Typhoon Haiyan: Philippines struggles to help desperate victims

Keith Bradsher — Times of India NYT New Service Nov 11, 2013

An aerial view showing ships washed ashore after Typhoon Haiyan hit the province of Leyte. Click to enlarge

Three days after one of the most powerful storms ever to buffet the Philippines, the scale of the devastation and the desperation of the survivors were slowly coming into view.

The living told stories of the dead or dying – the people swept away in a torrent of seawater, the corpses strewn among the wreckage. Photos from the hard-hit city of Tacloban showed vast stretches of land swept clean of homes, and reports emerged of people who were desperate for food and water raiding aid convoys and stripping the stores that were left standing.

As Monday dawned, it became increasingly clear that typhoon Haiyan had ravaged cities, towns and fishing villages when it played a deadly form of hopscotch across the islands of the central Philippines on Friday. By some estimates, at least 10,000 people may have died in Tacloban alone, and with phone service out across stretches of the far-flung archipelago, it was difficult to know if the storm was as deadly in more remote areas.

Barreling across palm-fringed beaches and plowing into frail homes with a force that by some estimates approached that of a tornado, Haiyan delivered a crippling blow to this country’s midsection. The culprit increasingly appeared to be a storm surge that was driven by those winds, which were believed to be among the strongest ever recorded in the Philippines, lifting a wall of water onto the land as they struck. By some accounts, the winds reached 190 miles an hour.

“We are seeing a lot of dead throughout the province,” said Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan Jr., spokesman for the Philippine armed forces. “I have been in the service for 32 years and I have been involved with a lot of calamities. I don’t have words to describe what our ground commanders are seeing in the field.”

As aid crews struggled to reach ravaged areas, the storm appeared to lay bare some of the perennial woes of the Philippines. The country’s roads and airports, long starved of money by corrupt and incompetent governments, are some of the worst in Southeast Asia and often make travelling long distances a trial. On Monday, clogged with debris from splintered buildings and shattered trees, the roads in the storm’s path were worse, slowing rescue teams.

Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Philippines Red Cross, said that a Red Cross aid convoy to Tacloban had to turn back on Sunday after it stopped at a collapsed bridge and was nearly hijacked by a crowd of hungry people. “There is very little food going in, and what food there was, was captured” by the crowd, Gordon said in a telephone interview on Monday morning.

The storm posed new challenges for President Benigno S. Aquino III, who just two months ago struggled to wrest back a major city in the south from insurgents. Aquino has won plaudits at home and abroad for his fight against corruption during his three and a half years in office, leading to increased foreign investment and an impressive growth rate. But he must still contend with Muslim separatists in the south and with provinces that have long been the domains of regional strongmen, resistant to government control.

Now add to that list a storm that looks to be one of the country’s worst disasters, at a time when emergency funds have been depleted by a series of other calamities, most notably an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 that struck the middle of the country four weeks ago. On Monday, after the reports of widespread raiding of stores and robberies and rising fears of a breakdown of law and order, the government said it was flying more police officers to the region.

Although deadly storms are not unusual in the Philippines, typhoon Haiyan appears to stand apart, both in the ferocity of its winds, which some described as sounding like a freight train, and in its type of destruction. Most deaths from typhoons in the Philippines are caused by mudslides and rivers flooding from heavy rains.

So when Haiyan sped across the islands on Friday, some officials and weather experts in the Philippines thought they had witnessed something of a miracle. The storm that lit up social media for days with dire warnings was thought to have mostly spared the islands because it did not linger long enough to dump a deluge of rain.

What they did not factor into their hopeful assessments was a storm surge that some reports said reached 13 feet in Tacloban, and which left a trail of destruction that in some ways mirrored the aftermath of tsunamis. One photo of a merchant ship left stranded on land resembled images from Japan in 2011, when an earthquake flung a wall of water onto its northeastern shore.

While it was unclear if the power of the storm was tied to climate change, the surge may serve as another reminder to low-lying cities of the need to prepare for the worst.

President Aquino had urged residents to leave low-lying areas, but he did not order an evacuation. On Sunday, he toured some stricken areas and declared a “state of calamity,” a first step in the release of emergency money from the government.

As the president arrived in Tacloban to meet with victims of the storm and to coordinate rescue and cleanup efforts, his defense secretary, Voltaire Gazmin, described the chaos in the city of 220,000.

“There is no power, no water, nothing,” Mr. Gazmin said. “People are desperate.”

Lynette Lim, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, weathered the storm in a local government office in Tacloban before leaving the city on a military aircraft Sunday morning. She said that even schools, gymnasiums and other sites that the local government had designated as evacuation centers had failed to hold up against the powerful winds.

“The roofs had been ripped off, the windows had shattered, and sometimes the ceilings had caved in,” Ms. Lim said in a telephone interview from Manila.

Poor neighbourhood fared especially badly, with virtually no structures left standing except for a few government buildings. With no police officers in sight on Sunday morning, Lim said, people had begun grabbing food and other items off pharmacy and grocery store shelves.

Video from Tacloban on ABS-CBN television showed scores of people entering stores and stuffing suitcases and bags with clothing and housewares. One photo showed a man holding a gun protecting his store.

News reports from Tacloban told of how officials were unable to get an accurate death count because law enforcement and government personnel could not be found after the storm. Tacloban’s mayor, Alfred S. Romualdez, was reported to have been “holding on to his roof” before being rescued, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

By Monday, the weakened typhoon had made landfall in Vietnam, according to the Hong Kong Observatory, but it was too early to assess the damage.

International aid agencies and foreign governments sent emergency teams to the Philippines. At the request of the Philippine government, the United States defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, ordered the deployment of ships and aircraft to deliver supplies and help in the search-and-rescue efforts, the defense department said. The United States embassy in Manila made $100,000 immediately available for health and sanitation efforts, according to its Twitter feed.

President Obama issued a statement on Sunday that said he expected “the incredible resiliency of the Philippine people” to help the country, an American ally, through the trauma. He said the United States also stood ready to assist the government’s relief and recovery efforts.

On Sunday, about 90 American Marines and sailors based in Okinawa, Japan, landed in the Philippines as part of an advance team assessing the disaster to determine what the Pentagon might need to help in relief efforts.

According to Colonel Brad Bartlet, a Marine spokesman, the team has made requests for C-130 cargo airplanes, MV-22 Osprey helicopters and other aircraft to participate in search and recovery at sea. The navy has also sent two P-3 Orion surveillance planes, which are often used during natural disasters to patrol the seas in search of survivors stranded in ships and boats.

Mar Roxas, the Philippine interior minister, said that while relief supplies were beginning to reach the Tacloban airport, they could go no farther because debris was blocking the roads in the area.

“The entire airport was under water up to roof level,” Mr. Roxas said, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Speaking to reporters in Tacloban, he added, “The devastation here is absolute.”

Robert S. Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines, said he was concerned that the damage reports seemed to be mainly from Tacloban, where aid has so far been concentrated, and not from the many fishing communities that line the coast.

“The coastal areas can be quite vulnerable – in many cases, you have fishing communities right up to the shoreline, and they can be wiped out” by a powerful storm surge, he said. “The disturbing reports are the lack of reports, and the areas that are cut off could be quite severely hit.”

On Panay Island, Mary Ann Baitan, 42, said she cowered with her two daughters, ages 6 and 10, under a bamboo table for more than two hours, singing to them as winds ripped away the roof of their home in Banata, another hard-hit town. “All we could do was hide and pray,” she said.

Across Cebu province, 43 people were killed, 111 were injured and five are missing, said Wilson Ramos, the deputy disaster management officer for Cebu. The authorities were trying to conduct aerial surveys of the area directly hit by the storm’s center, particularly the town of Daanbantayan and Bantayan Island, Ramos said.

“We are very tired already,” he said in the province’s disaster offices. “But we hope to send relief to those affected.”

Residents of Cebu, one of the country’s largest cities, said many roads to the north of Cebu Island were still closed after towns there suffered heavy damage, although the city was spared the brunt of the storm.

“It was very loud, like a train,” said Ranulfo L. Manatad, a night watchman at a street market in Mandaue City, on the northern outskirts of Cebu.

In Mabolo, another town on the northern flank of Cebu, the winds toppled a locally famous tree with a trunk roughly a yard in diameter. The tree had withstood every typhoon for more than a century.

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