The Ob­ses­sion of Rob­bie An­to­nio

Esquire (Philippines) - - THIS WAY IN -

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.

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