The destruction has been described as tsunami-like with aerial pictures showing flattened fishing villages, large ships flung inland and traumatized survivors desperate for clean water, food, shelter – and any news of missing loved ones.
Typhoon Haiyan has come and gone – pounding a group of islands in the central Philippines beginning last Friday and leaving behind a trail of loss and destruction.
As night fell in the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of displaced Filipinos hoped the next day would bring speedier relief efforts and security. Parts of the country have reported looting.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino declared a national state of calamity in typhoon-affected areas.
“My appeal to you all is remaining calm, praying, co-operating with, and assisting one another are the things that will help us to rise from this calamity,” he said.
The reported death toll of 942 is expected to climb into the thousands – with one area alone, Tacloban, reportedly facing more than 10,000 dead.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) was organizing airlifts to deliver high-energy biscuits.
“We need to make sure that the humanitarian community works together with the Government of the Philippines and coordinates efforts so we can reach as many people as quickly as possible,” said WFP executive director Ertharin Cousin in a statement.
Co-ordination, information and ability to reach survivors are the key challenges.
The medical humanitarian aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, said parts of the typhoon-affected areas had been cut off from communication and that the group was operating in “a relative black hole of information.”
“To be honest, no one knows what the situation is like in these more rural and remote places, and it’s going to be some time before we have a full picture,” Natasha Reyes, MSF’s emergency co-ordinator in the Philippines, said in a statement.
“This sort of disaster is unprecedented in the Philippines. The effect is something like a massive earthquake followed by huge floods,” she added.
Like all aid agencies, World Vision is trying to increase its relief efforts and reach survivors. An air cargo of 5,000 thousand blankets and 3,000 tarpaulins arrived in the capital Manila Monday. The group has been delivering programs for 55 years in the Philippines. Canadians sponsor 15,676 children in the country.
Aaron Aspi is one of the country’s 600 World Vision staff and he spoke to the Globe and Mail from Cebu city late Monday night. He explained that storm surges 7 metres high came crashing down on coastal villages in the northern part of the island, destroying 90 per cent of structures. Here is an edited and condensed version of the interview. First, he described how most of the deaths happened:
“So many people drowned. The impact of this storm was really massive. It crashed through structures – even those structures that are sturdy enough to withstand the magnitude of the typhoon were really mercilessly brought down to ruins.
“Lots of thriving communities that were once full of life and activities and livelihood are now reduced to wasteland.”
Where were you when the storm hit landfall?
I was in another island altogether. I was supporting relief efforts of World Vision in the [October] earthquake-hit areas of Bohol [province] when the typhoon struck.
I was on the top most floor of the building and I can really feel the building shaking but it was not from the tremors on the ground but it was from the ferocious winds that were crashing on the roof. I really got scared and I can hear the heavy howling sounds and the fierce winds and rains sweeping through trees and uprooting them.
I just realized its immensity – even if it [the typhoon] was not on full blast in Bohol because it was just a signal number three and the highest storm signal that was raised was four. I was somehow feeling confident it wasn’t really that bad but when it was there I was so afraid that the roof might be blown off and I was walking around the corridors pausing for a while from time to time to relax myself as I clutched on to the railings because I might get knocked off.
It was really really scary.
What is the biggest challenge you face right now?
The biggest challenge right now is stepping up travel routes that are safe and accessible – and lots of roads right now are impassable because of huge boulders and rubble and other debris lying around.
Is the situation in Cebu city, where you are right now, relatively calm?
Right now in Cebu city the power and water supply has been restored but as you go to the outskirts and far flung areas that’s where you can really have a grasp of how the devastation is really taking a toll on the lives of those people who have lost everything that they own. Along the road children are begging for food and water and are asking for help – and that’s really heartbreaking for me.
What are the most urgent needs facing survivors?
Right now the most urgent needs are food and water and other emergency relief supplies – like sleeping mats, blankets, mosquito nets. Those kinds of things would really go a long way for those families who have lost their belongings.
Sad to say, but unfortunately in some parts of the Philippines – in Tacloban – there has been widespread looting. The municipality is now under a state of emergency because the government needs to have more power to enforce public safety and peace and order in those areas. People are growing desperate and they are resorting to lawless activity in order to survive.
You are Filipino. Do you think your government has the capacity to deal with crisis?
Right now it will take all concerted efforts – both of government and the humanitarian actors, even the civil society and volunteers, just everyone to help each other in the best way possible.
We may get tired of seeing these horrible images we see now on television and [in] photos but this would be their environment for the next couple of months. And right now we are on alert for another typhoon that is heading our way – but thankfully it is not as strong as [Typhoon] Haiyan but the torrential rains could really hamper the ongoing relief operations.
This interview has been edited and condensed.