Aquino visit to disaster area expected to clear relief bottlenecks

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines - President Benigno Aquino is to return to the devastated capital of Leyte province on Sunday to remove the remaining bottlenecks in the distribution of aid to survivors of Supertyphoon "Yolanda" (Haiyan).

The President was last seen here on November 10, the third day after Yolanda battered the central Philippines, but he left on the same day and relegated to Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman the nitty-gritty of bringing relief goods to famished families on the islands of Leyte and Samar.

Vice President Jejomar Binay turned up at the City Hall here on Saturday and met with Mayor Alfred Romualdez.

The vice president said he coursed relief goods he brought along through the Archdiocese of Palo to which Tacloban belongs.

Officials have said that the main reason for the slow movement of relief goods was the logjam at Tacloban airport, which could accommodate only three planes at a time, and the heavy volume of debris that had blocked almost all roads. Much of the debris has since been removed from major roads so that relief convoys could now get through.

Monsignor Alex Opiniano, Tacloban parish priest, said the flow of relief goods into Leyte was "rather slow" even from private donors.

He said that his parish was told that all relief donations should pass through the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Opiniano explained that centralizing relief distribution was possible only if communication lines were working, the roads were clear and there was enough manpower and transport vehicles.

The DSWD has since relented, he said, allowing private institutions to give the goods directly to victims. Some international aid agencies have already partnered with private groups locally after complaining of government's initial attempt to centralize distribution under the DSWD.

In the days following Yolanda's onslaught, there was lack of effective coordination between the national government and aid groups, frustrating efforts to immediately provide food, water and medicines to as many victims as possible.

The pace of distribution of relief goods picked up speed on Thursday, allowing groups such as the United Nations Disaster Assessment Group and Australian Aid to finally set up shop.

UNDAG put up its tents on Friday night at the Leyte Sports Complex, the command centre of the government, while Ausaid set up a mobile hospital and command base for rescue and relief operations just across from the garbage-littered Tacloban airport on Saturday.

Other relief and donor organisations have also put up their tents near the airport, providing medical assistance among other things.

Global Dirt, which stands for Disaster Immediate Response Team, and the American Refugee Committee also went through the same problem just to be able to begin operations here.

Adam Marlatt, president of Global Dirt, and Mark Jackson, a member of the Rapid Response Team of ARC, arrived Monday in Manila. But they were stranded for four days in the capital while coordinating the deployment of their resources by the government.

They were finally given a go-signal to move in, landing in Tacloban on Thursday.

The US-based Global Dirt is involved in search and rescue and coordinating international relief efforts. It determines what the problems are and provides this crucial post-disaster assessment to aid and rescue workers all over the world to guide their operational plans.

Marlatt and Jackson noted that the "pipeline is being clogged" by lack of effective coordination between the government and aid or disaster response groups.

Marlatt saw "choke points" that made it "difficult for aid to move into these areas."

"I've responded to many disasters is as many continents but this is the first time that the world has responded in this level," said Jackson, noting the avalanche of aid coming into the country this week. It surpassed what they saw in the United States during Hurricane Sandy in the New York are Katrina in Louisiana.

He cited the USS George aircraft carrier that arrived on Leyte Gulf on Wednesday.

Without help from government, Global Dirt found an ally in Representative Martin Romualdez, who then quickly offered the RTR Hospital in Tacloban as its hub of operation.

The group has already deployed aerial drones for the imaging and mapping of devastated areas in Leyte and Samar.

"So with what little information we have, we decided to employ private support and are now expanding and deploying additional resources. We're bringing in additional aid and doctors, as well as coordination with other (groups)," said Marlatt.

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