The Obsession of Robbie Antonio
The Antonio scion is about to deliver the Philippines’ first unicorn.
OURS IS A VULNERABLE PLACE IN THE WORLD. On average, the Philippines is visited by 22 to 26 typhoons every year, and is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire—a hotspot for volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. A 2015 study by the United Nations has ranked us third in a list of countries that are most exposed to natural disasters, after only Vanuatu and Tonga, which necessarily makes us the most naturally-imperiled country in Asia. Not a year goes by that we don’t expect some form of elemental calamity or another.
The risks that come with climate change are no kinder to us in this regard: In an assessment of our vulnerability to the effects of global climate change, European think tank Germanwatch puts the Philippines fifth on their Long-Term Climate Risk Index of 10 countries that have been most affected by extreme weather events from 1996 to 2015. And to drive the point home—that climate change is only making us more and more vulnerable to catastrophe—The International Journal of Climatology has found that the number of extreme tropical cyclones that affect the Philippines every year has increased since 1951.
So because we’ve had to deal with natural disasters in our history, we’re no strangers to the gravity of their consequences. According to our government’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan, annual direct damages by natural disasters from 1990 to 2006 amounted to an average of 0.5 percent of our annual GDP at the time, or about P20 billion every year. The same also mentioned that in 2009, because of Ondoy and Pepeng, that number rose to 2.7 percent.
And that says nothing yet of the human cost: How many have lost their lives, loved ones, and homes to storms or earthquakes or floods or landslides?
But we don’t really need to look that far back to realize just how bad we have it. Our vulnerability was never more starkly evident than in November 2013, when we were hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda: one of the most intense tropical cyclones in recorded history, and the deadliest Philippine typhoon in modern meteorological records. Yolanda cost us the lives of at least 6,300 people, displacing around four million others, and billing us nearly P100 billion in damages. And while no other natural disaster has been nearly as damaging since, Yolanda left a scar that we can still see and feel today.
For the Philippine Red Cross, that scar takes the form of the hindrances to their swift response. In the wake of Yolanda, many roads, airports, and seaports in Eastern Visayas were rendered inaccessible, making it especially difficult for both the government and for humanitarian organizations to relieve the hardest-hit areas. Their trucks and facilities had to line up for days just to be accommodated in seaports and sea vessels, costing precious time, and likely, the very lives of many people. So to ensure that it would never happen again— and knowing just how easily it could, considering the worsening climate— the PRC sought a solution. What they found was a ship.
The M/V Amazing Grace, as it’s now called, was once an American military prototype ship developed by the U.S. Navy as a landing craft that could not only transport troops and cargo, but also equipment and vehicles. It can hold up to 120 passengers and 20 vehicles, with a total freight capacity of 35 tons, and can haul itself directly to shore and land in as shallow as four feet of water. Its main deck can then be lowered to easily offload any type of cargo. It’s a very agile, very versatile type of military vessel that, to put it succinctly, can bring a lot of important stuff in and out of hard-to-reach places with haste, which is precisely what we needed in the wake of Yolanda. That’s why the PRC acquired it, and now intends to use it as an ambulance and disaster response ship, with the main functions of relief supply transport, medical facility deployment, sea rescue and mass evacuation, humanitarian logistics, and humanitarian education and training.
It did, however, take an arduous process to get here. Before it was the M/V Amazing Grace, the ship was named the M/V Susitna, and was docked in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in Alaska. It was constructed in 2010, by request of the U.S. Office of Naval Research, which had supposedly invested a large sum into its development. But the Susitna was never entered it into military service, so it spent most of its early life on standby, costing American taxpayers millions in maintenance. At the time, maritime and offshore website gCaptain.com even called it the “World’s Most Ridiculous Ship,” for its high cost (a rumored $80 million to design and build it) and seeming lack of purpose. They obviously didn’t see what the PRC saw in it.
After the Susitna was put up for sale, it caught the eye of PRC Chairman Richard Gordon, who by then had decided that he needed a ship to ensure disaster relief would never be as paralyzed as it was after Yolanda. “I kept looking for ships in Japan, I kept looking for money,” he recalls. “Then I saw this ship.” As it happened, the Susitna’s unique features were so uncannily suited to what the PRC needed: a vessel that could carry relief goods, ambulances, medical facilities, water filtration systems, and payloaders wherever they are needed. So with the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Gordon pulled the trigger. “I lobbied for it, and I bargained for it,” he says, until he eventually acquired it for only $1.75 million—a mere fraction of what it was supposed to go for. Though, Gordon continues, “It even cost us more to bring it here than to buy it.
The Susitna finally arrived in the Philippines last December, in time for the PRC’s 70th anniversary in 2017. It was commissioned last May and christened as the M/V Amazing Grace by President Rodrigo Duterte himself, who declared, “May this ship serve as a concrete reminder to all of us that above all we must prioritize the safety, the well-being and the welfare of our people.” The Amazing Grace has come to us at a price, no doubt. Beyond the ship’s price tag and all the expenses of bringing it to the Philippines, the PRC also faces the maintenance costs that come with it; not to mention the cost of fuel when the time comes to put it in action: up to P2.4 million for a roundtrip rescue mission from Manila to as far as Davao. “The boat is horrendously expensive,” Gordon acknowledges. “Everybody’s going to say [that] about it. ‘Why are you doing that? It’s too expensive.’” To that, he would reply without hesitation: “Because it’s got to be done. I will have to raise a lot of money for it, but then, I can save a lot more lives with it.”
THE AMAZING GRACE is a very agile, very versatile type of military vessel that, to put it succinctly, CAN BRING A LOT OF IMPORTANT STUFF IN AND OUT OF HARD-TO-REACH PLACES with haste, whichis precisely what we needed in the wake of Yolanda.
Red Cross volunteers run a demo drill of their bucket brigade, loading relief goods into a truck that can be carried by the Philippine Red Cross’ new ship.