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Aquino asserts control over typhoon relief effort
by Staff Writers
Manila (AFP) Nov 18, 2013

Philippine typhoon survivors turn cave-dwellers
Mercedes, Philippines (AFP) Nov 18, 2013 - Victims who survived the Philippines' super typhoon by huddling in a cave as a tsunami-like wave obliterated their community have now made it their home -- reduced to Stone Age conditions with nowhere else to go.

Manuel Isquierdo and his wife sought refuge in the limestone den as Haiyan -- one of the strongest storms ever recorded -- flattened the town of Mercedes on Samar island, washing away residents' livelihoods in the devastating early hours of November 8.

"It was past midnight when my wife and I decided to run up to the cave behind our house," the fisherman told AFP.

"We were just in time. Our house crumpled to the ground soon after," the 38-year-old added.

The couple were joined by two other families and spent more than six hours in the dark, damp cavern as rising storm surge waters edged dangerously closer and closer to its entrance, frightened that they would drown or be swept out to sea.

"We could hear the typhoon outside. It sounded like a bulldozer," Isquierdo said. "We were afraid of the sea, afraid that the storm surge would flood the cave."

As the winds died down and waters subsided, the families stepped out of the cave to witness unimaginable destruction -- their neighbourhood had been destroyed and they had been left with virtually nothing.

Since then, the cave has become a temporary home as Isquierdo works on rebuilding his wooden house on stilts near the Buyayawon river on Samar's Pacific coast.

The cave hosts the little possessions the Isquierdos and others were able to salvage from the wreckage. A clothes line blocks the entrance and remnants of a wood fire lie in the corner.

Japan sends first major deployment of relief troops to Philippines
Tokyo (AFP) Nov 18, 2013 - Japan on Monday dispatched two warships, carrying some 650 troops, to the typhoon-ravaged Philippines in the first major contingent of the military's largest overseas aid deployment.

The two vessels, also carrying six helicopters, left the western port of Kure and are scheduled to arrive in the Philippines on Friday, said a defence ministry spokesman.

He added that Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are sending a total of 10 planes Monday to the disaster-struck nation -- seven C-130 transport planes, two KC-767 tanker planes and one U-4 multi-purpose support aircraft.

The troops' duties will include providing medical support and transporting relief goods.

An advance team of about 50 SDF personnel was sent last week while the total troop deployment was expected to rise to almost 1,200 in all.

But the timeline for sending the remainder of the troops was not immediately clear.

It is the first time Japanese troops have been active in Leyte -- an area hit hard by Super Typhoon Haiyan -- since the island turned into one of the biggest battlegrounds of World War II when US forces counter-invaded in 1944.

The 1,180-strong contingent will be the largest single relief operation team ever sent abroad by Japan's defence forces.

Previous overseas missions by the SDF, which adheres to the country's post-war pacifist constitution, have usually numbered in the hundreds.

The previous record was 925 personnel sent in 2005 to Sumatra after the Indonesian island was ravaged by a massive earthquake-triggered tsunami.

Other deployments have included UN peace-keeping missions in Cambodia and East Timor as well as logistical activities in Iraq and naval refuelling operations in the Indian Ocean to back the US military in Afghanistan.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino 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 was always going to be a major test, but the unprecedented ferocity of the storm was overwhelming and exacerbated by a five-metre (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 criticised 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 programme 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 centres.

"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."

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 polarised," 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.


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