Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Philippines President Benigno Aquino III on Friday expressed elation at the outpouring of support from local government, international sources and the private sector, as he assured thousands of families displaced by floods in Metro Manila, central and southern Luzon of a "permanent solution" to their woes.
"If we have tragedies like this, there are many of our countrymen who go out of their way to help even without us asking for it," Mr. Aquino said, as he thanked Isabela Vice Gov. Rodolfo Albano III for donating at least 1,000 cavans of rice and Albay Gov. Joey Salceda for dispatching 35 rescue personnel to areas devastated by days of monsoon rain.
Speaking before evacuees at Sta. Lucia High School in Capas town, Tarlac province, the President also expressed his gratitude to San Miguel Corp. and Yokohama for their donations, and cited Shell and Petron for suspending increase in the prices of their oil products in areas affected by the floods.
"The good news is that while crude prices in the world market are rising, companies like Shell and Petron volunteered, I repeat, volunteered, to delay any scheduled increase in the prices of their products to commiserate with our countrymen," he said.
Mr. Aquino, who flew to Tarlac with some Cabinet secretaries by helicopter, assured the 105 evacuee families in Barangay Sta. Lucia that the government has adequate funds to address emergencies like this.
"We're looking for permanent solutions. The Balog-Balog Dam is designed for irrigation and flood control, too. Hopefully, within two weeks the plan will be presented to us so that the process can be started, and eventually it will be built and floods can be mitigated," he said.
He said the construction of the 15-billion-peso (US$357 million) mega dam in Tarlac would be under way in July this year. Expected to be operational by 2016, the dam will be 113.5 meters high from the riverbed to the crest and will have a water storage capacity of 625 million cubic meters, irrigation officials said.
The presidential team also motored to the Apulid evacuation center in Paniqui, Tarlac, after heavy rains forced their helicopters to land at the Luisita exit of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway in Paniqui at around 9 a.m. on Friday.
Donors to the country's relief program included the Australian government, which provided 88 million pesos worth of food and emergency supplies to the Philippine Red Cross and the World Food Programme.
The amount will cover the purchase of 1,000 tons of rice and emergency kits containing medical supplies, mosquito nets and water containers.
The Australian government followed other international agencies that have pledged help for flood victims, including the United States. The US Embassy has provided $100,000 in aid for flood relief.
The US Embassy's Chancery compound on Roxas Boulevard reopened on Friday following three days of closure due to heavy rains and flooding.
Bulk purchasing centers
The government has asked supermarkets and distributors to put up bulk purchasing centers in times of calamity to serve relief supply buyers and ease fears of shortages among retail buyers.
Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo said price monitoring on Thursday found that regular consumers may have mistaken for hoarding the bulk buying of goods for relief operations, which caused them to be concerned about "panic buying." Having bulk purchasing centers in supermarkets would ease consumers' concerns and make in-store traffic more manageable, he told reporters.
A website listing distributors and manufacturers' information would also aid bulk buyers of relief supplies, Domingo said.
Trade Undersecretary Zenaida Maglaya said the website may be ready in two weeks and a command center may also be prepared in anticipation of future natural disasters.
Domingo said prices and supply of goods have remained generally stable, except for fish and vegetable, amid the implementation of price control in areas under the state of calamity.
Areas declared under state of calamity are the cities of Marikina, Malabon, Manila, Navotas, Valenzuela, Muntinlupa, San Juan, Pasig, Pasay, Caloocan and Pateros in the National Capital Region; the provinces of Bataan, Pampanga, Zambales and Bulacan in Central Luzon; Laguna province, the towns of San Mateo, Tanay, Cainta, Rodriguez and Jala Jala in Rizal province in Calabarzon; the towns of Culion, El Nido and Linacapan in Palawan province and the town of Abra de Ilog in Occidental Mindoro in Mimaropa, and Pangasinan province in Ilocos Region.
The trade official also warned that retailers who would violate the price freeze would be fined P1,000 to P1 million, while their goods may be confiscated.
Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon explained that the 420,000 sacks of white Indian rice and 45,000 bags of Vietnam rice illegally brought into the country through the Subic Bay Freeport Zone could only be donated to the government's relief efforts after the litigation process.
Biazon was responding to Vice President Jejomar Binay's earlier suggestion that the rice seized by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) may be distributed to those affected by the heavy rains. Binay specifically cited the recently seized bags of illegally imported rice from India and Vietnam.
"I appreciate Vice President Binay's concern for the victims since my constituents are also among them. But these sacks of rice are the subject of litigation. The shipper is claiming that rice. It's still under appeal," Biazon said.
But he added that the BOC had already conducted an inventory of confiscated goods that had undergone the appropriate process and procedures and were now available for donation, including five containers of used clothing and some rubber boats abandoned by an importer who could not pay the required dues.
For their part, Filipino travelers can also extend help to flood victims in Metro Manila and nearby provinces when they visit the travel and tourism trade show launched on Friday in Pasay City.
"The organizing committee has decided to donate a percentage of the gate proceeds to the victims of the recent calamity," said Cesar Cruz, president of Philippine Tour Operators Association, the organizer of the trade show at SMX Convention Center. The center also became a drop-off point for donations.
On the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the travel mart, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. said the flooding may have temporarily affected tourism businesses in the capital and other affected areas, but would not dampen its current "It's More Fun in the Philippines" campaign.
'Open skies' policy
He said the incident only underscored the importance of the government's "pocket open skies" policy, which opened up some of the country's airports to foreign carriers.
"If up to now the only gateway to the Philippines is Metro Manila, the flooding would have posed a bigger problem. But that's no longer true with the policy," he noted.
The tourism chief also encouraged the public to extend help through the Department of Tourism's relief center at Clam Shell on Anda Street in Intramuros, Manila, where ready-to-eat meals, blankets, towels, toiletries, among other contributions, were being accepted.
In southern Metro Manila, private groups have also banded together to give aid to evacuation centers, including the De La Salle Santiago Zobel school in Ayala Alabang, Muntinlupa, the student council of San Beda College Alabang-School of Law, the Manresa school in BF Homes Para?aque and, according to Para?aque City Public Information Officer Nelson Lacambra, the Tambo Elementary School, Para?aque National High School, La Huerta Elementary School and Col. E. de Leon Elementary School.
Earlier, the Taguig city government advised volunteers that they can drop off donations at the Taguig City University auditorium, and at Enderun College in McKinley Hills.
The Quezon City Health Department (QCHD) said it had distributed 1 million pesos worth of medicines in at least 15 evacuation centers around the locality to prevent the spread of disease among the refugees.
QCHD head Dr. Antonietta Inumerable said they would also be monitoring several city residents who might have contracted leptospirosis by wading through floodwaters contaminated with rat urine and feces and would be giving them doxycycline tablets.
Quezon City Department of Public Order and Safety head Elmo San Diego said the number of evacuees around the city had gone down as some of them returned to their homes when the floodwaters started to recede.
San Diego said only 300 families or 1,500 people remain at the 19 evacuation centers in Barangay Bagong Silangan. At the peak of flooding in the barangay, the number of evacuees was recorded at 1,900 families. With reports from Riza T. Olchondra, Tarra Quismundo, Tina G. Santos, Jocelyn R. Uy, Jeannette I. Andrade and Jaymee T. Gamil