6 December 2013 | by Nick Guttmann
A desolate hillside of flattened coconut palms vividly depicts the scale of the challenge facing the Philippines as islanders hit by Typhoon Haiyan now confront their future.
Only the strongest buildings survived the 200 mph winds, while this particular plantation on Samar island didn’t stand a chance.
Where once a thriving business stood yielding four crops a year for coconut oil, today there is nothing, and won’t be for some time. New trees take 5-7 years to mature.
Unimaginable scale of devastation
'As though an earthquake, tsunami and typhoon had all been rolled into one.'
The 20 years I have spent working in different humanitarian crises was scant preparation for the scenes I witnessed while overseeing Christian Aid’s response to Typhoon Haiyan. It was as though an earthquake, tsunami and typhoon had all been rolled into one, such was the scale of the devastation.
Over two weeks after the disaster, bodies were still being recovered from the debris left by a combination of winds of a velocity unprecedented in recent times, and a major sea storm surge.
Much has already been written about the resilience of the people of the Philippines living in an area prone to earthquakes, floods, and frequent typhoons.
As well as resilience, however, this time a remarkable solidarity was also on display with much of the aid that initially reached badly-hit communities being donated and delivered by people from elsewhere on the islands.
It was clear too that a remarkably high level of organisation by the Filipino authorities had played a significant role in reducing the death count.
Evacuation procedures were implemented and shown to work – but some older islanders had proved reluctant to leave their homes.
Part of the reason was an understandable desire to safeguard their property. But younger Filipinos also spoke of the difficulty they had in persuading older veterans of countless extreme weather events that Haiyan was shaping up to be something rather different.
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'A tidal wave 15 metres high'
In one crucial respect, the authorities, too, were slow in getting across the uniquely dangerous nature of Haiyan.
‘We were told to expect a storm surge. But nobody told us it would be a tidal wave 15 metres high,’ said one man, who found himself battling huge waves thick with debris in pitch darkness as he struggled to get his four-year-old niece to safety.
The typhoon had struck at night. As part of their emergency drill, the authorities had switched off the power in areas they believed would be affected.
I suspect there was official reluctance to use the term tsunami, as technically a tsunami is caused by an earthquake. But that is what hit coastal communities in all but name, and hopefully the authorities anywhere facing such a threat in future will be more explicit.
Aid reached worst-hit communities within days.
Helping the relief effort this time around was the speed with which local municipalities along with our partner organisations were able to produce statistics about the number of people affected, and the number of houses damaged.
This meant that aid could be quickly directed to areas that were worst hit. Just days into the disaster, almost every person we spoke to had received something, even if it was only a day or two ration of rice. This I believe was a key factor in reducing the security risk in communities where literally nothing was left standing.
Emergency response fund
The ability of the municipalities so to respond was due in no small part to the work of civil society organisations in the Philippines, including Christian Aid partners, that had campaigned for a law ensuring that 5% of the municipal budget had to be set aside for emergency response and preparing communities for such disasters.
Within that 5%, 30% had to be set aside for providing relief locally in the event of a natural disaster.
One month on
Food and cash payments
With the relief effort now in its fourth week, it’s clear to me that emergency food supplies will still be needed for some time in communities where local markets have been destroyed. The level of destruction inland was one key distinguishing factor from the tsunami of 2004 which largely hit coastal areas.
Elsewhere, Christian Aid, which hopes in total to reach more than 75,000 with its aid effort, will switch to cash payments to help kick start local economies and give beneficiaries greater autonomy in meeting immediate needs.
Rebuilding with care
The big question now is how those communities that were destroyed will be built back stronger. The scale is huge, and the logistics unbelievably difficult. The ferries that ply their way between islands can take a handful of large trucks at a time, while only small motor boats can get to some of the more remote islands.
The reconstruction that does get underway must be done in such a way that accepts the inevitability that there will be typhoons in the future, possibly with a similar destructive power as Haiyan.
Materials must be chosen with care, and the natural topography and vegetation of the islands used to full advantage to screen buildings from the sea. And the interests of the poor and marginalised must be central to the process of planning the reconstruction. They must have a voice from the outset.
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Read our blog about the ‘hidden’ danger often neglected during emergencies - sexual exploitation and violence
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