21 November 2013

Typhoon Haiyan Diary: Rising from the rubble

by Nonoy Fajardo, Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Specialist, UNICEF Philippines

I arrived in Tacloban two days after Typhoon Yolanda hit the city to do initial assessment together with a UN assessment team. Despite all the destruction and sadness around us, I saw some ray of hope.

A disaster response group from the province of Albay was already in Tacloban when I arrived. Team Albay not only brought much-needed manpower and equipment, including a water filtration machine and tanker, but they also brought their own food, fuel and security. They distributed safe water, provided medical services, cleaned debris and even helped regional agencies organise the clusters.

 This is how disaster response should be organised in the Philippines, given its decentralised and compartmentalised system: one local government helping another local government in times of need.

It was almost unpardonable for me to let bodies rot on the streets for days. More than the health hazards (it is actually negligible as long as people do not touch them), it is the sight of decomposing bodies that is more aggravating for people. Seeing corpses in their surroundings does not help people to recover psychologically because it highlights their misery and projects hopelessness.

Recovery, forensics and burial of the dead are part of the first response in any disaster.

There has been almost a general condemnation of the looting that was reported. I don't take that view. What is considered a crime by many is a matter of survival for starving families who have not received any food aid. The looting was driven by desperation and the lack of security on the ground. People were fending for themselves and took matters into their hands.

I saw some of the looted items like infant formula being sold by the roadside, but I also saw people sharing food items that they collected with their neighbours. Instead of fighting over the remaining fuel supply, people tapped into the pumps of wrecked gasoline stations, formed long queues and distributed it by themselves in an orderly manner.

On day five of the emergency – two days after I arrived – some debris clearing and cadaver collection were finally being done in the city. Once the government started clearing the streets, people followed suit in cleaning their homes and yards. The task is overwhelming, but people just needed that spark to get them going.

Clearing the streets of debris, garbage and corpses is not only essential to be able to move people and relief goods, but it is also important for children. Streets also serve as playgrounds for them and venues for interaction among the community.

The total devastation in Tacloban is not unique. Town after town along the typhoon's path were left with almost nothing. I passed by Palo, Santa Fe and Alangalang. Casualty was also heavy in these areas, but what struck me is that people have already started bouncing back and rebuilding their lives despite the destruction around them. People were drying rice grain on the streets. Children were laughing and playing. 

Filipinos do not openly demonstrate their nationalism by putting up flags in their homes. Flags are just displayed in public buildings. But here in these devastated places, I saw a number of Philippine flags raised in some houses. High and proud, these flags are a symbol of their hope and determination, that the world’s strongest typhoon was no match to the indomitable Filipino spirit.

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