Archive for December, 2013

A Marine in Tacloban

by on Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Unloading aid boxes from an Osprey (Photo from III MEF/MCIPAC Facebook)

Super-typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines on November 8. On November 24, I went to Villamor Airport in Manila with some friends who were serving as volunteers, greeting evacuees from the stricken areas and asking them about their needs. No planes arrived that night, but I did meet a Capt. Caleb Eames, a US Marine who was working there. On December 11, when he was back in Okinawa and I was in Manila, he talked over Skype about his experience with the relief effort. (Photos used with permission.)

Caleb’s story

(Photo from Capt. Eames)

On Monday, November 4 or Tuesday, November 5, we got notification of the approaching storm. We started by planning in case we had to respond to the Philippines. We identified which people would be sent first, what aircraft were available to go, and what parts would have to be moved quickly if indeed the storm was quite serious. And of course it was.

The storm hit, as you said, on November 8. It was so big that it brought down the communication system. All of the telephone lines and cell phone towers were gone. As a result, the news of the damage was at first slow in getting out. However, as the storm hit, our weather guys were getting wind speed readings, so we knew right away that the situation was quite serious and the Philippine government would likely request help.

The US military and the US government cannot respond until we’ve been requested to do so by the host nation. The very first thing was that the government of the Philippines had to go to the US Embassy and, via them, request assistance from the United States. That request went from the State Department—was obviously approved at probably quite high levels—down to the first responders, including the Marine Corps. We’re considered the crisis response force of choice in the region. Within 48 hours of the storm we had the first planes landing in Manila.

I was not on that first wave, which consisted of kind of an emergency assessment team. Our name for it is a Forward Command Element, or FCE, and also a HAST, which stands for Humanitarian Assessment Survey Team. Members of that group were the first on the ground in Manila. They went very quickly from Manila—with representatives from the Philippine government—down to Tacloban and the surrounding area. They immediately determined the severity of the situation, in close partnership with the government of the Philippines and also in close partnership with US AID, or US Agency for International Development. They saw that a large response would be required because there was significant damage in the area. Very quickly afterwards, the Marine Corps began sending in items that were requested. The first things that were needed were our heavy-lift and medium-lift aircraft, the cargo planes and our MV-22 Ospreys, to move aid and evacuees. A total of eight Marine Corps C-130s responded, two from the US west coast and two from Okinawa. We also sent 14 Ospreys down from Okinawa.

Now the Ospreys are a unique aircraft. They’re actually both a helicopter and an airplane. They have rotors that tilt so they can fly both vertically and horizontally. They were important in this situation because they were able to go directly from Okinawa to the Philippines without needing to refuel. We moved our Ospreys down because we knew right away that there would be an immediate need to get into the airport in Tacloban. The airport was completely wiped out, so it wasn’t suitable for heavy aircraft to use. Our Osprey aircraft were some of the first aircraft on the scene in Tacloban. They flew in aid packages, Philippine government assessment teams and many international aid organizations. Because the Ospreys could land as helicopters, we used them to fly into remote areas in Samar and Leyte and get the Tacloban airport up and running. Within the first two days we enabled 24-hour operations in Tacloban, and as soon as the airport opened up, the heavy-lift cargo planes from around the world could begin landing.

There was a tremendous amount of assistance headed that way. You probably know that over eighteen different nations were sending help. One role the Marine Corps could play was to help manage the air flow because you can only land a certain number of planes at a time at that small airfield. Together with the Philippine air controllers, we scheduled blocks of time and helped coordinate those flights so we could get maximum effectiveness out of our flight operations. We wanted to prioritize flights bringing in the items that were absolutely needed, top-priority items: food, shelter, doctors, medical teams. Then on all of the flights headed out, we loaded as many evacuees as we possibly could to get them to Manila.

Once that airflow was open in Tacloban and some of the other places—Samar, Ormoc, Borongan and Cebu—then our Ospreys played a critical role in getting out to the areas that were very hard hit but were very far away from any kind of central hub, small villages along the coast and small villages inland that were cut off by debris or fallen trees. A regular helicopter probably would have been able to service only one or two areas before having to go back to refuel. But because the Ospreys were able to fly long-range, they could get in four, five or six stops and refuel on the George Washington aircraft carrier or even refuel mid-air.

Early relief deliveries (Photo from III MEF/MCIPAC Facebook)

The Ospreys were actually based out of Manila, where we were able to keep all of our maintenance staff. If we had based regular helicopters out of Tacloban, it would have required additional services and support in order to provide for our own people. But with the Ospreys we could base them back in Manila, 400 miles away. All the service and support was already in place there, we didn’t have to put an additional requirement of supporting ourselves on the Tacloban area. Instead, every flight could be used just for bringing help to the people who needed it. So having the Osprey aircraft was quite a success story.

Another interesting fact: the typhoon hit on eighth of November, and the Marine Corps first arrived in those devastated areas on November 10, the 238th birthday of the Corps.

I came into the picture when the Marines had been on the ground for about four or five days, I arrived on Sunday, November 17, after our flight was delayed by one day. When we received word that additional people were needed to support, I was one of the people chosen. Honestly, Carol, I had hoped I would get picked. The Marine Corps trains for this type of operation all the time. We’re always ready to go help our allies. I’ve been to the Philippines many times. I love the people there, and I was glad to go help as much as I could. And every single Marine I talked to felt exactly the same way. We all wanted to be there to help. I was very blessed and humbled that I got to help out our friends.

I returned to Japan on Wednesday the 27th, right before Thanksgiving. So I was down there just a little over a week. I was absolutely honored to have been a part of that help and also really humbled by the very strong Filipino people that I met. I love the Philippines, as I mentioned before. This disaster really showed the character of the people who were affected. I met many, many people down there, and everybody seemed to have a spirit of hope and recovery and pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps. Actually, when I left one of the things I remember very vividly was walking through the Tacloban area and hearing the sounds of people rebuilding. Hammers going and plywood being put up and sheeting being put on the houses and roofs being repaired. I really got the feeling that the people were going to recover from this. I don’t know if every American has that same kind of gumption to get back up on our own feet. I remember after hurricane Katrina there was quite a bit of back-and-forth about who was responsible for what. The Filipino people are a great example to me of how to get into the spirit of recovery very quickly.

I was the part of Operation Tomodachi in northern Japan in March of 2011. The damage to the infrastructure was very similar to the storm surge damage in the Philippines. With the tsunami and this typhoon, the airport and many of the coastal communities were just simply wiped out. One of the other similarities between the North-eastern Japan and the Philippine disasters was the spirit of “hey, let’s get our lives back together.” I saw that demonstrated in both places.

Yeah, my home was flooded during Ondoy. The water was about maybe shoulder height inside the house—well, it wasn’t water but flood mud, so water and sewage and rat shit—but unlike Katrina, the water subsided immediately. In Katrina part of the problem, as I understand it, was that the flood stayed in parts of New Orleans for months.

During Ondoy I was also amazed at the people I saw around me. People seemed to have dealt with disaster so often that they knew things like the refrigerator was going to be okay after drying out for three weeks, something I never would have thought. The refrigerator, the stove, the microwave, all that stuff was under water, and they’re all working now. We threw out sofas and mattresses and cushions because the bacteria got into the stuffing and could cause disease—although I’m sure someone else is using them now.

Which leads me to another question. I know people who are going down there. Actually, my friend Maria went down to Tacloban and Leyte just a few days after the storm hit. What advice do you have for people going into disaster areas in terms of immunizations or taking Vitamin C or any of that kind of stuff?

I’m not a medical expert, so I’d say you’d have to consult the people who are the experts in that area, a doctor or the aid workers who are there. Our Marines took anti-malaria medication, since malaria can be problematic in that area. Also, as you mentioned, the risk or bacterial infections is probably higher after a disaster like that. So keeping clean is important. The Filipino people are used to disasters so they know to keep very clean. With Marines, one of our general rules is to take care of our feet. In areas where you might have standing water or mud from a disaster, if your feet get wet you should dry them out and clean your socks. If you take care of your feet, they kind of take care of the rest of you.

The local government is now well in place and established. They have Filipino aid agencies working in that area as well as continuing international help. A lot of local people really know the area and the risks associated with it. People should consult with them, see what they’re doing and do the same. Anyone going there should make sure that they get clean drinking water, a good place to sleep and adequate resources to stay healthy. One of the dangers of going there without a good plan or without knowing how to take care of yourself is that you can become part of the problem instead of part of the help. So we make great efforts to make sure our Marines stay healthy because we don’t want to be burdensome in a situation where there is already a lot of need.

Do you think there’s going to be a big TB outbreak down there or don’t you know?

I’m not an expert, but I don’t think so. I’ve heard medical professionals speaking about that, and I think the situation is much more in hand than it was weeks ago. As I mentioned the efforts of the Philippine government to restore order and to provide health officials, that’s well in place. I think those concerns have been diminished.

I’ve read about outrage that foreign aid packages like ready-to-eat meals and were taken by the local officials and put on the market.

There’s an interesting point about that. I saw that news story. Those Meals Ready to Eat [MREs] were never intended to be part of the aid supply, but to feed the people who were helping, namely the military. It wasn’t part of the food that was designated for the evacuees. I don’t know the history of that story, but that much I do know.

Scrap Pork

by on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Demonstration in front of Ateneo University

In the Philippines each member of the Congress is granted a lump-sum discretionary fund for spending on priority development projects, mostly at the local level. This money is called the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). In July the Philippine Daily Inquirer published an exposé of a scam masterminded by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, whose companies specialize in trading agricultural products. The scam involved members of both the House of Representatives—commonly referred to as Congress—and the Senate and was estimated to have cost the country 10 billion pesos. In the widespread outrage the PDAF has generally been referred to as “the pork barrel.” Several large demonstrations have called for scrapping it.

On October 31, I attended a meeting of the Scrap Pork Network, a coalition of media experts and artists wanting to do something about this. I talked to Von Ramiro “Bombi” Blaka and Patricia “Peachy” Tan, the official spokesperson, and took pictures of the Power Point presentation done by Inday Verona.

Bombi Blaka

Bombi’s story

Basically, Scrap Pork Network is a group of people who recognize that there is an economic and financial crisis going on in the country and also cultural corruption, which is predominant in the political system. I visualize it as a monster that has grown throughout the years because of the people’s indifference to it. There’s this belief that corruption doesn’t really affect the day-to-day grind because people think they can’t really feel it, especially for the upper class and the middle class. There’s this misconception that leads people to turn a blind eye to it, this monster which has sucked the country dry for years. Somehow I see it as a blessing that it’s finally been exposed.

The problem is the message has not yet reached the grassroots level. There’s no strong message. It’s too vague for the regular working man to understand, so he doesn’t realize that he’s getting robbed. The pork barrel is basically legalized theft. Money is being taken just because those in power can do it.

From what I read it didn’t seem all that legal.

Last night the president asked for fifteen minutes of prime time in all major networks, and that’s exactly what he said. He’s saying the pork barrel is illegal and he’s with the people in fighting it, but he’s also justifying it. Our group believes all forms of pork, all kinds of patronage politics, in whatever name or whatever form, should be avoided. We should root out the cause of corruption.

I am basically a filmmaker. I’m a musician and a father and a Christian Catholic. But I volunteered for Scrap Pork Network as an individual, a concerned citizen. I believe that people in the media have been given a lot of power to influence people, to create perceptions. I work in the advertising industry.

Then you know how to do it.

We have ideas, but I need people like the ones I invited here to come up with short-term and long-term solutions. We need to figure out how to approach this problem. I am hopeful. The fact that the president had to beg for prime time certainly shows we’ve been gaining some ground. He talked to the general public because the demonstrations in Luneta and Ayala and EDSA are beginning to scare him. That’s why he’s desperate to address it the way he wants to. His popularity rating is sinking. It’s been in the headlines.

I feel kind of sorry for him. I like him.

I voted for him. I am volunteering now because he said I am his boss. It’s my right to ask for the things that I’m asking for, right? I’m just doing my job. I was looking for a group of media practitioners and artists. As it turned out, there hadn’t been any initiative yet to unite the artists. A few months ago, I started a text brigade, and I was overwhelmed by the response of friends and coworkers from the media, who’re saying, “Ok, Bombi, what do we do now?” I said, “I have no idea. I just asked you people what you feel about it. I just feel we should get together and plan something.” So this is what’s going to happen tonight.

Patricia Tan

(Please read the text of Peachy’s interview first, then the PowerPoint slides by Inday Verona. Click any picture to enlarge.)        

Peachy’s story

This will be my own narrative in terms of how it happened.

Targeting the pork

The PDAF is a pork barrel fund that individual legislators control. They get to name their projects, and they also choose the implementing agencies within the executive branch and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which will get the funds. So Janet Napoles set up these bogus NGOs and conspired with certain legislators to select the fake NGOs for their projects, since the legislator names the project and the implementing agency which chooses the NGO.

Are you pork?

Phony NGOs were set up, they received the funds, the money was turned over to Janet Napoles and she divided it. Let’s say you’re a Congressman, and you’re allotted ten million pesos for a project. Five million goes back to the NGO, and after the NGO has laundered it, the money goes back to Janet Napoles. She gives half of it to you and keeps half of it. None of it goes to the project. It’s not a small kickback for a project that gets implemented. They get the whole caboodle, they get the whole pie.

In the States we use the term “pork barrel” to mean something that’s not really necessary that a Congressperson does in her or his district in order to get reelected, not to not to take all the money and keep it.

That’s the way it actually started. Some legislators would allot some of the funds for projects that would get them elected, but usually the funds were used to get reelected—as campaign funds or to buy votes.

So they may say, “Okay I’m going to upgrade this road.” Instead of upgrading the road, they take the money and they use it for their political campaign and go around handing out 1000-peso bills to people to vote for them.  

Pork barrel

Yes. It could happen that way. It could also happen that they just pocket the money, since legislators have used the money differently. People got very angry. We did acknowledge that in certain cases corruption does exist, but all of us thought it was just a certain percentage of the funds. But in this case Napoles and the legislators took all of the money, and none of it went back to the beneficiaries. After that came out, there was an investigation and the Commission on Audit (COA) came out with a separate report. They audited pork barrel funds from 2007 to 2009, and part of that report actually confirms the existence of the Napoles scam. Other scams that were also revealed in that report. So now it’s not just Napoles. Some legislators actually set up their own NGOs, some bogus NGOs and some used for patronage politics as well. So you as a legislator have an NGO that’s under your name, you channel funds there. You say it’s for training purposes, but the NGO implementing the project is using your name. So that’s how you get reelected. You can use the money for patronage, and then you pocket some of it. I was personally very angry after I saw the report, just reading the summary and looking at the amounts of money listed in the tables.

You’re selfish. What about the student scholarships? What about the disaster victims? What about the sick?

Like for example?

In the summary a person named Luis Abalos got 20 million pesos. He’s not even a Congressman.We can’t even figure out who he is.

So that might not be a real name.

There were so many discrepancies and so many findings in the audit report that people got riled up. On top of the Napoles scam there was the COA report, and then came a call on Facebook for a million people march to Luneta.

Don’t meddle

I responded to that. I volunteered as a coordinator. We had to coordinate for the sake of security and logistics and cleaning up Luneta after the march. We had three major demands. First, to scrap the pork barrel system, meaning an end to all pork barrel funds. Second, to account for all pork barrel funds that have been spent over the years. Third, to prosecute and punish all those who misused funds. It should not matter whether you are allied with the former president or the current president. If you misused funds you should be prosecuted.

Carrying our pork burden

When did all this start?

Based on what the whistle-blowers are saying, it started in 2004. But the COA report only covers 2007-2009, during the presidency of GMA [Gloria Macapagal Arroyo]. She was president from  2000 to 2010. Now we’re disappointed with the current administration. President Aquino keeps pointing to the previous administration as the only ones who stole the people’s money, but the whistle-blowers said it was still ongoing at the time it came out in the newspapers.

“We’re in this together”

We formed Scrap Pork Network to make sure that the three demands made at Luneta would really be implemented. In the president’s address last night, he was saying what his first allocation program was doing and what his Department of Budget and Management was doing was not pork. But immediately after that he said from 2011 to 2012 nine percent went to projects for legislators. The legislators actually pinpointed what the projects would be. That’s what the pork barrel is. It may be just nine percent, but that equals twelve billion pesos—not a small amount. The money was supposed to speed up the economy, and yet you’re still asking legislators to name projects under the program. So how are you speeding up economic growth?

One of the allegations was that part of the PDAF funds were given as incentives to Senators to impeach former Chief Justice Corona. Those are allegations that of course no one is owning up to. It gets very complicated. If you look at the list of Senators who took funds, all of them voted for Corona’s impeachment. None of those who did not vote for his impeachment got funds. Even though they are denying that the funds were used as an incentive, it’s quite difficult to defend.

Direct method! Another 400 million went to Napoles

Congress has already passed the budget and approved it. It still gives seventy million pesos to each Congressman, and they will still nominate their own projects. That’s still pork. But Congress and the President are saying there’s no more pork because they’re not calling it PDAF. The budget is now at the Senate, where hearings are going on. The President has said that he has made a resolution that the Congress will not get their pork funds, just the Senate. They are not touching the funds that were allocated for Congress.

Who is Villa? Liberal Party, former Secretary of Department of Agrarian Reform. Napoles’ lawyer, who didn’t give a receipt.

We’re asking for all pork barrel funds to be removed from the budget. Members of Congress and the Senate should not have sole discretion in naming the projects. We’ll see how the Senate responds. Then there will be a bicameral meeting when the Senate version of the budget and the Congress version will have to marry.

In the Philippines the bicameral budget meeting is closed to the public. They do it in secret. We’re asking them to open it to the public. These are public funds. The committee and the plenary hearings are covered by media, and you can watch. If those are open to the public, why is the bicameral meeting closed? We want it to be transparent without any Congressional insertions into the budget.

Blocking the road

We support the Freedom of Information Bill, which we don’t have yet. That would give us access to those records. If we want transparency, of course citizens have to do their part. We’re calling on citizens: if you want a government that’s accountable for the public funds, you have to be able to audit and you have to participate. Even without the FOI bill we’re still planning a citizens’ audit team, but FOI would be a big, big help so we could look for the documents and find out who stole our money. We have other initiatives. The current Chief Justice Puno—not the one who was impeached—has called for a people’s initiative to pass legislation that would abolish the pork barrel. Right now I think two other groups are also planning on coming up with legislation. One is the Cebu Coalition, there’s Ipirma, and then there’s Scrap Pork Network. We’re still discussing how to go about it, whether by passing a law or by amending the constitution. We want to take the better avenue to be sure the pork barrel is no longer included in any future budgets.


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