What IOM has Given to Haiyan Emergency Response Efforts

Conrad Navidad, IOM CCCM Program Coordinator at Tacloban with Haiyan survivors. © IOM 2014

By Anthony Caingles

Conrad Navidad of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) - Philippines’ Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit (EPRU) was deployed to Haiyan (locally, Yolanda) Ground Zero 24 hours after “the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in all recorded history” broke into the islands of Samar and Leyte. Nervous, excited, and afraid – all at the same time – Conrad said a word of prayer as he boarded his plane not knowing what awaited him at his destination and how long he would stay there.

“For the first time, I understood what ‘devastation’ means. The space before me – what used to be ranked among the ten most competitive cities in the Philippines – was now no more than piles of wood, metal, cement, electric poles, tin. . . . and bodies,” Conrad recalls clearly. People walked the streets aimlessly like zombies. A staccato of new experiences seared Conrad’s memory and senses -  the invasive stench of a decomposing body – multiplied to the hundreds (or so they thought); looting; anger; fear; voiced and silent cries of agony; absence of food; no drinking water. All electric poles and satellite towers twisted and pummelled into the ground.

As a veteran of 11 emergency relief operations, he found it normal for victims who have lost loved ones, homes, and limbs to be in shock. This time it was different.  “We, the first responders, were ourselves in shock.”

“I could still very clearly remember how our Department of Social Welfare  and Development (DSWD) Sec. Corazon “Dinky” Soliman was at a loss as to how to get in touch with Manila since all the cellular networks were down. Fortunately, I was able to grab two IOM satellite phones from our Staff Security Unit (SSU) office in Makati on the way out to the airport and lent her one so she could relay vital on-the-ground information to President Aquino and her own staff. That was one of the many times I have been thankful to be part of IOM’s well-oiled machinery that deploys its people not only properly trained but also properly equipped for situations like this,” Conrad said.

Eventually, Typhoon Haiyan was declared by the UN as the first Level 3 Emergency in the Philippines.  This brought much needed relief quickly to affected areas, but posed new and unique challenges to the overseers and implementers of the recovery efforts.  The deluge of relief goods – though more welcome than the lack of these –  created a logistical dilemma which produced its own unique set of consequences.  Local storage/warehousing facilities and the distribution mechanisms were not designed for that kind of volume.

The arrival of international humanitarian personnel bringing in experience and technical expertise was definitely a boost to the emergency response efforts. At the same time, however, this influx created some inefficiencies and challenges.  “It became a challenge in terms of coordination  -  local officials now had to speak in English and attend to the needs of their foreign ‘guests’ (as Filipino culture would consider international visitors); communications lines criss-crossed;  ground actions among these different groups needed to be streamlined and synchronized,” says Conrad.  And ironically, all these necessary duties and coordination amongst such a large, diverse group, took people’s time and energies from actually attending to the more urgent rescue, health, and relief needs of disaster victims and stalled the delivery of already available supplies.

In the midst of all this, IOM rose to the challenge as a  member of the United Nations (UN) Humanitarian Team.

“We performed quite well because, at the onset, we were able to deploy a staff on ground zero a day after Haiyan hit and had established a foot print in all the hubs a few days after the disaster,” says Conrad.  IOM Director General William Swing himself came to Tacloban and Roxas on the 12th day of the response to show his support to IOM teams on the ground and to the Government.  He was able to meet Secretary Soliman in Tacloban and assure her of IOM’s commitment and  support.  IOM Manila Administrative Centre (MAC) staff volunteers were also deployed to reinforce the quick response teams on the ground.  IOM Surge Teams composed of global experts in emergency response, logistics, CCCM, protection, shelter, health and information management (IM) were quickly deployed to the Philippines and complemented IOM’s national capacity. This resulted in faster delivery of relief, shelter and humanitarian services to affected populations.  

“We were one of the first organizations to mobilize trucks of non-food items (NFIs), including shelter repair kits from Manila to Tacloban, Ormoc, Guiuan, Cebu and Roxas within a week.  Camp managers and health staff were deployed in all evacuation centres.  The Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) was rolled out in all affected regions providing the government and humanitarian partners much needed information on the displacement situation and needs of the internally displaced persons (IDPs)," reports Conrad.

They say it takes the passage of time for lessons to crystallize.  As Camp Coordination and Camp Management (PCCM) Program Coordinator, Conrad has, for a year now, been thinking about the things that could have been done differently and better.

“Looking back, I think much of the challenges  that we encountered  in our Haiyan recovery efforts had to do with learning curves. At every stage of the recovery process, we need to recognize our existing capacity - and build on this,” Conrad says.  “Experience should lead to wisdom, which should then become a part of institutional memory.  We should not reinvent the wheel every time.”

“IOM’s strength  in the Haiyan response efforts lies in the fact  that we have the best of both worlds - national staff that have mastery of the local context and a very credible local emergency response record; and a quick-reaction international team that can come alongside at a moment’s notice to share their knowledge and provide input from a transnational perspective,” says Conrad.  

Local staff have intrinsic knowledge of the people and the culture. And as in the case of Haiyan – several staff either actually lived in or hailed from the affected areas – and so could speak the dialect.  This makes communication with communities effortless and natural. Rapport and trust is more easily established.  “We have used this to our advantage but could still optimize by quickly bringing in local colleagues with previous emergency response experience to new emergency sites. We have not done this as quickly as we could have, in my opinion,” Conrad says. 

“From this vantage point – this something I would do if I could do things over again, and maybe this is something we can learn from and implement moving forward we should have brought them in with us from Day 1 of our operations. They could have quickly helped set up our camps – rather than for us to have to train new people.  Then, after turning things over to second-liners, we could have pulled them out if they were needed elsewhere,” says Conrad.

One of the sensitive aspects of emergencies is the management of relations with local governments and officials.  Being part of an organization that is inter-governmental, it is second nature for IOM staff to liaise and coordinate with local officials before taking any action.  This is critical and paves the way for easier operational freedom down the road.  “Perhaps this is the reason why we are the partner of choice of several government agencies and why we have been so effective in working with the DSWD, for instance,” Conrad cites.

IOM’s experience and mandate as a ‘migration’ expert puts it in a position to provide reliable advice to governments and partners in the specialized area, for instance, of Evacuation Planning and compliance to international humanitarian standards.  “This is our niche since we are experts in managing the movement of populations,” Conrad says.  From planning, to execution, the management of evacuation centres – IOM has done all these and replicated these from country to country.  This track record has come in very handy in the Haiyan efforts – in the specific context of ‘prolonged displacement.’  “One specific scenario where we are able to come alongside government is when evacuees have nowhere to go – and government can’t find relocations sites for them.  IOM has Land Advisers  - legal experts and technical staff that help local governments identify lands that could be used as relocation sites, providing land assessment, and even assist in negotiations for the purchase of these,” Conrad explains.

Last but not least – IOM’s edge over other organizations is evident in how it sends its people out to the field well-trained and properly equipped.  “I see this as I work with other groups. And I’m thankful that even as I’m called to be in less-than-ideal situations, I have my solar lamp, my satellite phone, my laptop, and other tools that enable me to function well.”

Perhaps the words of Secretary Soliman sum it all up:  “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.”

As a first responder, Conrad has come to terms with the fact that whenever a disaster strikes, the first two months would usually be devoted to emergency response. This takes him away from his family three to four weeks at a time.  This was how it was during the Haiyan response. “You get used to not having a bath for days and just focus on the bigger needs of the people around you,” he quips. His family has also come to terms with the fact that Conrad, as a sociologist, has made Migration Management his mission.  

“Forced migration caused by conflict and natural disasters often affects the most vulnerable parts of our population,” Conrad explains. “I want to devote my professional life to serving this sector and to contribute to building their resiliency to climate change-induced social and economic shocks.”