Q&A: Philippine Lessons in Post-Disaster Recovery


by: Ms Josephine Cuneta

From: The Wall Street Journal (November 25, 2013) Q & A: Philippine Lessons in Post-Disaster Recovery

The rush has begun to rebuild parts of the Philippines destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest typhoon ever to hit the country. More than 5,200 people have died and at least 4 million have been displaced. The United Nations’ Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs says 2.5 million people are in need of food aid, and millions of children are in danger of acute malnutrition.

Since the storm struck two weeks ago, on Nov. 8, many disaster relief experts have poured into the country, along with aid supplies and money. At the same time, Filipinos who have responded to past recovery efforts in this disaster-prone country are again chipping in.

To better understand some of the lessons from previous natural catastrophes, The Wall Street Journal spoke to former Maj. Gen. Carlos Holganza, who oversaw several post-disaster infrastructure and community development projects during his 38 years in the Philippine  Armed Forces. He shared his thoughts via e-mail.

WSJ: How are you currently involved with the relief and recovery effort, and can you tell us a bit about your past experience providing post-disaster relief in the Philippines?

Mr. Holganza: I was the AFP’s operations chief when the twin typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng flooded vast areas of Metro Manila and Luzon in 2009. We were in the thick of the massive relief and rehab operation initiated at that time. I was also the National Development Support Command commander when Typhoon Sendong devastated Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in 2011. NADESCOM [the army’s main development arm] then was not just involved in providing crucial water systems for the relief ops, we were heavily involved in the immediate repair and clean-up of roads and bridges, retrieval ops, construction of evacuation centers and resettlement areas.

My efforts have been purely through initiatives of private groups. The views here are based on my observations, readings and discussions with people on the ground.

WSJ: Aid distribution following Haiyan has been slow, why? Is it because of problems with logistics, coordination or just because the need is so great?

Mr. Holganza: At first, I had argued that this was a case of overwhelming needs. I must say now that it is a case of all three, and more.

On logistics. At the seaport of Matnog, in the Bicol region, [lines of] vehicles filled with relief goods have stretched [for] up to 10 miles … [because] there weren’t enough barges to bring them across the strait. The government should have been able to immediately utilize private company barges for this purpose. Still, the logistics of bringing relief to an archipelago like the Philippines is quite challenging.

On coordination. The destruction/absence of communication facilities made coordination a big challenge. The government should have had redundant systems to ensure no communication breakdown would hamper any project or activity. If they were destroyed as well, then government should have moved swiftly to restore these.

Other factors: Politics. The fact that the mayor of Tacloban comes from the Marcos camp [a political rival to current President Benigno Aquino III] became a stumbling block. People have developed a great distrust for government, especially in the light of massive corruption at the national level. Stories of grandstanding politicians, repacking of relief goods ready for distribution, etc. make matters even worse.

On other needs and initiatives. The [Department of Energy] DOE should have immediately studied and reallocated power barges to help restore order in the beleaguered government centers, and the [Department of National Defense] DND could have immediately sent additional troops into these areas. If tattoo artists can provide free tattoos as incentives for those willing to provide donations, I can’t see how our big government institutions can’t be as creative as that.

Basically there was a system failure. As the local government units – the first responders in our disaster response program – became themselves the victims of the catastrophe, the national government should have reacted fast enough to take more responsibility. The problem lies in the grey area – when does one fade out and the other step in. That started the unfortunate blame-game.

WSJ: It has been more than two weeks since Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. What happens now? Food aid is getting out, but what do people need most at the moment, and how do you start providing that?

Mr. Holganza: The basic disaster needs remain the same. First is the effort for more food, water, clothing and temporary shelter to come in. Second is the recovery ops, to ensure that disease doesn’t set in. Then there’s the re-establishment of the peace and order system; the clean-up drive to ensure easy access thru roads and bridges; the construction of evacuation shelters and housing facilities; the trauma therapy most particularly for the children; the establishment of new livelihood opportunities.

The next problem will be how and when to wean them away from the “victim mentality,” so they will no longer depend on the relief centers but will be ready to stand on their own again. This is where the livelihood opportunities are most needed. The government’s cash-for-work project is one such great move in this area, as people are mobilized to join clean-ups or home-builds, etc.

WSJ: When do you start thinking to the long-term and consider how to rebuild?

Mr. Holganza: The short answer there is, we should start working on the long-term plan now, so that as we rebuild these initiatives are already embedded. There are great opportunities here for new community concepts to flourish – using green technologies, and more energy-efficient and environment-friendly processes. National and local leaders should gear their future reconstruction plans along these lines and not according to what is traditionally done in the Philippines, which is: we will go for whatever costs least.

WSJ: What can be learned from past recovery responses here? The Philippines is no stranger to disaster, so how has it recovered in the past? Are the challenges it faces now typical? Do they highlight a larger problem in the Philippines?

Mr. Holganza: The main lesson is that today’s disaster management plans will have to be redone so that past worst case scenarios are upped. I’m sure there will be protests on some observations given here, but the fact remains that the government needs a better communications effort to make people understand that efforts are being done – heroically, nobly, and in unity – to assuage the sufferings of our countrymen. A simple picture of the president shaking hands with the mayor of Tacloban will have a tremendous effect on the relief effort.

People should simply start working together, trusting each other. Positive criticism provides the wake-up call to do better next time, and to provide not just “ordinary service” to the people, but a truly professional service that’s compassionate and fair to all.

For more stories on Super-Typhoon Yolanda, pls visit:

(Photos courtesy of rappler.com, mb.com, inquirer.net, jsiswashington.edu, gma network, philnews.com)

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