Aquino asserts control over typhoon relief effort

by Mynardo Macaraig, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Nov 18 2013 03:40 PM | Updated as of Nov 19 2013 02:46 AM

Romualdez answers back

MANILA - President Benigno Aquino III has moved to assert himself as disaster manager-in-chief after criticism of his response to a devastating super typhoon, with the calamity set to become the defining event of his presidency.

Aquino toured the worst-hit towns and cities on Sunday and announced that he would set up base in the region until he was "satisfied" that the relief operation was running as effectively as it should.

He also made some thinly veiled criticisms of local officials, suggesting they had been under-prepared and provided inaccurate data which had hampered the relief effort.

"As president, I should not show my anger. No matter how irritated I am," he said.

Aquino, who was elected in a landslide in 2010, has proved to be a popular president, overseeing a significant economic upturn and striking a peace deal with Muslim rebels waging a long-running separatist struggle in the southern region of Mindanao.

But in recent months, his image has taken something of a hit as public anger has grown over a government corruption scandal.

At the end of October, he felt compelled to go on national television and publicly declare he was "not a thief" as he defended hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending that has come under scrutiny.

Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) was always going to be a major test, but the unprecedented ferocity of the storm was overwhelming and exacerbated by a five-meter (16-foot) storm surge that sent tsunami-like waves crashing into coastal cities, towns and villages.

As the scale of the destruction became apparent, Aquino was initially criticized for what was seen as some insensitive quibbling over the likely death toll.

His initial estimate of 2,500 now appears unduly optimistic with the number of confirmed dead standing at almost 4,000, with another 1,600 missing and many remote areas still to be properly assessed.

At the same time, the delay of several days in getting the official relief program up and running was taken as a lack of preparedness, and that played badly with the gruesome video footage coming out of the worst-hit zones.

"The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the president," said Rene de Castro, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

"But I don't know that anybody else in his position would have been able to handle a disaster of this magnitude."

Aquino's decision to move down to the impacted region was clearly aimed at demonstrating a "hands-on" appreciation of the situation, and on Monday he toured other devastated towns where he was filmed helping out at distribution centers.

"We have to raise people's morale, we have to encourage them to get back on their feet as soon as possible by giving them positive signals of assistance and encouragement," Aquino's spokesman Herminio Coloma said Monday.

"The president wants to ensure they have ample supplies and that they could be sustained so that we can move on to the next stage which is rehabilitation."

Will we insult the dead?

Aquino's criticism of local officials did not go down well in Tacloban City, which was badly hit by the storm surge.

"Will we insult the dead, and say they died because they were unprepared?" Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said Monday.

There was an element of political and personal bad blood to the spat, with Aquino and Romualdez belonging to two of the most powerful political clans in modern Philippine history.

Aquino's mother, Corazon Aquino, led the "people power" revolution that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Her husband, also called Benigno, was assassinated at Manila airport when he returned from exile in 1983.

Romualdez is related to Marcos's widow, former first lady Imelda Marcos, who remains a powerful political figure as a congresswoman. Her son, Ferdinand Jnr, is a senator eyeing a run at the next presidential elections in 2016.

"The whole relief effort has been politically polarized," said Prospero de Vera, a political analyst at the University of the Philippines.

"This will be the defining moment of Aquino's administration, and he needs to act very strongly and be very focused, and rise above any political bickering," de Vera said.