Typhoon exposes countless challenges faced by the Philippines

Rovilyne Rosell, Daang Bantayan. Her home was partially destroyed in typhoon.
Rovilyne Rosell, Daang Bantayan. Her home was partially destroyed in typhoon.
Alabama Red Cross

The latest information regarding the toll wrought by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines gets worse. Nearly 10 million people are affected by the damage. An estimated 700,000 people are homeless, requiring $301 million in support. Roughly 10,000 are feared dead in the province of Leyte alone (the president refutes the claim, saying the total is closer to 2,500).

A combination of factors that could and could be be controlled contributed to devastation and is hampering relief effort. Poverty, geography, poor prevention work, a series of recent natural disasters and one big bad storm all conspired against Filipinos when the typhoon made landfall on Friday.

Messages pleading for food are seen painted on buildings in the port city of Tacloban. The international community is sending in whatever help is possible, but access to affected areas remains extremely hard. Out of the 81 semi-autonomous provinces that make up the Philippines, the roads and bridges in thirty-six are destroyed or impassible, says the UN.

Food, water and shelter are top priorities for the response. Getting supplies to people, let alone who needs what, is an immense challenge. The round trip drive from the airport to Tacloban, consisting of only 22 km, takes six hours, says the UN. The little information available from the hardest to reach areas is dire.

“The scene is one of utter devastation. There is no electricity in the entire area and no water. Local emergency food stocks have been distributed but stocks are dwindling. The immediate need is water, both for drinking and both for cleaning,” said Tata Abella-Bolo, a member Oxfam’s emergency team who made it to the northernmost tip of Cebu.

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The government was unable to enact measures that would prepare homes and citizens for a natural disaster. However, experts like Zhang Qiang, an expert on disaster mitigation at Beijing Normal University’s Institute for Social Development and Public Policy, also add that the typhoon and the surge of water that it caused would have caused immense damage no matter what was done.

“Sometimes, no matter how much and how carefully you prepare, the disaster is just too big,” said Qiang to the AP.

OCHA - Philippines - 12 Nov

Housing structures were ill prepared to deal with the strong winds and water. US Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy toured the Tacloban area with a helicopter  to assess the impact of the storm.

“I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way — every single building, every single house,” he said.

The majority of the roughly twenty typhoons that strike the Philippines each year usually make landfall to the north. Leyte and its main city of Tacloban rarely deal with typhoons head on. So many people reportedly stayed home when they were urged to evacuate in advance of the the typhoon.

Evacuation measures are limited for a country made up of about 2,000 islands inhabited by people. A country with a population spread across islands and a central government with weaker powers hampered efforts to keep people away from the storm’s danger. Coordinating the response requires the provincial leaders working with the Filipino government, a set of relationships that are not necessarily strong. They must then deal with the influx of aid supplies and agencies that are arriving by the hour for support.

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Even if better preparation methods are undertaken, the 96 million people living in the Philippines are square in a typhoon hot spot that is only getting worse. Climate experts say the warming global waters can play a role in creating more intense typhoons. Leaders are gathered in Warsaw, Poland to discuss climate change at a UN-backed meeting. Though major economies, including the US, continue to back what some see as weak measures.

Filipino climate representative Naderev Sano called on the international community to act now in order to mitigate the progress of climate change. He said he would fast in an act of solidarity with the Filipinos that do not have access to food during this crisis.

“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw,” he pleaded.

As the relief effort transitions to recovering in the coming weeks, the rhetoric will shift to talk about prevention. Haiti’s slogan following the earthquake nearly four years ago is to ‘build back better.’ The Philippines ranks 114 out of 164 on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index for 2013. If the recovery since should be a strong indicator that talk is a lot easier than action.

The Philippines, like Haiti, must deal with poor governance, widespread poverty and the back luck of being located in the path of violent storms. Some things can be controlled, but will take time, others are immutable.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.