MANILA, Philippines — The chief executive of Ground Zero in Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan) unburdened himself, on Monday, before lawmakers over the national officials’ alleged refusal to rescue thousands of his people in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon.
Appearing before a congressional committee in the Senate, Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez tearfully recounted his gripping experience on the onslaught of Yolanda and its tragic aftermath.
Breaking down before senators, representatives and officials, Romualdez vented his frustration on government officials, including President Aquino, for their failure to send police and military reinforcement “until today.”
Since the city police force lineup had been depleted, local officials needed the reinforcements to rescue survivors in the city of 250,000 leveled by the powerful storm, he said.
“We’re still retrieving 60 to 80 bodies a day, and I wasn’t getting that help,” he said.
After the hearing, Romualdez told reporters that planeloads and shiploads of foreign aid sent by many countries have not trickled down to the Taclobanons.
Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II skipped the hearing by the Congressional Oversight Committee on the law that created the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) in 2010. He also did not send a representative.
“Just recalling what Mayor Romualdez mentioned, if politics got in the way of disaster response, this is the worst thing we could ever do,” Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who chaired the oversight committee with Muntinlupa Representative Rodolfo Biazon, said while winding up the three-hour-long hearing.
Biazon suggested that charges of shortcomings on the part of officials be tackled in another hearing.
Contrary to perception, NDRRMC officials said there were reinforcements from the police and the military days after the storm tore through the Visayas region on November 8.
The Senate and the House of Representatives convened the oversight committee to review the NDRRMC law, and draw up measures to further improve government response to future calamities of Yolanda magnitude.
The Aquino administration, facing its yet worst disaster in three years, is assembling a massive post-Yolanda relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction plan that could cost up to P130 billion.
“Hopefully there will be no politics there,” Trillanes said, suggesting even non-partymates should be part of the rehabilitation plan.
Romualdez, wearing a black jacket over a blue T-shirt, said Roxas had repeatedly harped on the need to assess the damage in all their daily briefings in the aftermath of the storm.
The problem was, the 293-strong city police had been whittled down to 25 because many were stranded in their villages when the typhoon walloped the city. And soldiers wouldn’t go around without any policemen with them.
So when he met Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras two days after the storm, the mayor requested “foot soldiers” to make an honest assessment of the damage especially in sub-villages cut off from the city.
“People were feeling frustrated seeing all these military planes and trucks, and there were dead people, and they were hearing the voices of survivors. And yet there was never and ever any rescue up to today,” he said.
Romualdez said he also took up his request to deploy foot soldiers with the President and Roxas.
“Not only was the security not augmented, the chief of police was also removed,” he said.
The national government, however, eventually deployed 900 members of the Special Action Force to the city, which saw looting of homes, stores and warehouses days after the storm, the mayor said.
Meantime, the national government sought the immediate passage of an ordinance imposing a city-wide curfew to check looting, Romualdez recalled.
He aired reservations to this because the prosecutors’ office and courts were still closed and could not entertain any violator who would post bail. He instead suggested that the police set up checkpoints.
Days later, Romualdez said that Roxas called city officials to a meeting, and told him: “We have to legalize everything here.”
“I asked him: What is to legalize here?” the mayor said. “He replied: Well, this is a gray area and the national government is coming in, and doing all this.”
“And then I told him: `Why is it illegal? As far as I know the President is the President of the Philippines and he’s also the President of Tacloban City. I don’t see anywhere in the law that you need a letter, an ordinance from me for you to come in, and do what you’re doing’,” he said.
He recalled Roxas as telling him: “You have to be very careful because you are a Romualdez, and the President is an Aquino.”
Then the issue that he was being asked to resign came out in the news, a story that the mayor denied.
“I corrected that. I wasn’t being asked to resign. I went to my lawyers that night and communicated to Manila, and said `What is the need for this letter stating my functions, that I can no longer function in this and I can no longer do that?’ I was asking my lawyer, `How do I write such a letter?’ My lawyer advised me: `Don’t write the letter. You may be deemed as resigning. So I didn’t write the letter,” he said, his voice breaking.
Later responding to Biazon’s questions, Romualdez said the national government took over “from the beginning” and decided “which was priority and what should be done.”
There was “very minimal consultation,” he said.
Trillanes said the NDRRMC law clearly spelled out which level of the council should handle response if a calamity affected a barangay, two or more barangays, a city, two or more cities, a province, two or more provinces, and so on.
And he wondered why Roxas demanded such a letter from Romualdez on November 14 even after the President declared a state of calamity.
“There should not be any ambiguity as far as responsibility is concerned,” Trillanes said. “The Secretary must clarify the particular issue on why he was asking for that letter from the mayor.”
The senator also said that in case of disasters, a local government’s request for additional manpower should be granted.
Biazon then moved that the issue be dealt with in another hearing when the concerned officials would be present.
Without Roxas, NDRRMC Executive Director Eduardo del Rosario provided the other side of the story, saying that troops from the Philippine National Police landed in Tacloban three days after the storm.
“In 24 hours we did rapid assessment with additional troops. We conducted damage assessment in the city proper,” he said. He said the government deployed personnel and relief goods.
But he acknowledged that 90 to 95 percent of the population was affected by the supertyphoon.
Earlier in his testimony, Romualdez turned emotional while recalling his helplessness at rescuing his wife Cristina Gonzales and their children trapped in their old residence because he was somewhere else when the eye of the storm hit.
That day, he drove to a hotel facing the San Pedro Bay to check reports of a low tide. Then he got a call from his wife.
“I was surprised because she was supposed to be in downtown area, in a building there with my children, secure. But she called me,” he said, breaking down, pausing and taking out a hanky.
“She was in our old residence which is near the airport… I was very careful not to scold her because I was afraid she might go to the car and try to go…” he said, his voice trailing off.
“I told her, brace yourself, secure the kids. This is a very powerful typhoon. The winds were blowing so hard. And I said, `Stay put.’”
Then Romualdez said he got another call. But before he could answer, the glass in the hotel’s ballroom “exploded.”
“It was so powerful. It became very dark so we couldn’t get out anymore. I was pulled inside. There were about 14 of us, and seven or eight ran out. The door burst open with water just coming from all over. We were forced to go to the ceiling… the whole roof was shaking. We felt waves were pounding on the roof,” he recalled.
When parts of the roof flew off, he said he got a glimpse of the devastation: “There was no more land; everything was water.”
They waited for the water to recede before they walked to the airport where he got reunited with his wife and children.
Romualdez said they had prepared for the supertypoon, recalling that he was evacuating residents from the seaside villages the night before, but were unaware how strong the storm surges would be.