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Philippines government falls short in storm relief

Devastating flood leaves survivors asking what Manila officials did with all their prevention funds.

MANILA, Philippines — It was one of the most colorful sections of the capital Manila, a row of houses painted in bright, pastel hues.

Adding to its allure was the river fronting it and the foliage that, though sparse, hinted at orderliness. Commuters who passed by marveled at the beauty of the facade. But it was, indeed, nothing but a facade, since behind its vibrant colors was a slum community similar to the many poor neighborhoods here.

On Saturday, as tropical storm Ketsana swept through the capital and several provinces in the northern Philippines, killing more than 200 people and displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes, the facade at the village called Industrial Valley Complex in Marikina City was smeared with dirt. The residents behind it were devastated.

On Sunday, after Ketsana poured down a month’s worth of rain and flooded much of the capital, dozens of residents — their hands and feet and bodies soiled with muck — went through what was left of their belongings. The candy-colored pretense doing nothing to hide their misery and the destruction the storm caused. As of Tuesday, Philippines authorities put the death toll at around 250, and expected it to rise yet as they continued to pull bodies out of swollen rivers and debris-strewn streets.

In a way, the pretty trimmings to the Industrial Valley Complex provide some irony to this disaster: they reflect what some here say is the government’s mere lip service to disaster preparedness. After all, the head of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, Gilbert Teodoro, ran commercials months ago urging the public to prepare for precisely this kind of natural disaster. More than anything, many view those commercials as a form of self-promotion; he has been chosen as the administration's candidate in next year’s presidential race. In Marikina, a city east of the capital, there are many such colorful facades, each conveying the message that the city is pretty and orderly. In fact, the former mayor of the city, Bayani Fernando, was appointed the chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority precisely because he promised to turn this metropolis of 16 cities into another Marikina, where streets are clean and the city appears ever-prepared to face disasters.

As it turned out, among the Manila cities, Marikina City was the hardest hit by the storm, thus bursting the myth Fernando had created for himself. Fernando’s political ambition — he said he would run for president — is probably another fatality of Ketsana.

On a larger scale, critics of the government say Ketsana only highlighted a serious problem facing the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: an utter lack of practical means to face the effects of environmental destruction and climate change.

“The incalculable damage wrought by Ondoy” — the local name of Ketsana — “brings us face to face, yet again, with the irony at the center of our fate as a disaster-prone nation: We are very good at organizing relief operations once disaster strikes, but we are a failure at preventing disaster in the first place,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer intoned in its editorial on Monday.

The government has so far not responded directly to the accusations that it has not been doing enough, although it acknowledged that it had been overwhelmed by the disaster. "We are concentrating on massive relief operations. The system is overwhelmed, local government units are overwhelmed," said Anthony Golez, a spokesman for the National Disaster Coordinating Council.

President Arroyo, meanwhile, has ordered all government agencies to allot all the resources they could muster to help the survivors, even declaring that she would allow the use of the presidential palace compound as an emergency relief center.

Teodoro, the chairman of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, said: "We feel their anger and pain but it is physically impossible to reach each and everyone with the conditions that we face.”