The Yolanda Tragedy: 7 Lessons in Early Emergency Response
November 20, 2013
Last month, when the 7.2 earthquake struck the Philippine provinces of Cebu and Bohol, I was in the southern city of Zamboanga facilitating dialogues between Muslim and Christian leaders to alleviate possible religious tension following the September siege that displaced thousands and threatened the good relationship of the city’s two faith communities. It was the furthest thing from my mind that an even more devastating disaster would happen just a month later, right in Tacloban City, where I had left my wife and kids in safety (or so I thought) and in the province of Eastern Samar where I grew up playing in the gentle edges of the mighty Pacific Ocean. Typhoon Yolanda (internationally known as Haiyan) will forever change my idea of safety.
At around 4 am on November 8, Friday, the day Typhoon Yolanda hit Samar and Leyte, my brother called me in Manila from Eastern Samar asking me to check the latest weather bulletin. Electricity in the province is already gone, he said; the wind was getting stronger and it was blowing low, threatening to sweep away most houses in our small town. By 6 am, I called up my son in Tacloban City who in his deadpan way said, there isn’t much rain and the wind wasn’t as strong as expected. That calmed me down, but not for long. When I called again at around 7 am, I could no longer contact them and the communication gap went on for two and a half more days. Information coming from the government and the media was bleak and sketchy.
The absence of reliable information took its toll on the victims’ families who were away when Yolanda struck. A friend working in Saudi Arabia said that in the period he’d been trying to reach his family, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, and he couldn’t work. The social media was also replete with pleas from overseas Filipino workers for information on their families. Lesson No.1: Immediately restoring communication lines after a disaster or putting up disaster-proof communication systems would save a lot of people from worries and would keep them productive even in the face of disaster.
On the morning of November 10, Sunday, I tried my luck with military cargo planes, since all flights to Tacloban were cancelled. But I ended up helping soldiers at the Villamor Airbase explain to other waiting civilians, some of them hysterical, that flying in rescue teams and equipment first was more important than flying us home. At the base, I also had to absorb the grief of some who received early bad news from home. Lesson No. 2: Entry to and arrival points from disaster areas should have personnel who are trained to deliver clear messages and to provide psychosocial services to waiting families and arriving victims. This will prepare families for the worst and provide early interventions to victims with trauma.
After taking on those roles for a while and waiting for another half a day, I decided to take the 24-hour route by land to Tacloban. A friend on his way to see his mother offered me a ride. We had similar plans – to locate our families and pull them out of the city immediately. We traveled non-stop, stopping only in Naga City where my friend got an elated call from relatives who said they had managed to find his mom and she was fine. For 10 hours I prayed to get the same call. It was only in Calbayog City, four hours away from Tacloban on a regular day, when I finally got word from my wife. They were home and safe. That was 10:35 am, November 11, Monday.
While still in Calbayog City somebody tipped us off to load up on fuel as it was running out even in Catbalogan, another small city two hours away from Tacloban. We filled the vehicle tank full and brought another 20 liters of fuel, enough to take us in and out of Tacloban. We were warned that food and water were also in short supply in Tacloban and people were coming to Catbalogan to replenish supplies, putting pressure on the city’s own supply. Lesson No. 3: After a disaster, or even before, it makes sense to beef up the supply of food, fuel, and water in areas that will not be hit. In all likelihood, they will serve as supply points for the disaster-affected areas.
When we reached Catbalogan, we tried to gather all the information we needed to reach Tacloban safely. Some told us to use only motorcycles but sans the backpacks; it’s the fastest and safest way into the city, they said. Others warned us of overloading our vehicle with food and water; it’s an open invitation to being mobbed. A few suggested that we leave our vehicle in Catbalogan, take a motorized boat to Tacloban instead, and sneak out our families by sea. We noted all these bits of advice, but decided to continue on our journey, as planned, in our vehicle, carrying all our supplies.
At around 4 pm, exactly 24 hours after we left Manila, we crossed the 1.3 mile-long San Juanico Bridge that connects the islands of Samar and Leyte. We needed to travel 12 kilometers more to get into the heart of the city. This did not prove easy. Piles of debris obstructed parts of the road along with some cadavers. There were also vendors hawking items like milk, fuel, and shampoo, as well as an endless procession of vehicles, evacuees, and looters carrying sacks of rice, trays of eggs, and chickens. It took us eight hours to cover the 12-kilometer stretch. Once in a while a pair of policemen or soldiers would pass us seemingly unaware of the mayhem; other commuters, including rescue workers, from time to time would get off their vehicles to check the prices of looted items sold on the roadside. Lesson No. 4: Road clearing should be a priority. Roads that are not cleared delay relief and rescue, prolong the victims’ and their families’ agony, and even encourage mob rule.
At around midnight, we finally reached Tacloban City. It was drizzling and the city was in pitch-darkness. I asked to be dropped at the tent of a police colonel who headed a 30-man team and requested to wait at their outpost until daybreak. His men stopped people coming out of the city with sacks – some of which revealed items obviously taken from ransacked stores and warehouses. The policemen were kind enough to offer coffee and allow these people to take food items they would need for three days. But the policemen also warned them not to repeat what they did and asked them to tell their communities such acts are not tolerated even during disasters.
While sipping coffee with some of the policemen, two officers and a local businessman who owns a nearby warehouse came. The officers organized an eight-man team to secure a wealthy enclave of Tacloban. The businessman told us four of the five suppliers of prime commodities in the city had already gone and were not coming back any time soon. The biggest rice miller, he said, would also be leaving the following day. His story strengthened my resolve to pull out my family as soon as I could reach them.
What set me thinking, though, was the judiciousness of deploying eight policemen to secure the houses of the rich. If that pattern of deployment would continue, I thought, they won’t max out the services of the 30-man contingent. Lesson No. 5: Security managers should exercise prudence in the deployment of limited forces. In communities not badly affected by the disaster, unarmed multipliers perhaps can be organized to protect their own communities freeing up more policemen and soldiers to lead in recovery, maintain law and order, and guard crucial establishments.
At around 5:30 am, November 12, Tuesday, I left the police outpost and finally began walking toward home. Around ten meters away from the tent, I noticed more than 30 cadavers covered with mats and blankets. I pushed on, covering my nose with a handkerchief. On the right side of the Maharlika Highway, facing the town of Palo in Leyte province, most communities appeared not to have been as badly affected by the typhoon as I expected. These communities could have been sources of volunteers in the relief efforts if they were assured of the security of their homes and families. Lesson No. 6: Even typhoons as devastating as Yolanda often spare pockets of communities who can fill in the scarcity of volunteers. Relief organizations should find ways to tap these local resources.
As I walked on I met entire families, young men and women, walking toward San Juanico Bridge where buses headed to the Samar provinces were waiting. Some were students going back to their home towns. A few hopped in when a school bus sent by the city government of Calbayog stopped. Others were walking toward the Tacloban port. I later learned that two island municipalities of Samar sent motorized boats to bring their people back home. Lesson No. 7: Nearby local governments not badly affected by the disaster should ferry home temporary residents of the affected area. This will decongest the area and lessen competition for the limited food and water supply.
I arrived home at around 7 am and after five hours, I was back on the road with my wife and kids. We watched the evening news about Tacloban in Calbayog City. Cebu was hosting some of the victims and help from other countries was pouring in quickly. I finally had a chance to read and reply to text messages. Priests and ulama friends from Zamboanga City offered to pray for my family’s safety. They’re OK and out of danger now, I said. Deogracias, Alhamdullilah, they replied. Who says we’re not connected?
Eric Aseo is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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