. – With Florante S. Solmerin, Francisco Tuyay and AFP


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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