/ 11 November 2013

World sends emergency relief to battered Philippines

Officials were struggling to cope with the scale of death and destruction
Officials were struggling to cope with the scale of death and destruction

The United Nations, Australia and the United States mave mobilised emergency aid on Monday as the scale of the devastation unleashed by super typhoon Haiyan emerges.

The Australian government pledged Aus$10-million, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop describing the unfolding tragedy as "absolutely devastating" and on a "massive scale".

The sum includes Aus$4-million towards a UN global appeal and Aus$3-million for Australian non-government organisations. The aid will include tarpaulins, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, water containers and health and hygiene kits.

A team of Australian medics will leave on Wednesday via a C17 military transport plane from Darwin to join disaster experts already on the ground, the government said.

Philippine rescue teams were said to be overwhelmed in their efforts to help those whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed after Haiyan ravaged large swathes of the archipelago Friday.

Officials were struggling to cope with the scale of death and destruction, with reports of violent looters and scarcity of food, drinking water and shelter.

United Nations leader Ban Ki-moon promised UN humanitarian agencies would "respond rapidly to help people in need".

The UN children's fund Unicef said a cargo plane carrying 60 tonnes of aid including shelters and medicine would arrive in the Philippines Tuesday, to be followed by deliveries of water purification and sanitation equipment.

Pope Francis led 60 000 people in Sunday prayers for the Philippines, urging the faithful to provide "concrete help" to the largely Roman Catholic country.

The US Pentagon sent Marines and equipment to assist with the relief effort following the typhoon, which may have killed more than 10 000 people in what is feared to be the country's worst natural disaster.

Even Vietnam, despite coping itself with a mass evacuation programme as a weakened Haiyan swung onto its territory, provided emergency aid worth US$100 000 and said it "stands by the Philippine people in this difficult situation".

On the ground, the relief operation was centred on the city of Tacloban on Leyte island, three days after one of the biggest storms in recorded history demolished entire communities across the central Philippines and left countless bodies as well as gnawing desperation in its wake.

About 90 US Marines and sailors based in Japan flew into Tacloban aboard two C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. They brought communication and logistical equipment to support the Philippine armed forces in their relief operation.

The Marine operation will in total encompass up to nine C-130s plus four MV-22 Ospreys – tilt-rotor planes that can operate without runways – and two P3 Orion aircraft for search and rescue.

Other aid mobilised for the Philippines includes:

– The European Commission said it would give $4-million towards the relief efforts.

– Britain offered an emergency support package worth $9.6-million. Germany's embassy in Manila said an initial shipment of 23 tonnes of aid was being flown in and German rescue teams were already at work.

– Japan was sending a disaster relief and medical team of 25 people, while Malaysia also readied a relief crew and cash aid was offered by Taiwan and Singapore.

– New Zealand increased its humanitarian relief, bringing its total to US$1.78-million, while Canada has promised up to US$5-million to aid organisations.

– Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) said it was sending 200 tonnes of aid including medicine, tents and hygiene kits to arrive mid-week, with the first cargo plane leaving from Dubai on Monday and another from Belgium on Tuesday.

Philippine authorities were sure they had done enough to prevent mass casualties, but with 10 000 people now feared dead experts say parts of the country may be helpless against relentless storms.

The Southeast Asian nation endures seemingly never-ending natural disasters, many of them deadly, and President Benigno Aquino has made saving lives a top priority of his administration by improving preparation strategies.

With nearly one million people evacuated from high-risk areas and a highly publicised alert system in place before Haiyan made landfall on Friday, Aquino's aides expressed confidence that this time they were prepared.

But Haiyan turned out to be one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded, and sent waves up to 5m high hundreds of metres inland, wiping out entire communities.

More than 10 000 people are feared killed on one island alone, according to its regional police chief.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) warned that the damage could even rival the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which left tens of thousands dead and whose effects are still being felt.

Beyond control
Nevertheless, experts said the extent of death and destruction was largely beyond the control of local authorities, which also meant the same problems could again lead to widespread carnage.

"This storm is unprecedented. Many things like this are outside of human intervention," International Labour Organisation country director Lawrence Jeff Johnson stated.

"They did what they could. There were a lot of lives saved. They evacuated many areas."

Tacloban, the provincial capital of the central island of Leyte, is believed to have been among the worst hit, when storm surges swept away trees, trucks and houses throughout the city of 220 000 people.

Government weather forecaster Jori Loiz said Tacloban's coastal-facing flat terrain, with only a few small hills for refuge from floods, meant that residents literally had nowhere to hide. "With all these people, where could they have gone? If I was the governor, I could not have figured out how to relocate these people," Loiz said.

Officials said many residents had adhered to evacuation instructions, only to die in emergency centres where they were told they would be safe.

Followed instructions
Reynaldo Balido, a spokeperson for the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, said schools and churches that had served as shelters in previous storms were destroyed by the tsunami-like waves. "They followed instructions. The storm was too strong. Will you blame them for going to the wrong evacuation centres?" he said angrily in response to questions about why people in Tacloban were not protected.

Haiyan hit the Philippines as a category five storm with maximum sustained winds of 315km an hour – one of the most powerful ever recorded anywhere in the world.

Energy secretary and former Leyte governor Jericho Petilla also said the magnitude of the storm was simply overwhelming. "We never had a storm this strong. You can make preventive measures but you can never prepare enough for something so big," he said. "If you really don't want anyone to be hurt, [you have to] evacuate the whole province."

IOM country director Marco Boasso also praised the Philippines' disaster measures. "This is a very responsive and organised government, especially compared to others I cannot name for diplomatic reasons," he said. But he suggested that Philippine resources had been overstretched by one calamity after another.

They include Typhoon Bopha, which left 1 900 people dead or missing in December last year, then a bloody three-week conflict in a southern city attacked by Muslim guerrillas in September, and a deadly 7.1-magnitude earthquake in October.

"The government was doing as much as it can. But how much can be done when disaster happens again and again?" he said. – AFP