I’m posting the story to commemorate typhoon Yolanda, which struck Nov. 8 two years ago, and to belie allegations that Mar Roxas and the government were slow to respond to the tragedy. I’m doing so also at the promptings of my friend and, decades ago, my editor Daisy Amos at the Subic Bay News in the US Naval Base, Subic Bay. – Roly E. Eclevia

In the Eye of the Storm

A first person account by Jonathan Ronquillo,
DILG staff member, as told to Roly E. Eclevia

“Take cover,” DILG Secretary Mar Roxas barked. “The ceiling fan could fall.”

Ex-Alaminos Mayor Nani Braganza and I dived and sought refuge under a table. Not that we needed to be told. The hotel seemed to be caving in. We were right smack in the path of the strongest typhoon ever to hit land in recorded history. It also turned out to be the most destructive and the deadliest.

It was 8 a.m., Nov. 8, 2013. From where we cowered we could see, through the glass windows, branches torn from their trunks and blown all over the place. The monster—for it was a monster—hurled them at the hotel as if to flush us out.

The last bulletin we heard was at 4:30 a.m., when Typhoon Yolanda made landfall in Guian, Samar.

In the past three days SMAR (Secretary Manuel Araneta Roxas) had been conducting frenzied preparations. From the DILG Operations Center at Camp Crame, he fired orders in quick succession to governors and mayors in the typhoon’s path. He told them to preposition rescue personnel and equipment and to carry out emergency relief operations at a moment’s notice.

Then, on the eve of that great weather disturbance, SMAR left the comfort of his office and flew to Tacloban, to make sure his orders were carried out to the letter. There he planned to set up a command post for the rescue and relief operations during and after the typhoon.

He and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin checked in at the Leyte Park Hotel to sit out the howler.

Nani, with me in tow, joined them later. He was to assist SMAR in his dealings with local politicians. A former congressman, Cabinet secretary, and mayor, he was perfect for the job.

Sitting It Out

“Stay away from the windows,” SMAR again shouted. He and Nani were herding the guests and city residents who had sought refuge in the hotel, into the basement.

It was 10 a.m. The might of the monster was on full display.

The one-inch thick glass door was swinging like crazy, making a fearful crashing sound each time. Windows shattered, letting in all kinds of debris: tree branches and leaves, sand and tufts of grass, mud and rain. They hit and stung us in the face, swirled around us. Outside, cars, vans, delivery trucks were being thrown every which way.

I felt like I was watching a Hollywood horror movie, only this time I was in it.

At SMAR’s instructions, I called Col. Jojo Angan, who was left behind at Camp Crame. I was to tell him the situation on the ground and relay SMAR’s orders for appropriate government agencies to get ready to move in. It was no use. All manners of communication were out. No power.

Through it all, SMAR was calm and collected. I could sense from his voice, however, that he was under tremendous pressure. The lives of people were in his hands, and he fully realized that, with other officials, civilian and military, deferring to his judgment and awaiting his orders.

Damage Assessment

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The typhoon began to let up at 10:30 a.m.

SMAR asked the hotel management for dry sheets and towels for the locals and their children who had sought refuge in the hotel. They were all soaked to the skin and shivering. He also requested food and water for everyone.

Against the advice of everyone, SMAR, Gazmin, and Nani went out for to survey the damage. It was surreal outside. Otherwise sturdy structures had toppled over, their steel reinforcements bent like paper clips. Houses were flattened to the ground.

There were bodies strewn in the streets, and SMAR ordered that they be collected and brought to the undertaker and gave them the dignity they deserved. However, the priority now was to bring aid and comfort to the living, who were just beginning to emerge, cold and hungry, frightened out of their wits.

Nobody could show us around. We had counted on Mayor Alfred Romualdez to help us make the initial assessment. He was supposed to set up a quick response command center, but he was nowhere to be found.

Luckily, the structure housing the police sustained only minor damage, and, most important of all, 30 cops had reported for duty. The precinct had more than 250 personnel, but most of them were victims too. They needed to secure their families first.

SMAR, grateful for the little resources he could muster, set up the command post. He instructed Col. Bong Cabillan, the chief of police, to find all DILG, PNP, BFP, and BJMP officers and men and get them to report to him.

He had two objectives: 1) establish communication with the national government and dispatch search and rescue teams, and 2) clear the airport and major roads so that help, when it came, could reach the victims.

SMAR dispatched two teams of policemen on bicycles, one to the airport to see what could be done to clear the runway, and another to Palo, Leyte, for a much needed satellite phone.

Then he and Gazmin commandeered the two working police cars to see things for themselves.

On Real Street, the city’s main road, they ran into broadcast journalist Ted Failon and his team. In tears, Failon narrated how they had been trapped in the Fishermen’s Village in Barangay San Jose. They were on their way to the ABS-CBN field unit nearby.

Clearing Operation

Farther afield, SMAR and Gazmin caught up with city administrator Tecson Lim. At last they could talk to someone who knew the area. They told him to get city hall employees to help clear the roads.

Near the Coca Cola plant, SMAR saw a fleet of heavy equipment. He told the foreman to begin the clearing operation, assuring him rental and manpower expenses would be paid for, even if he had to advance the money personally.

A contingent of the 81st Storm Troopers Brigade came into view. He instructed them to get to work too. To the people he met around the city, he said help was coming.

At 4 p.m., Mayor Romualdez finally showed up. SMAR and Gazmin ran into him at the Junction/Rotunda. The mayor and his wife and children were with the family dogs. He said they almost drowned in their beachfront home. Informed that the family was headed to city hall, Gazmin instructed the driver of an Army truck to bring them there.

Now the clearing operation was in full swing, with the PNP and the Army leading the way.

At about 5 p.m., the cops who had been dispatched to Palo arrived. Now with the satellite phone, SMAR and Gazmin could talk to President Aquino.

Here’s what I remember SMAR telling the President:

“Sir, all communications systems are down, most government infrastructure are badly damaged, rescue personnel and equipment could barely cope. We need all the help we can get to jump-start the relief operation. We are clearing the runway now and the main roads leading to the airport so planes from there (National Capital Region) can land.”

SMAR and the cops worked until 11 p.m., to get the generators working. Then we went back to our hotel by car and, where it was impossible to go farther because of the debris, on foot.

Initial Relief Work

The next day, at 8 a.m., we were back to the police station-turned-command post. Soon we heard a C130 plane approaching and several Huey helicopters. They were carrying rescue personnel, equipment, and foodstuffs. Help was starting to arrive.

SMAR’s efforts paid off handsomely. The runways had been cleared. The Leyte Plaza had been turned into a helo pad, and choppers came and went throughout the day, all carrying more personnel and relief goods.

There was no lack of volunteers. There were SMAR’s friends in Tacloban, led by Lenny Banez and others. They offered to provide us with water from a groundwater pump and placed several heavy equipment at our disposal.

A Chinese shop owner gave us chainsaws to use, if we could assemble the kits. His technicians had not reported for work, so we put together the parts ourselves, using the Chinese language instruction manual, to SMAR and Gazmin’s amusement.

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On Nov. 10, President Aquino arrived. He had been preceded by DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman, whose team was to take over the relief operation.

After lunch the President and SMAR boarded a military plane for an aerial inspection, not only of Tacloban but also of the other typhoon-devastated areas.

Help started coming in earnest, from the government and the private sector, from the US and other countries, from the UN and from international humanitarian groups.

The Blame Game

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Only after two weeks, when DPWH and DSWD were firmly in place, did SMAR leave Tacloban for the rest he so richly deserved.

Ironically, he was criticized for “the slow response of the government.” He was the face of the relief operation—and the subsequent rehabilitation and reconstruction program—so his political enemies found it convenient to blame him for everything that went wrong.

Never mind the fact that the tragedy was of such magnitude it was impossible to bring relief to everyone all at once, even with the help of the international community. Close to a million families with 4.5 million members were affected. That’s why a lot of people had to endure days, even weeks of waiting before help could reach them. Some 6,300 died and an undetermined number were injured.

“I was there the day before the typhoon struck,” SMAR once blurted out in exasperation. “How much faster than that can you get?”

No good deed goes unpunished!

 

This article was originally posted in the personal Facebook Account of Roly E. Eclevia.