A crippled nation battles a tide of desperation

More than a week after what may be the most powerful recorded storm ever to hit land, the Philippines is a nation on the move, with an enormous dislocation of people fleeing crushed homes; severely wounded cities; a lack of food, electricity, phones and clean water; and spreading disease. Meanwhile, other vehicles fight the huge tide of people, trying to bring help to the worst-hit places.

“It was the most surreal homecoming,” recalled Daryl Daño as she bumped along a wreckage-strewn road on the island of Samar in a vehicle packed with survivors of the still unraveling devastation in the central Philippines.

Daño, a volunteer for the educational nonprofit group PeaceTech Inc., was one of the few civilians allowed to board the first batches of U.S. KC-130 military aircraft that arrived in the capital, Manila. She had boarded a flight bound for the hard-hit area of Tacloban to look for her elderly parents on the third day after the typhoon made landfall.

After Supertyphoon Haiyan reduced remote villages and densely populated towns to ruins, more and more people are evacuating to Cebu and Manila seeking medical care and shelter. The funnel for bringing aid relief has grown wider, an international effort that was slow to gain momentum in a region composed of thousands of islands. But nongovernmental groups working directly with isolated communities before the typhoon struck became the lifeline for thousands of people very rarely seen in the international news media.

The United Nations now estimates deaths at 4,460, with the number expected to rise because the stream of uprooted humanity could involve a good portion of the 11 million people that were affected by the disaster, creating an amount of refugee chaos usually only seen in wartime.

A World Bank report that was launched at the international climate talks in Warsaw, Poland, this morning – “Building Resilience: Integrating Climate and Disaster Risk into Development” – highlights the price of ignoring the gradual onset of climate change symptoms manifested in the impact of Haiyan. The report examined the role of sea-level rise, cyclones and droughts on development.

Loss and damages from disasters rose over the last three decades, according to the report, from an annual average of $50 billion in the 1980s to about $200 billion each year in the last decade.

“While the immediate relief effort must be front and center of our attention today, such tragic events show that the world can no longer afford to put off action to slow greenhouse emissions, and help countries prepare for a world of greater climate and disaster risks,” said Jim Yong Kim, World Bank Group president, in a statement to reporters.

Coming home to death

Daño managed to reach her elderly parents before they had to weather the next challenge of survival after the typhoon. She arrived in Tacloban and found much of her childhood home destroyed. She was greeted by the body of a neighborhood boy that had washed into what used to be their dining room. Meanwhile, another body remained unclaimed at their home’s front gate.

Sustained winds of 195 mph created a storm surge that reached up to 17 feet, a sudden rush of ocean water that flattened the coastal city of 220,000 people.

“The currents were like a whirlpool,” Daño recalled from her conversations with survivors. Neighbors helped save her parents from the tsunami-like storm surge and two days of little food and water.

Five days after roads were sufficiently clear of fallen trees and downed power lines, Daño rented a van to begin a two-day journey from Tacloban to the northern capital of Manila.

They passed people in the outskirts of the city holding out their hands, some carrying pieces of cardboard written with a call: “We need food and water.”

Long lines of people waiting for scarce seats to evacuate wrapped around the Tacloban airport. Some children wore pieces of cardboard like necklaces. Each makeshift plaque read “survivor,” followed by the child’s place of origin, a city in shock from the devastation of an unexpected storm surge that was compounded by sea-level rise across the low-lying islands.

In the neighboring island of Cebu, nearly 3,000 survivors disembarked from a Philippines naval ship, while thousands more arrived in Manila via military aircraft that shuttled between the islands, delivering aid supplies to devastated areas and transporting evacuees out of the same places from which they deployed rescue and relief.

First responders help map the way in

Yet some remote villages remained pockets of isolation, islands within the islands. There were no airstrips to safely land military aircraft carrying much-needed supplies. The USS George Washington, with its 80 aircraft aboard and 5,000 sailors, arrived Thursday, accompanied by British warships. The presence scaled up the humanitarian assistance that reached remote islands over the weekend.

Before their arrival, thousands of survivors in remote areas relied on the efforts of nongovernmental organizations.

“As a marine conservation organization, we’ve become a relief agency,” said Amanda Vincent, director of Project Seahorse and Canada research chairwoman in marine conservation at the University of British Columbia.

The marine conservation group was the first to deploy a disaster risk assessment team and aid to communities near the coast of Bohol island, areas still recovering from a magnitude-7.2 earthquake last month that left 222 dead and thousands still without homes.

The organization works directly with 35 villages or nearly 54,000 people in various islands in the central Philippines. Vincent noted how the devastated communities could further deplete fish stocks, which could harm productivity and food security in the long term.

“But that’s easy for us to say when you have hunger and desperation on the ground,” she said.

In northern Cebu, the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI), a nonprofit development group that brings education and microfinance programs to remote communities, brought relief supplies including food, water and shelter kits.

Two days after Haiyan’s landfall, an internal assessment from RAFI recognized where international aid relief, with logistics hampered by geography and another storm, will help prioritize aid.

‘A Boy Scouts night’

“The devastation in Tacloban City and Leyte has been well reported and highly sensationalized by the media,” the report stated. “It may be expected that the support of the public will be poured to Leyte. This means the support for Northern Cebu, which is as severely affected as Leyte, must also be highlighted.”

The capacity of nongovernmental organizations already present on the ground is limited, but serves as the first lifeline for thousands of people.

“There’s a stronger impetus now for ensuring climate resilient infrastructure should be considered in development,” said Evelyn Nacario-Castro, head of the resource mobilization team for the organization’s relief efforts.

Both organizations are applying for grants and appealing for donations to continue their work in the typhoon-ravaged region.

On the road out of Tacloban, Daño’s voice cracked as she recalled the grief and resilience of the survivors living beside piles of wood and corrugated metal that were once homes, schools and businesses.

“When night fell on my first day there, I saw people making bonfires,” she said. “It was like a Boy Scouts night. They were forming circles and telling stories of how they survived. At some point, they were laughing and telling jokes. They were singing.”

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