By Louise Maureen Simeon
(The Philippine Star)
Malacañang had prior knowledge of his absence at a command conference with President Duterte on Thursday in typhoon-ravaged Isabela, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said, as he denied getting scolded by the Chief Executive for missing the emergency meeting.
“Was I really ‘scolded?’ Or did he just call my attention? I actually sent (Undersecretary Ariel) Cayanan to represent me as I was in Cotabato when PMS (Presidential Management Staff) gave the advisory,” Piñol told The STAR.
“I properly informed PMS I could not join,” he stressed.
“I will see him (Duterte) on Tuesday at the Cabinet meeting,” Piñol added.
The agriculture chief got a public rebuke from Duterte, who noticed his absence after getting briefed by other Cabinet officials on the impact of Typhoon Rosita on Isabela’s infrastructure and agriculture facilities.
“I think somebody has to call the attention of Manny. He keeps boasting that he has a lot of money. Now is the time for him to spend all of it,” Duterte said.
Piñol emphasized the President was referring to Department of Agriculture (DA) funds.
Present at the command conference held in Cauayan in Isabela were Mark Villar of public works, Francisco Duque III of health, Silvestre Bello III of labor, Eduardo Año of the interior, and Rolando Bautista of social welfare.
The President said the DA secretary should be ready to provide livelihood opportunities for displaced farmers and fishermen.
“I’ve been saying all along that we have money for immediate interventions,” Piñol said.
The agriculture chief said he will propose at the next Cabinet meeting the granting of emergency powers to President Duterte so that the government would be able to immediately address the needs of victims affected by natural calamities.
Earlier, Piñol urged Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in a letter, to give Duterte emergency powers so he could order the immediate release of funds for the rehabilitation of typhoon-ravaged areas.
Congress is currently in recess and will resume session by Nov. 12. “I proposed that the President be given emergency powers by Congress to address the needs of typhoon affected areas more quickly,” Piñol said.
Currently, he said, every fund release requires validation from DA, National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, Department of Budget and Management and the Office of the President.
“The response time of government should not be more than one month for agriculture. Once hit by a typhoon and if interventions are immediately available, farmers can start planting again in two to three weeks,” Piñol said.
“But if we stick to that old process, look at what happened to Yolanda, it’s been five years and yet interventions are still not done,” he added.
Piñol said the government has yet to release the requested budget of P7.6 billion for the rehabilitation of areas in Northern Luzon ravaged by Typhoon Ompong last month. Damage to agriculture alone hit P27 billion, the highest recorded since the one earmarked for areas affected by Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.
Initial report from the DA-Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Operation Center showed that damage to agriculture due to Rosita now stands at P112.21 million.
The National Food Authority (NFA), meanwhile, has assured the public that there is enough rice stocks in its warehouses nationwide, particularly in Northern and Central Luzon.
The NFA has issued a total of 555 bags of rice delivered to Isabela, La Union, Pangasinan and Ilocos Sur.
Residents who evacuated at the height of Typhoon Rosita last week have started returning to their homes, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said.
The DSWD-Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center said only 15 evacuation centers providing temporary shelter to 135 families or 466 persons remained open as of yesterday.
Social Welfare Secretary Rolando Bautista said relief distribution may continue even if families have already returned home.
“DSWD and the other members of the Response Cluster are exerting all efforts to deliver aid to the isolated or hard to reach areas affected by the typhoon. It is our priority to reach out to our kababayans (countrymen) and ensure that their basic necessities are met,” Bautista said.
The DSWD said it has provided over P5.2 million worth of assistance to affected families in Regions 1, 2, 3 and the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).
Meanwhile, President Duterte was urged yesterday to create more military engineering brigades that could be used for disaster response, including rehabilitation of damaged communities.
At the same time, Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III called on the leadership of the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to modernize the military’s existing five engineering units.
“There should be at least one military engineering brigade in every region that is fully equipped and ready for disaster response mission,” he said.
He said he missed the days during the Marcos era when military engineers were among the first responders in disasters.
He said the DND and AFP should procure new road repair and construction equipment for the military’s corps of engineers.
“I understand that many of their road repair and construction equipment are already old and not running. The modernization program of the AFP should include the procurement of new equipment for its engineering units. The military should be prepared not only for internal and external defense but for civil defense as well,” Albano stressed.
He suggested that AFP engineers request their counterparts in the United States, Japan, Australia and other allies for their excess or used engineering equipment.
He pointed out that in the aftermath of every typhoon that visited the country in the past, “there was a problem with the distribution and delivery of life-saving food, water and medicine to the worst-hit areas.”
“We experienced this when Super Typhoon Yolanda struck Eastern Visayas five years ago this month,” he said.
He said the problem has been attributed to many factors, including the unprecedented magnitude of the damage, lack of coordination mechanism, lack of flow of information from affected areas and inadequate assessment of damage and needs.
“But one factor that stood out among all these was the inability to quickly clear roads rendered impassable by debris from destroyed structures and uprooted trees,” Albano said.
He said among the major priorities in disaster response is to clear roads and bridges so that victims could be evacuated and vehicles carrying food and other supplies could pass through.
This is where the AFP engineering brigades could play an important role, by helping the local engineering offices of the Department of Public Works and Highways and local government units whose equipment are often not enough for the job to be done, he added.
Albano also urged the leadership of the House of Representatives to allot more funds for disaster response in the 2019 budget.
“We should do this while the proposed budget for next year is still with us,” he said.
The House is scheduled to approve the outlay on third and final reading shortly after Congress reconvenes on Nov. 12. It would then transmit the budget to the Senate.
The NDRRMC has yet to figure out the exact number of typhoon casualties as retrieval operations in areas buried by landslide continue.
Six more bodies were reportedly recovered from under tons of mud in Sitio Harang, Barangay Banawel, Natonin, Mt. Province.
Natonin Mayor Mateo Chiwayan said the recovery of six bodies on Friday brought to 14 the number of fatalities in the landslide, with 15 others still missing.
The victims were inside the DPWH building that got buried by landslide at the height of Rosita’s onslaught.
Chiwayan said there were reports of landslide fatalities in nearby villages but this could not be confirmed yet.
Five days after Rosita’s devastation in CAR, the towns of Natonin and Barlig in Mt. Province remain isolated as roads remain buried in mud and debris.—Jess Diaz, Janvic Mateo, Artemio Dumlao, Jaime Laude, Rainier Allan Ronda