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The Role of PNP in Disaster Preparedness: Years after Ondoy

IMG_5998Who can forget Ondoy, which has become the stuff of Filipino nightmares? Anyone who has experienced it will tell you how the memories of mud-encased houses, dead loved ones washed away by the waves, and floating cars have haunted them long after the waters subsided.

The Great Deluge and the Bayanihan Spirit

What was particularly terrifying about Ondoy is that those who lived to tell the tale saw how the rising of the waters quickly transformed into strong and deep inundation leaving many trapped on the roofs of their rapidly submerging houses, as was dramatically witnessed in Marikina.

Heroism was also rife during this time. Judge Ralph Lee of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 83 was hailed for using his jet ski to save people and  mobilizing a rescue effort that saved 100 others. There was Muelmar Magallanes, the young construction worker who went against strong waves to save about 30 people but finally succumbing to death after rescuing a baby. Even showbiz personalities entered the scene as media caught Richard Gutierrez attempting to save Christine Reyes on a borrowed speedboat.

As drama was unfolding by the afternoon of September 26, Gilberto Teodoro, then defense secretary and National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) chairman declared a state of calamity in Metro Manila and in 25 other provinces hit by the typhoon so that officials could utilize emergency funds for relief and rescue.

Looking back, however, statistics show that in many ways, certain actions came in too late. Internationally known as Typhoon Ketsana, the tropical storm turned out to be the biggest catastrophe on our side of the Pacific as it left more than 700 dead and about USD1.09 billion worth of damages.  The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) reported a record-breaking 455 millimeters of rainfall within 24 hours, a level which rivaled the worst flooding incident of 1967.

President Benigno Aquino III assumed office in June 2010 and sacked PAGASA Chief Administrator Prisco Nilo from his post. Lack of disaster preparedness was a resounding accusation, though whether it was the fault of one man is extremely doubtful.

The issue begs certain questions. In a typhoon-ravaged country like the Philippines where floods are normal occurences every year, why do we remain unprepared in the face of disaster? Can we rely on the authorities to take control, or must the Bayanihan spirit come to the rescue? What should we expect from our authorities?

One thing is for sure. Disaster preparedness is vital on every level. But for purposes of simplicity, and the fact that they are at the forefront of maintaining the peace and order situation in the country, we will focus on the role of the Philippine National Police under the new PNP chief.

The Philippine Disaster Risk Management Act

Ondoy was “a wake up call” and this led to the signing of Republic Act 10121, otherwise known as the “Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010.” The bill was filed in February 23, 2009, seven months before Ondoy happened and approved only in May 29,2010, eight months after the tragedy struck.

The passing of the bill led to the revamping of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) and the formation of the NDRRMC or the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, which acts as the policy making and coordinating office. This council is composed of 44 public and private agencies, of which the PNP is included. It works in tandem with the Office of Civil Defense which is headed by Defense Under Secretary Benito Ramos. The OCD has the task of monitoring disasters though the new hierarchical structures raised by the law.

Previously, the PNP took the lead on the regional level, while the NDCC, headed by the OCD, took charge at the national level. The new restructuring means that the PNP no longer calls the shots and now functions as a satellite agency, which acts in coordination with the other agencies included, under the NDRRMC. In the PNP today, the office in charge of disaster preparedness and response management is the Directorate for Police Community Relations.

DSC_3250According to Chief of the Community Affairs Division of the PNP, Police Senior Superintendent Jesse Santo Domingo, another essential feature of the law was that it enabled the authorities to access the funding, set annually at PhP1 billion, with Php700 million allotted for disaster preparedness training and Php300 million to be used for the actual disasters. Before the new law took effect, the funding could only be touched when a state of calamity is declared, a seemingly counterproductive move as it made funding for preparation purposes impossible, as well as allowing movements to take place too late. Republic Act 10121 sought to rectify this by empowering authorities to move and access the funds for the purpose of preparation.

PNP response to the new law

Screen-shot-2011-08-25-at-12.50Screen-shot-2011-08-25-at-12.51In reaction to the new law, former PNP chief Director General Jesus Verzosa activated the Disaster Response Plan in August 2010. Verzoza admitted that lessons learned from typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng were the driving factors that moved the PNP to launch into trainings and prepare equipment and resources.

Verzosa also issued a Letter of Instruction (LOI) named “Saklolo,” which was an updated and enhanced plan of action of the PNP on disaster preparedness and response management. This serves as a “disaster” manual to be used by the PNP in times of disaster and calamity situations. Saklolo requires the PNP Regional Directors, in their capacity as Chairman of the Regional Disaster Coordinating Committee (RDCC) to mobilize PNP manpower and resources for disaster rescue and relief operations at the regional level. Since then, the PNP has already conducted a 5-day training in May in Camp Crame and a disaster competition in June this year. The participants were required to perform actions involving boat handling, basic knot tying, life ring throwing, structural collapsed scenarios, first aid and fire fighting.

Anomalies exposed in the appropriation of search and rescue equipment

Though things seemed to be going according to plan, anomalies began to appear.

The problem began in early July of this year when  Senator Panfilo Lacson exposed the anomalous acquisitions by the PNP of three refurbished helicopters. The aircraft were overpriced by at least six times the standard price. It was found that two Robinson R44 Raven 1 model choppers (with body numbers RP-4375 and RP-4250) have already been used by several lawmakers and celebrities including the former president before they were handed over to the PNP.

As if this wasn’t enough, it was also found that 75 police rubber boats and 93 outboard motors appropriated for the PNP’s bid to prepare search and rescue equipment were surrounded by anomalies as well. Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo ordered the new PNP chief Director General Raul Bacalzo to investigate the purchase as it came to light that not only were the equipment overpriced, they were rendered useless as well since the outboard engines did not follow the National Police Commission’s specifications for rubberboats.

The details that emerged from the investigations were heartbreaking. An inspection of the PNP Maritime Group showed that the 60-horsepower outboard engines would sink or be damaged if used for certain lengths of time. The boats were designed to be used with 40-horsepower engines. These were purchased under former PNP chief Jesus Verzosa through negotiated/emergency procurement and in response to the mandate of RA 10121.

Robredo was quoted as saying that “to go around the required bidding procedures,” the PNP Bid and Awards Committee awarded the contract to Enviro-Aire Inc. (supplied 93 outboard motors worth PhP44.1 million), Enviro-Aire with Stoneworks Specialist (supplied 24 rubber boats worth PhP27.9 million), Geneve SA Phils. (delivered 41 rubber boats worth PhP47.7 million), and Bay Industrial Phils. (supplied 10 rubber boats worth PhP11.6 million).

As it was for the helicopters, the outboard motors were grossly overpriced at P500,000 compared to the market price of P350,000.

Even the purchase of the rubberboats violated Napolcom specifications as well.  Units like the 41 hypalon neoprene rubber roll-up boats from France, 24 hypalon-single recreational rubber boats from Korea and three recreational boats from Costa Rica were unusable.

Later, in a statement filled with irony, the DILG chief assured that the rubber boats could still be used, but with paddles. In any case, the PNP Maritime Group said it was not advisable to use outboard motors in urban areas as there’s a chance that the motors could suck in debris and invite further damage.

In a report aired on GMA News TV, it was revealed that the current rubberboat suppliers were involved in previous anomalies. Businessman Tyron Ong, president of Enviro-Aire Incorporated was the same person involved in the Euro General controversy in 2008. It will be recalled that during the Senate investigation in 2008, Ong revealed that he handed over 45,000 euros or PhP 3 million to former police comptroller and retired PNP Director Eliseo dela Paz and his wife Marife who were caught at the Moscow International Airport. Ong also declared in the same senate hearing that not only did he serve as a supplier to the PNP, but he was also a supplier to several other government agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Land Transportation Office (LTO), and Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). Currently the three aforementioned suppliers have been blacklisted by the PNP.

The damning omission could make the former PNP chief Jesus Verzosa including other key subordinates liable for the questionable multimillion-peso procurements.

A sober look at the future

The tragedy of Ondoy (and the others that followed it) heralded the start of a big change. There should be no need for the Philippines to be unprepared for disasters year in and year out. Given our country’s track record for floods and typhoons and the death and destruction that follows, we should be considered as the biggest authority on disaster preparedness in this region, in the same way Japan is an authority on earthquakes. We have a volume of experience.

The real picture is a sobering one. Recent events have shown that seeking to be materially prepared for future emergencies and possible disasters could prove insufficient and may not even be the main issue.

Organizational unity, efficiency built from integrity and the strength and resolve to overcome social cancers such as graft and corruption which compromise and weaken organizations are  crucial and an absolute condition before we can even attempt to appropriate huge amounts of funding. Certain aspects of bureaucracy should also be addressed. The daunting acronyms that spell long titles and organizational names seem to reflect a spirit of complexity. In fact, it took this writer around two months before the PNP was able to identify the appropriate contact person and department that should be interviewed for this story. Community Affairs Division Chief Jesse Santo Domingo, a very helpful and kind man who assisted the writer with this story was newly installed in his post during this interview. When asked about the frequency of the rotation of heads in the different departments and how this might affect the implementation of the programs being followed by the PNP, the chief admitted that this was part of the system, as it was a way for personnel to achieve promotions.

Without the consistency and loyalty of the staff, who mostly remain unchanged despite the changing heads, the progress of certain programs and action plans could be greatly compromised.

Deaths and destruction to property are great realities in the Philippine setting. But graft and corruption make the tragedies worse. What is the change that we can expect from the authorities, including the police force? Can we expect them to have the moral character and resolve to break the invisible chains that hold us in a state of limbo? As the Filipino people continue to be at the mercy of the elements, we can only continue to hope for the best.

First published in the National Security and Public Safety section of Volume 1 Issue No.6 of SecurityMatters Magazine – Print Edition