As a growing contingent of Canadian military personnel lands in the Philippines, it finds itself called on to relieve a disaster whose worst impact is hundreds of kilometres away.
The ferocious winds and fast-rising waters of Haiyan killed nearly 4,500 people in the Philippines, according to the United Nations. The deaths, and the worst of the devastation, were concentrated in a cluster of central islands like Samar and Leyte, where parts of Tacloban City were turned into rubble fields. The United States, Britain, Australia and even Malaysia have come to Tacloban to deliver aid. The Canadian response has been directed to Roxas City on Panay Island, some 250 kilometres to the west.
The Canadian team, which is expected to swell to 300 or 350 in coming days, has begun its work in an area where farmers are still working rice paddies, gasoline is still flowing, a dentist office shows an open sign – and a lady’s formal wear shop is still selling dresses.
The Canadians have come to this spot at the request of the Philippines, the Canadian government has said. But they have come against a backdrop of factors that have coloured the relief response: accusations of political considerations by the Philippines government on where it sends people, and a Canadian government quick to broadcast each detail of its response, with a large Filipino-Canadian community at home paying keen attention to each move. Whatever the reason, Canada finds itself far from the eye of the storm damage in the Philippines.
The Canadian Disaster Assistance Response, or DART, team has come to a place suffering largely from destruction of property, not the devastating failure of social function seen in other places. In some areas around Roxas City, too, it’s hard to distinguish the ravages of the storm from the ravages of generational poverty that is, for many here, the more painful crisis.
On Saturday, for example, a small military medical team came to Dulangan Elementary School, where some 300 people are jammed 25 to a classroom at an evacuation centre that has become a kind of refugee camp to families whose houses have, as they say, been “broken” by the storm.
But Rea Bernandez has come to Dulangan not because she is a typhoon refugee, but because she lives nearby and wants “to see a doctor, because it’s free.” She brought her children. “We came here because maybe they give vitamins,” she said. Aid groups in the area have begun discussing the provision of cash or vouchers to people whose greatest needs are rebuilding houses and building new boats, so they can reestablish livelihoods.
At the school, the medical team compiles a list of the people it sees. Their ailments include fever, coughs and one report of vomiting. One is told to gargle saltwater. But after an hour, the list of “treatment received,” suggests the need is not great. Most of the entries state there is “no problem.” After examining one girl, Master Cpl. Stephan Fortin declares her sound: “no swelling, no fever, she’s good. She’s perfect.”
When Action Contre La Faim, which has spent two decades in the region, came after the typhoon, it checked to see whether malnutrition had increased. “Not really,” was the conclusion of Charlotte Schneider, who is with ACF in Roxas City. Japan Heart, a medical group with doctors and nurses, visited a nearby island of 980 people, where one had died. But the island’s evacuation efforts had been so effective few were injured. The need “was not that great,” said James Benares, a Filipino working with the team. “They just need psycho-social attention. Health-wise, they are in a good situation.”
Team Heart is considering leaving Roxas City. “We’ve done some assessments, and the need was not for us,” Mr. Benares said.
This is without doubt a storm-stricken region. Metal roofs on warehouses and recreational facilities have been peeled back and crumpled. Power lines lie on the ground over a huge area. Bamboo houses lean over on mad angles. On Panay Island, the military estimates the number of people affected at 2.4 million; 197 are dead, 19 are missing and 615 injured. In Capiz, the province where Roxas City is located, the local government says 98,438 houses have been destroyed. Aid workers say there are shortages of both food and water.
The fear of a painful future brings sobs to Maria Vic, who is surrounded by her six children at the elementary school as she describes the situation for a family that drew its life from the sea. “We have no boat, no nets, no house,” she cries.
For the Canadian military, the ability to respond to needs has been further hampered by logistical issues. On Sunday, a crew of soldiers and army engineers went out to help Filipino electrical workers. A massive post-typhoon power outage is among the most serious issues facing Panay. But when the group found a downed tree to remove, they had only handsaws – chainsaws had not yet arrived – and no proper safety equipment. One soldier shimmied up a healthy tree to saw the top off a fallen tree that had toppled onto it. To keep him safe, one of the Filipinos tossed up a harness. It took 13 soldiers 40 minutes to remove the tree.
DART team leadership is urging patience. Equipment is still coming, and the arrival of four boats and a half-dozen helicopters will help reach islands and other remote areas where the need is greatest. Coming days will see the installation of water purification equipment, which is particularly important in poor areas, since supplies of bottled water are thin – and where they are available, the price has doubled. More engineering crews can also help rebuild schools and maintain generators the storm might have damaged.
“As our capability arrives and we can get to more difficult places, we’ll be having a correspondingly greater effect on population,” said Lt-Col Walter Taylor, DART’s commanding officer. Besides, he said, DART isn’t even designed for an initial response. It’s designed to arrive in the period seven to 30 days after a disaster, to avoid follow-on problems, like the spread of infectious diseases, that can be every bit as deadly.
Around Roxas City, “it may not look bad now, but the conditions are ripe for it to become bad if nobody helps them within the next immediate future,” he said.
There is little doubt that the Canadians in uniform have come to do whatever they can. When the tree finally comes down, cheers erupt and the group moves on down the road, looking for more problems to fix.
With a report from Josh Wingrove in Ottawa