Typhoon Haiyan: Growing Concern Over Relief Efforts

Earlier this week, Typhoon Haiyan wrecked through the Philippines, leaving destruction and despair in its wake. It progressed towards Vietnam and finally made landfall in China. In the country where it caused the most havoc, the Philippines, Haiyan struck with 150-mph winds, causing surrounding water bodies to rise by 20 feet. The death count now stands at 2,344 while about 3,804 are injured and 79 lay missing. Thousands more are now displaced as houses and settlements lay submerged underwater with no electricity, phone service or easy access to aid. About 55% of the displaced population are now temporarily living in evacuation centers. These numbers are expected to rise as the areas that have been the most affected have not yet been reached and thus, have not been properly assessed.

While Typhoon Haiyan is a crisis on its own, the aftermath is something that requires immediate addressing. The survivors now have limited access to resources, which could eventually lead to a bigger and more severe humanitarian crisis. As is the case for most natural disasters, one of the first responses is to gather aid, be it in terms of food, supplies, fresh water or even medical supplies. Organizations like UNICEF and Red Cross has deployed forces to help distribute relief air while gathering donations internationally. However, while this global aid effort is gathering momentum, it seems that officials still don’t have a proper understanding of the gravity of the situation and thus could not provide an appropriate timeline as to when basic emergency needs could be met.

Valerie Amos who is the top United Nations relief coordinator, has asked for more than $300 million in emergency aid. International relief officials have expressed concern that bottlenecks might delay the proper supplies reaching the victims and survivors in a timely fashion. This is evident by how a dozen trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross that traveled from Davao to Tacloban were unable to reach their destination in time due to the speed at which Typhoon Haiyan moved.

The same trucks were then victim to a hijacking attempt by a hungry and desperate crowd, which forced the convoy to stop about 20 miles south of Tacloban. On Tuesday, it was reported that the roads were still relatively unsafe for the shipment of supplies to proceed onwards to Tacloban.

Inside Tacloban, there appears to be a significant amount of relief shipments coming in, however, there seems to be a lack of coordination. As one bus dispatcher said, “there is food, but there is no one to distribute it because they were all victims”. Food distribution is suffering as a result of lack of manpower and surging crowds. The lack of manpower becomes a more distressing issue when the ones directing the crowds at Tacloban airport were reported to not be experienced police officers but instead were young soldiers armed with M-16 assault rifles and ample ammunition.

In addition, on Wednesday, it was reported that eight people have been killed when a mass crowd of survivors stormed a government-owned rice warehouse in Alangalang to obtain food supplies. The warehouse is located in the Leyte province, an area where need and desperation run high. Security forces stood helpless as more than 100,000 sacks of rice were carried away by the crowd. Eight people were then crushed to death when one of the walls in the warehouse collapsed.

At Tacloban’s airport, the radar and the air traffic control system is down, therefore all relief planes are contacted through radio. Due to how all of the airport’s portable staircases have been destroyed by the storm, only small planes with limited capacity are able to use the airport, hence hampering the rate of relief delivery and the transporting of victims. BBC’s Jonathan Heard commented that at the fifth day of a disaster such as Typhoon Hiyan, one “would expect preparations for a scaled-up aid program at the airport [but] there are still very few signs of that here.” He also commented on how there are still corpses of victims lying uncollected by the runway.

Although Philippines is no stranger to natural disasters, it seems relatively unprepared to combat the aftermath of a catastrophe like Typhoon Haiyan. Failure to distribute relief aid supplies properly and evenly could delay the time it would take for the country and the affected towns to jump back on its feet. In addition, the lack of law and order are instead doing relatively little to prevent a situation where survivors become extremely desperate and start clamoring to obtain supplies by themselves. Uncollected corpses and new tropical storms spell out a possible outbreak of water-related diseases such as cholera and malaria.

In a country prone to typhoons, floods and heavy storms, it would be of worth for the Filipino government to invest in ways it could systematically distribute relief and proper aid to the survivors. Failure to do so could quite possibly result in a greater death toll and for the country to take up more time and more resources for it bounce back on its feet. In addition, the officials need to work out this logistical nightmare towards what is the best and most effective way of delivering the supplies to those in need. The Filipino government needs to make all of these decisions, before the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan becomes a much more serious and grave disaster than the typhoon itself.

Hon Jiun Wong

"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

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