Q & A from city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan
Christine Cassar is taking a PhD in Humanitarianism and Conflict response at The University of Manchester. She is currently with Disaster Aid International in the Philippines, and is just back from a four day assessment trip to the devastated city of Ormoc and surrounding areas in the province of Leyte. Here, she tells what she has seen and urges the world not to forget areas, equally affected by the disaster, but off the media radar.
In Leyte, everything is utterly destroyed. In Ormoc 97% of houses are completely destroyed, the rest are severely damaged; there is no aid coming in despite many rumors of its being on its way. There is a severe shortage of internal aid, which local government would provide; there is massive price inflation of all necessary goods, from rice to gas.
There is no UN cluster in the field, instead it is based in Manila as there is no comms in Ormoc. Most aid agencies are heading to Tacloban which suffered the brunt of the human loss and is now seeing serious security issues. However, there are still several hundreds of thousands of unserved victims of the typhoon in Leyte, outside Tacloban.”
Q: How long do you think it will take for aid to reach the worst affected areas? Is it too slow in arriving, as is being reported over here?
A It is incredibly slow arriving. The city of Ormoc for instance is composed of 110 Barangays (Filipino for community), but only about 70 have been serviced, and this all from the national government. When I say ‘serviced’ I mean each family has been given between 1-2 kgs of rice and between 1-2 cans of sardines. This is food that will last around 1-2 days. Some people are cooking the rice with thickened coconut milk (from coconut trees sourced locally) to make it last longer. Many communities have access to water – in some they are having to boil it before consumption; in others there is portable water. It is unclear why aid is so slow. One of the reasons may be because most of the aid agencies are focusing on Tacloban; another might be because the lack of comms means it’s hard to ‘show’ how bad the situation is in many towns and villages.
Q: Is there anything more the NGO community can do? Can they do it any better?
A: Fundraising and sending in aid in the form of food and shelter en masse is the main form of help being requested at the moment. In other words, we need rice and tarpaulin. There needs to be a lot more in the way of coordination of aid efforts as a concerted effort between aid agencies – local/national and international – and local government.
Q: How are local people surviving and what are the major challenges ahead? Are the Filipino authorities – locally and nationally coping and are they working well with the NGO community?
A There is a general lack of active and organized civil society in Ormoc. There are very few international NGOs present at the moment, as all resources seem to be being channeled towards Tacloban. This has its own problems, including fears in Ormoc that the unrest may spread to the city, that looters from Tacloban may go to Ormoc to loot the city and that there will be mass starvation. All these fears stem from what is being reported from Tacloban. The major challenges are finding enough food and staying dry. While we were there, there was more rain from Typhoon Zoraida. We didn’t get any high velocity winds as the eye of the typhoon was far south of us; however, those who had lost their roofs were left to fight the elements – literally – without a roof over their heads.
Q: How does this compare to other disasters?
A: I can only compare this to the Bohol earthquake, which I experienced five days after it happened. The earthquake response was very different – there was a UN cluster on the ground, many aid agencies were providing transitional shelter, and so on. Unfortunately in the case of Haiyan, even though there is a lot of media coverage, this doesn’t seem to have translated into aid on the ground.
Q: Is lawlessness a major problem, as reported in the UK media?
A: Lawlessness appears to be a major issue in Tacloban; we weren’t there because of this security concern. We heard while we were there that a Red Cross convoy going into the city was ambushed and a firefight ensued. Most other areas outside the city of Tacloban are not experiencing heightened amounts of lawlessness, although there is a fear it might spread across the region.
Q: How can we stop this from dropping off the media agenda in the coming days?
A Unfortunately, outside Tacloban, this is already off the media’s radar. Something rather strange happened: the casualty rate was kept at extremely conservative numbers for the first four days; 100, 130, 1200. But we’re now looking at a death toll in the thousands. While footage of dead bodies on the streets is being released, the police officer who suggested the death toll was likely be in the region of 10,000, is no longer in post. The international community is unclear about what the impact of this disaster actually is, though the devastation is clearly appalling. Despite what the loss of life may be, much work is to be done. I would encourage journalists to venture beyond the city of Tacloban to look at the impact of the typhoon; to report from areas where there is no internet and phone service – the areas that are being forgotten.