A long road to recovery for the people of the Philippines

FILIPINOS are used to a seemingly never-ending pattern of storms, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions, but typhoon Haiyan is now officially one of the deadliest disasters to strike the country.

Some even suggest the clean-up from the 200mph typhoon will be the Philippines’ biggest reconstruction job since the Second World War.

More than 13m people were affected including 5.4m children, according to the UN. There’s a discussion emerging though that we as a global community are now all responsible for adverse weather related disasters. Furthermore, an uncoordinated government response and aid effort on the Pacific islands has clearly inhibited relief efforts.

Blame is being flung at local government for inadequate disaster prevention measures as well as poor management of the relief.

But can anyone be blamed for the massive destruction and why is the recovery process so slow?

One thing is for sure, the people of the Philippine’s are resilient. Villages I saw demolished were also host to men clambering onto broken roofs with hammers and youngsters nailing up temporary shelters.

Oddly structured shelters are popping up beside emergency aid tents and next to collapsed family homes. Survivors make do with what little they have. In one town, a makeshift basketball net and court was set up close to a shallow grave. Life must go on.

Anyone who has worked with a nurse from the Philippines in Ireland — where there are at least 8,000 in the profession — can also attest to their hard work as a people.

The worst damage was done to Tacloban — a city with stretches of one-room shacks running along the bay and a population of 220,00 — which now looks like it was bombed.

But the courage to go on is instilled in survivors. It was in the mother- of-15 I met in a rubbish-filled sports arena in Tacloban, where rotting bodies lay for days and where the 48-year-old and her children could spend months scraping by as refugees. It was in the two teenage sisters I came across as they scrambled among the rubble in the same destroyed city for their parents’ remains.

Affected communities and the country’s media are highly critical of their government, both local and central, for failing to meet the needs of victims and for not being prepared for the super typhoon. It is now emerging that communities were also not clear what “storm surge” meant, when a warning was issued, and that emergency preparations were only made for a small amount of damage.

In flattened cities and towns, there are few workers to remove rubble, restore water or electricity services and hospital or health centre staff have abandoned posts. Extensive damage to roads and communication networks is not being fixed and has delayed relief efforts. Heavy rainfall and continued power outage in areas, coupled with a reported deterioration in security has also made the task even more challenging, particularly in Tacloban where an 8pm night curfew is imposed. There has been looting, the ambushing of aid vehicles on inter- city routes and in some quarters among the six provinces hit by the storm, there is a rising fear about the outbreak of disease.

Swirling myths or rumours, such as that fish were ‘contaminated’ from marine life eating human remains or that there have been scores of sexual attacks on women every night, also cause concern. Even police who told me about rapes could not, when asked, say where and when sexual assaults took place. “I just heard it,” admitted one officer guarding an evacuation camp. Of course, this does not mean to say the attacks never took place. But medical NGOs have not reported encountering such victims.

It’s clear now that the loss of life and the destruction could have been prevented if more prompt and definitive action had been taken by the government. This was one of the strongest recorded tropical cyclones in the world. First landfall was at Guiuan on Samar island in the east followed by six other landfalls on other central Philippine islands throughout the early morning of Nov 8.

Many citizens in coastal areas only went to evacuate from homes in the final hours or even minutes when the storm surge was raging. The threat was not taken seriously. Families also wanted to protect properties.

The more vulnerable, such as the elderly, pregnant women, and large families, had already left for secure evacuation centres.

The government should have been prepared given the stern warning from PAGASA, the country’s meteorological and atmospheric service, and made it clear how severe the storm would be. Benigno Aquino, the president, has admitted that the country’s relief system collapsed in the aftermath of the typhoon. Then again, it was the six metre tsunami-like waves that were the surprise that nobody saw coming and that most of the victims died from by drowning.

But risk reduction management was also poor and communities were ill-prepared in the Philippines. Houses in coastal areas are modestly constructed either of light wood, bamboo and lose corrugated iron. Badly built concrete walls in many cases fell on and crushed inhabitants, families told me. So-called storm proof shelters also succumbed to the extreme winds and in some cases, the giant waves. Therefore, it was not only local authorities who were ill prepared but also communities themselves.

Then there has been the chaos added to by the throngs of international aid workers arriving in the Philippines, a steady stream of which even continues two weeks after the typhoon. Over the weekend, 1,000 volunteers from Japan arrived by ship off the shores of Tacloban, the worst hit city in the archipelago.

There are co-ordination problems between aid agencies and the government. Relief workers can be seen sitting in offices all day. Some never go into the field and instead hop continuously between ‘evaluation’ and ‘cluster’ meetings. In affected regions, an NGO team tends to precede another and many on the ground vie for territory, storage space, drivers, rentable homes, cargo space, and airline and ferry tickets.

Even Irish NGOs will privately admit they have chosen areas away from the epicentre to ease the logistics of getting aid in and out of communities. “Many of the big ones [agencies] have already settled in the worst-hit areas with immediate needs so we will focus on the long term,” one senior Irish relief worker said.

In the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, there was a congestion of the transportation networks generated by this humanitarian ‘tsunami’ of aid workers. Even the heads of Concern, Goal and Unicef Ireland were unable to get inside the typhoon-ravaged Tacloban for a week.

Then of course, there’s the logistics of getting the aid in. In many cases, Irish supplies are stored in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and are pre-ordered. But what is distributed, how, and to whom, are the key issues and often add to delays.

NGOs battle a wide range of health and structural challenges. Some focus on mental trauma while others go for prevention against disease. But by far the biggest demand in nine out of 10 cases on the ground where I visited was the desire for materials to rebuild houses. This will be the key demand from survivors for months to come.

Economists suggest a typhoon like Haiyan could reduce the Philippines’ GDP by 5%. There will be greater urbanisation with rural dwellers migrating to cities. Coastal and rural lands will also become abandoned. Clearly, there will be longer-term impacts from Haiyan. Rebuilding the central islands will take more than food supplies and tarpaulin, not that they are throw away items. It will involve changing the livelihoods of tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. Crop systems and livelihoods have been destroyed for several years, including rice growing, coconut tree plantations, sugar cane processing, and fishing industries.

The Philippines annually faces up to 20 tropical storms but Haiyan will take years to overcome. Whole neighbourhoods have fled, migrated by boat or military planes to other cities such as Cebu and Manilla. They may never return. As one aid worker recalled, what’s the point of hanging around in the middle of Hiroshima. And in places, that is exactly what the landscape resembles. Lavish homes — once bought by returning rich Filipino people — lie smashed up on village hills like broken doll’s houses. Across the islands, billions of pesos worth of property damage was caused.

Irish people will understand the losses. For years we as a nation held strong religious beliefs and relied on our fishing industry as well as tourism. The same applies to the Philippines.

A population over three times the size of Ireland’s has been directly affected by Haiyan. If anything, this natural disaster, which has drawn in relief from around the world, should focus minds internationally on global warming and what role we all play in addressing the issue. The climate talks in Poland this month, which collapsed in disagreement, were a reminder that everyone is involved.

In the meantime, mass graves in the Philippines continue to fill with Haiyan’s victims, surviving families are fleeing for safer shores and a massive clean-up involving military from several countries and hundreds of relief groups is only beginning on the devastated islands.


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