Haiyan Ground Zero Now On Higher Ground

UN Humanitarian Country Team: Philippine Social Welfare Sec. Corazon “Dinky” Soliman (in red vest) with visiting Baroness Valerie Amos - UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (3rd from left around table), and Conrad Navidad - IOM CCCM Program Coordinator (extreme left around table)

By Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman, Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) 

Almost a year ago, I found myself in the midst of an unimaginable devastation that was brought by Haiyan. In less than 24 hours, we landed the first Philippine Air Force C130 in Tacloban after two Huey helicopters flew from Cebu at 6 a.m. to manually clear the airstrip of debris – trees, galvanized iron – including two cadavers. Conrad Navidad (IOM), Agnes Palacio, Praveen Agrawal, with the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) team, the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) team and the military were met by Secretary Voltz Gazmin, Secretary Mar Roxas,  and Regional Director Remia Tapispisan of the DSWD. We were in the middle of the Philippine government’s largest post-disaster rescue and rehab effort.

In a rare quiet moment, as I tried to cope with the surreal reality I had become part of, I wrote on my iPad: “This is Day 4 since Yolanda [Haiyan] unleashed its might. . . I have been here three days, too. The situation is so chaotic and there was almost anarchy in the streets on Day 1. . . . We had to fill in the gap first because the first responders were also victims.”

The Philippine government realized that due to the extent of damage, the affected areas from Guiuan in Eastern Samar and all the Eastern towns of Leyte including Tacloban had no internal capacity to recover. The usual agents of response and relief – the local governments, even the Department of Social Welfare offices in these areas – these, too, were victims.

Thanks to the power of media and social media, this was recognized by the international community of nations as well and within weeks, there was a surge of compassion.

International response and concern was overwhelming. Aid in various forms, as well as international humanitarian workers poured in. And for this, the Filipino people feel a debt of gratitude to the rest of the world. It tested the capacity of the government – local & national – to manage the foreign donations and logistical requirements for these goods to reach the survivors.

We were fortunate to find a partner in  implementation  and  distribution  in IOM. Its mission in the Philippines, now under Chief of Mission Marco Boasso, has, for years, been active in camp coordination and camp management in the context of emergencies. IOM Philippines has played a key role in the rehabilitation efforts from earlier natural disasters. IOMers needed no training and – as most of them were locals – some even hailing from the affected provinces, there was no time and effort wasted on understanding the language and context of the affected population.

My staff, as well as other agencies, learned much from the team of Conrad Navidad, Brad Mellicker, and Manuel Pereira, who demonstrated their expertise in the field of shelter assistance, construction, and repair. Conrad’s team brought with them  a tremendous amount  of experience from  previous local weather-related disasters: Pablo [Bopha], Sendong [Washi], the Habagat flooding and others. The provision of transitional shelters, especially in the later phases of recovery, was critical since it would take some time before permanent shelters could be provided.

I found it very easy to work with IOM staff as they, like me, do not feel comfortable commandeering those on the ground from behind the comforts of a desk. It was a pleasure to link arms with dedicated individuals who did not mind not taking baths for days at a time and just kept at the task of relieving those in worse condition of their misery.

Together, the Philippine government and its close partners learned valuable lessons from the Haiyan experience. One concrete offshoot of the learnings we got is PDRA – or Pre-Disaster Risk Analysis, an initiative of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. Once a typhoon is spotted, depending on the track of a typhoon, various government agencies immediately conduct an analysis, based on the characteristics of the typhoon and on vulnerabilities of the affected areas: socio-economic costs, possible infrastructure damage, projected casualties, education, roadways, etc. Using scientific and historical data, we are able to anticipate what supplies, equipment, personnel, and in what quantities, would be required for the coming rehabilitation effort. This was put to the test during the recent Typhoon Glenda [Rammasun] which caused extensive infrastructure, and power network damage over a wide area – but which had very low casualty. Distribution of pre-positioned supplies rolled off immediately after the typhoon. So this was one ‘good’ that came out of Haiyan experience.

The next big thing in the horizon, as far as stepping up the Philippine government’s efforts in dealing with natural calamities, is Preparedness. We are aiming for capacity-building, to read and act on information such as risk and hazard maps, emergency communications, etc. IOM comes equipped with the expertise we need to support us in this future campaign. I remember on Day 3 at Guian, all that I and my team had were our mobile phones for our communication. And since all cellular network sites were levelled to the ground, there was no way to communicate with Manila. I had to borrow Conrad’s satellite phone to relay critical information and instructions to the capital. IOM is a ready-to-go package in dealing with these requirements and conditions, as far as we’re concerned. And when we have partners that can share its strengths with its government counterparts, then we are able to do our jobs better and focus on our core responsibilities.

Last Thursday, Conrad and I together with DSWD Regional Office VIII and other IOMers, took a “nostalgic” flyover along the same route we took in 2013. And a flood of memories came in. But more than this, there was a feeling of gratitude at what had been accomplished in a year’s time. And this made all the difficulties and minor inconveniences we experienced along the way worth it. Although looking back, you always wish you could have done more, or we could have done this better – I will carry with me the lessons learned and translate it to actions and programs. Walking with the people, holding hands with partners under the sun, crying with the survivors and rising with them – affirms my faith in people and their capacity to make positive change happen.

Thanks to the resilience of the Filipino spirit, the generosity of the international community, and the partnership of organizations like IOM, what was ground zero is now on much higher ground.