"Curse me, criticise me but I believe I must do the right thing," President Benigno Aquino III said on Friday, defending the pace of rebuilding in communities ravaged by Supertyphoon "Yolanda" (international name: Haiyan) a year ago.
Mr. Aquino insisted that thorough reconstruction takes time.
"I am impatient like everyone else but I have to stress that we can't rebuild haphazardly. We have to build back better … let's get it right the first time and the benefits should be permanent," the President said in a speech at the hard-hit town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar on the eve of one-year anniversary commemorations of the disaster that struck Eastern Visayas and central Philippines.
Yolanda, the strongest storm to hit land, killed or left missing more than 7,000 people and left tens of thousands of others homeless.
A year after the disaster, those survivors are still dangerously exposed to future storms, living in tents, huts or other flimsy shelters, as a prolonged rebuilding phase has only just begun.
Master plan approved
President Aquino has come under criticism for approving the government's P160-billion (S$45 billion) reconstruction master plan only last week.
He previously defended the time taken to complete it, saying programs from affected municipalities had to be thoroughly scrutinized.
The master plan calls for 205,000 new homes for roughly 1 million people to be built in areas away from coastal danger zones, but this has only just started with a few thousand built so far.
But important reconstruction work has taken place ahead of the formal adoption of the master plan, including rebuilding roads, bridges, hospitals and other vital infrastructure.
In partnership with major international aid agencies, the government has also helped to roll out vaccination programs for millions of children and given rice seeds to desperate farmers.
President Aquino cited international aid agencies as saying post-Yolanda recovery efforts were moving faster compared with programs in Indonesia's Banda Aceh after it was hit by tsunami waves in 2004.
Work should not be shoddy
Defending the pace of the government's rebuilding programme, Mr. Aquino stressed that the reconstruction should not be a shoddy work.
"Houses or new roads cannot be built overnight… What is important is we have clear targets, there is a clear plan to achieve these targets," he said.
Mr. Aquino stressed that Filipinos must never again go through the hardships they experienced in the days following Yolanda, which is why the government is building better houses and infrastructure.
"We should have given them the strength and knowledge as a shield to the hardships they went through. We should apply what we have learned so as not to repeat this tragedy," Mr. Aquino said.
He also defended the government's response to Yolanda, saying despite limited resources, such as having only three Air Force C130s to transport relief goods, the needs of the survivors were immediately attended to.
"We were able to mobilize our agencies quickly for the clearing operations, and for the immediate needs like power, water, food. From November 2013, for example, until July 2014, the government was able to distribute 12.2 million family food packs," he said.
After eight months, he said the government was able to transition from the relief stage to early recovery and to rehabilitation.
The President was accompanied by Cabinet members and local officials on his visit to Guiuan.
He visited the rehabilitation sites and inspected 133 temporary shelters, each of which measures 76 square meters and has a detached restroom, a Malacañang statement said.
Mr. Aquino also led the turnover of one of the temporary shelters to Benito Gagarin Sr. and his family, whom the President accompanied as they moved into their new home.
He gave Gagarin a certificate of occupancy as well as a family assistance package and hygiene kit.
No cash giveaways
Mr. Aquino also stood by his decision not to distribute P40,000 in cash to the typhoon survivors represented by a group called People Surge and based in Tacloban City.
He said it would be easier to shell out P58.8 billion, the total amount if each family would be given P40,000, compared with the P85 billion that the government has to raise in 2015 to complete the rebuilding of the ravaged communities.
"But I have a conscience. If you are harmed anew even if we could have avoided it, I won't be able to face myself. I cannot face my parents. That's why (to my critics), go ahead, curse me, criticise me, but I believe I must do the right thing. My conscience will not be able to bear abandoning you, allowing the tragedy to happen over and over again," he said.
Mr. Aquino added that he would just pray for his critics.
Tacloban doing fine
At a news conference, Mr. Aquino defended his decision not to visit Tacloban, the worst-hit city in Eastern Visayas but where the mayor is a bitter political rival, for the anniversary commemorations.
"I have a hunch my critics will say I am taking Tacloban for granted… but I am not after brownie points," he said, insisting recovery efforts were strong there and he did not have to visit personally.
"I have visited Tacloban several times. I think Guiuan would also say, 'We're also one of the hardest hit.' I mean, can anybody claim that they are the worst hit?" he said. "At the end of the day, this is not politics."
He said he "really wanted to highlight" Guiuan.
"There are some structures that were standing in Tacloban when I visited. When I visited Guiuan, if I remember correctly, it seemed like not a single roof was left intact," he said.
Mr. Aquino said he wanted to see for himself if the town could still, or was able, to recover after the storm.
In his speech, the President admitted that it is difficult to feed millions of survivors every day, but said that the government is making an effort to revive their livelihood.
The government has distributed some 30,000 boats to fishermen and farmers will continue to receive fertilizers, seeds and farming equipment, he said.
"The government is working twice as hard to improve their yield and earnings," Mr. Aquino said.
He said livelihood training programs for the survivors were still going on.
Mr. Aquino said the government planned to build the Tacloban-Palo-Tanauan Road Dike through the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
The road dike will be 25 square kilometers and rise 4 meters above sea level, envisioned to be a wall against storm surges. It will protect an estimated 29,000 homes and other structures.
The project would cost P9 billion and would start before the year ends.
The President said there were also plans to use mangroves as natural protection against storm surges.
Airport to be moved
He reiterated the plan to move the Tacloban City airport to a different location to avoid a repeat of the inundation it went through during Yolanda.
Mr. Aquino stressed that an airport should be secured from disasters, as ideally it should always be open to receive first responders.
Bayan Muna secretary general Renato Reyes said Mr. Aquino's speech in Guiuan was "a litany of excuses on why government aid to storm survivors was sorely lacking and late."
In a statement, Reyes said the P40,000 demanded by People Surge for the survivors was a "short-term demand, and not by any means encompass the entirety of the demands of the survivors, which include housing, livelihood and the rehabilitation of agriculture."
He said the President, in his speech, "distort[ed] the demands of the victims, insult[ed] them and engag[ed] in gross dishonesty."