‘Eye of the storm… before, during and after Typhoon Haiyan’

Disclaimer: These are my own opinions and I do not represent any organisation when expressing my views.  

Images from the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

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Typhoon Haiyan came in with a bang on 8th November 2013 and for many people in the Philippines, it killed their loved ones, blew away their homes and possessions and destroyed their livelihoods.

In the office we watched the weather systems as it approached, knowing it was going to be a big one and waiting for the disaster assessment teams to arrive from the relatively nearby regional office in Bangkok.  It’s a strange thing to prepare for something that’s inevitable and also knowing it’s going to wreak havoc along its path.  You imagine that if you started to believe there was a god and if you prayed hard enough, that maybe the storm would take a turn and travel in a different direction.  Alas. That didn’t happen.

Lying in bed on the Friday night in the comfort of my Manila apartment and listening to the wind as it howled outside, rattling windows and whistling, as it forced its way through the small gaps in the windows was frightening enough.  A couple of hundred kilometres away it was ripping up homes, blowing off roofs and causing mayhem and havoc on the millions of lives it touched.

The assessment team was booked on a flight to arrive before the storm hit.  Haiyan was expected at 7 a.m. but arrived a few hours earlier at 4 a.m. so the team flight was cancelled.  They were to travel with Government representatives trying to make it down to Tacloban before the storm struck.  They didn’t make it and in some ways, I’m glad. Nobody was safe in Tacloban and the team were much more useful being able bodied.

I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of a typhoon of this magnitude that could throw cars into the air and lift roofs off houses, as if they were Lego toys.  The wealthier people moved into hotels, while the people who lived in the wooden houses remained or moved to evacuation shelters and prayed. 

Back in Manila, phone calls from TV and radio stations around the world started to filter through.  Our head of office began taking the calls and when there were so many calls, I had to start doing the interviews as well.  David was in one office on to BBC while I was in the other office on the Al Jazeera – it was just a sign of things to come. 

One of the first interviews I did, was on Al Jazeera.  I’m in the middle of a live news bulletin and could hear the beep-beep of another call trying to come in, distracting me from the task at hand. Thinking it was the BBC calling for another interview, I was trying to cut them off when I cut myself off a live Al Jazeera news bulletin instead.  It was very embarrassing I have to say.  Two minutes later and this crazy pops up again trying to call.  “Can I ask who is calling,” says I.  “Ah I just saw you on telly and thought you were nice, I’m working on a oil rig,” comes the reply. 

God preserve us from the crazies in this life.  My first TV appearance came complete with my first potential stalker.   As I wished him a good night (not in such polite words), I hit the blocked button and continued on.

I think I spoke from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning – it was non-stop.  We were trying to get information from the field to let the public know what was going on while trying to see what UN agencies had people already in place and how they could assist in the initial stages.  Communications were gone and only satellite phones were working and not very well at that. 

The tsunami-like surge wave that landed in Tacloban destroyed the town.  Tacloban is nestled in a bay with mountains around it so when the wind came in at 300 kph, the town acted like a funnel and forcing the wind into a much smaller, tighter space, multiplying the amount of damage it could cause.  Much of the pre-positioned stock to respond to the typhoon such as food and medicines were taken with the storm.  The wave, much bigger than anything that came with either the Banda Aceh in Indonesia or Japanese tsunami, caused untoward damage and brought many lives with it.

The OCHA team arrived within 12 hours of the typhoon and found scenes of absolute destruction, the town looked like a rubbish tip with bodies lying tangled and strewn on the streets. 

typhoon shipTeam leader, Sebastian Rhodes Stampa (SRS for short, or as I call him SMS), told us over a satellite phone how it was like the Indian Ocean Tsunami; boats were tossed around and came inland; roofs were gone from houses; houses were gone; poles and trees were uprooted; they were met with scenes of biblical proportions.  The World Health Organization had sent their driver and car before the typhoon struck and the driver watched as another car came careering across the road into the WHO car.  The driver was injured with flying glass and went missing in action, left without food and water, as the head of office Julie had search teams out looking for him.  The poor man was traumatised and had to return to Manila, when he was eventually found.

When the team arrived, the roads were so blocked they had to take a government heli from the airport to the town centre, a distance of 11 kilometres.  Water was contaminated by the surge of water; people had no food and began looting in the first day after the storm.

Within 12 hours the road was partially unblocked but the round trip from the town hall to the airport took six hours by truck, making the delivery of food impossible.  The airport closed down to commercial flights and the government delivered food by helicopter.  But we were only addressing the needs of one city. This typhoon travelled across thousands of kilometres and we needed to reach the people who were affected to ensure they were okay.

There were no communications, no access via road, no electricity, crops destroyed, housing demolished and airports in the four major cities hit, all closed down.  At midday on the Friday, while the storm was still raging, OCHA sent another team out by car to Tacloban and they arrived two days later to set up an office where we could work.  The first team that was dispatched ran out of water and were drinking rainwater on the second day after their arrival.  

It’s difficult sitting in Manila and reporting on something that you haven’t seen.  The Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Baroness Valerie Amos came to Manila on the Tuesday and went to Tacloban.  A small entourage went with her, the Humanitarian Coordinator, the head of the OCHA office, our head of security, Valerie’s assistant Nick and myself travelled in a small plane to see the extent of the damage. 

Fuel had run out so the rented car couldn’t travel and Nick and myself were left at the airport while the others went to meet government ministers trying to organise the response efforts.  Food was not getting through and there was a shortage of water. 

I took myself off around the airport speaking to people who were desperate to get out.  One woman I met, Sasha carried her baby, one-month old Isabella and was desperate to get assistance.  Isabella had diarrhoea and needed medical attention.  Elie, 69 was sitting on boxes with his crutches by his side, under an umbrella to protect him from the sun.  He lived alone and his son was in Manila, all he wanted to do was to go to his son.  Another woman was a university lecturer who had a cut on her hand and was very angry with me and angry with everybody.  She was entitled to that, she had just lost her home and all her belongings.  I asked her why she didn’t evacuate, as advised, she told me that they get so many storms every year, but nothing could prepare them for a super typhoon, the biggest storm ever to hit landfall.

People were upset that the response was not quick enough.  The response teams were equally frustrated tying to get flights in and finding difficulties getting goods into the airport, and out on the other end, with no fuel to transport the life-saving goods and equipment.

The Government had invited the Americans to take over the management of the airport and they closed it down the previous day while they moved in their own equipment and supplies.  Thousands gathered at the airport and ports trying to get out to safer havens where their relatives waited.  Limited commercial flights were up and running and the Americans were also transporting people out of Tacloban on C130 aircraft.

When we arrived in Tacloban I needed the bathroom, but there was nowhere to go so I held on for the others to return.  We had travelled on a small single-engine eight-seater plane, with no facilities.  When they arrived back Luiza, the Humanitarian Coordinator also needed the bathroom, so off she marches over the Cebu Airlines who were about to move the steps away from the plane in preparation for take-off.  Marches up the steps with herself and requests the use of their powder room.  It was hilarious.  The air steward radioed up to the captain as we boarded the flight for our ‘urgent request’.  It’s amazing what a UN tshirt will do for you!  I’m very grateful to the UN tshirt and the crew of Cebu Airways though.

It’s all a bit of a daze for me – days just fused into each other and I left the office at 1 a.m. some mornings, with a 6 a.m. pick up the same day to travel.  Valerie Amos went to Government, went to the global TV and radio stations, reported to the Secretary General, went without sleep to help unblock the obstacles that were preventing the delivery of aid. She is a force of epic proportions in her energy and commitment to relieve human-suffering and for that alone I admire her.

We could do a whole blog of Fagan’s bloopers on TV over the first week.  On CNN outside the Marriot Hotel I was asked “So why are you doing assessments?”  “Well, we get people the life-saving food and water, we need to see their needs.  Why, after all, would you provide somebody with an egg cup, when in fact they need an egg,” I replied.  Sometimes I wonder what is going on in my tiny little mind to come up with lines like that!

OCHA UNUSGValerie [Amos] came back for a second time this week and took off travelling across the country, hitching lifts on aircraft to get her back out to see what progress was being made.  The Canadians provided an aircraft for us to go to Roxas where we met the Governor of Capiz province.  From a population of 75,000 people, 57 died.  They had a very different storm from the one experienced in Tacloban, but 98 per cent of the buildings are partially or totally destroyed and most of the 75,000 people are without homes.  The future is pretty grim for some.

The Governor Victor Tanco, who met us at the airport and accompanied us along the route, is an incredible man.   He went on radio three times a day in the week prior to the storm warning people to go to evacuation centres and get out of their homes.  He has the hospitals and schools doing regular drills for evacuations for every occasion all through the year.  There was concern when we heard he ordered people to be jailed if they refused to evacuate from their homes, but ultimately Victor Tanco has to be hailed as a hero – he saved many lives. 

It was also good to see the Canadian military had set up in Roxas. So many [rescuers] went to Tacloban and with a population of 13 million affected or in terms of population, a country with more citizens than Portugal; focusing the world’s attention on the needs of just one relatively small area seems unfair when others also need assistance.

The typhoon struck on 8th November, so from 6th November we were working flat out.  This was the 25th typhoon to make landfall over the Philippines this year.  I have lost count of the number that required humanitarian intervention from the international community; there was conflict in Zamboanga and that is now largely forgotten, despite the great needs that remain: a bit of an earthquake that is now consumed by Haiyan ……and on it goes.  I thought that after Iraq and Somalia the Philippines would be a quiet life… how wrong could you get?

Yesterday, Saturday 23rd November I had a day off and went for a 2 hour massage, picked up a couple of bottles of wine, dropped them off home, went back out for another massage, returned, cooked dinner, had a glass of wine and went to bed at 9 p.m.

Today the sun is shining and I head to the gym before I go to the office.   I have three more weeks left in the Philippines before the end of the contract.  I just hope that Haiyan marks the end of the typhoon season and the Filipinos have time to catch their breath, mourn their dead and begin to rebuild their lives, before the next typhoon season takes off next year.

Until next time. 

Yours, Fagan

Orla Presser
Press briefing Friday 29th November 2013
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