My good friend James was visiting me in Bangkok on his way back from the UK to Myanmar, staying the weekend. We returned from a morning of vigorous (a euphemism for torturous) massage on the Saturday morning when a message popped up on my mobile phone asking if I was preparing to write a Situation Report. Thinking my colleague had lost her marbles I asked her had I missed something in the few hours I was out having massage and lunch.
Indeed, I had missed the Nepal earthquake and emails were arriving by the minute with updates of the situation in Kathmandu and the office there. I had travelled to Nepal a month previously to provide training on the communications aspect of an emergency to public information officers and to local journalists. There was never a more timely training, but it wasn’t sufficient.
The phone calls from the international journalists began in earnest . As the afternoon wore on it became more obvious that the situation on the ground was not good at all – I knew I would be returning to Kathmandu. I left the house for a few hours to have a meal with friends, all the time aware I would be packing bags at some stage.
Heading to Kathmandu
Another colleague called on Sunday morning to say if I dashed to the airport I’d make the flight, but I decided it was best to aim for the following morning and at least know that I had packed the necessities to last a few weeks if the situation was dire. Monday morning bright and early I took the taxi to the airport, meeting more than a few familiar faces queueing for the Thai Airways daily flight to Kathmandu TG319 departing at 10.30.
Part of me was dreading the flight –and as I arrived to the airport another colleague who travelled the day before texted to say he scored five hotel rooms. If the hotel was damaged then we could stay in the garden in our tents but at least would have access to a hot shower in the morning. Things were looking up. The flight took off and we were on our way to Kathmandu.
The time difference between Kathmandu and Bangkok is one hour 15 minutes, which confuses the life out of everybody. I’ve seen mathematicians taking their fingers to try and figure out the time difference with Nepal. One hour into the flight I duly set my watch to Kathmandu time and enjoyed what I thought was going to be the last bit of decent food for a while. It seemed to be taking an extraordinary amount of time to get to our destination until I realized we were circling and circling and then circling some more. The captain came on the intercom and announced that we were going to Calcutta to refuel as there was a bit of a backlog in Kathmandu. Apparently there were 14 flights circling in the air. We arrived to Calcutta and I sent off a couple of emails apologizing for my delay to a meeting I was due to attend. In fairness we didn’t stay long on the ground in Calcutta and once more took off headed for Kathmandu.
People were walking up and down the aisles of the plane, talking to each other, reconnecting with others met on previous missions, swopping business cards. I began watching the flight path on the TV screen as it kept starting at 40 minutes and counting down to five minutes before it would start again at 40 minutes. We turned back to Calcutta, supposedly for the night where Thai Airways was to put us up in a hotel. When we arrived there were five other flights ahead of us and all the passengers had taken our rooms in the hotel!
In the row behind me there were some Eastern European medics, who, judging by their tshirts were responding to the disaster. The oldest member of the group began complaining about the flight, asking if they expected us to sleep on the plane and would they offer us a cup of water for a shower.
There are some people who should just never volunteer to respond to a disaster. What did he expect? We also had 70 passengers who were from the Japanese search and rescue team, travelling with their rescue dogs on the flight. I could only imagine their frustration. The Thai Airways pilot stayed in the air all day, trying to get us in to Kathmandu because he knew most people were on the flight as part of the response. Forget the fact that he went way over international standards for flying time, the man did his best to get us there and I pointed it out to the medic who complained. Once again we took to the air, returning to Bangkok to spend the night. We arrived back at 1 a.m.
Funny, the following morning, the row of seats that the four medics occupied the previous day, were empty. They just didn’t show up.
As we attempted once again to make our way to Kathmandu – everybody looked tired. We were all dressed in the same clothes but at least I had found a 7/11 store to pick up a spare deodorant.
A state of calamity
We got to work as soon as we landed. I was fortunate I knew the crew in the UN office in Kathmandu, so understanding how they work made my job easier.
There were many differences between this response and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines just 18 months earlier and a few similarities as well. We have a highly competent Irish-Scot, Jamie McGoldrick the Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal who is a former TV and radio producer and who knows the media, again making my job way easier. He’s articulate and sharp, unlike his cohort who was in charge during Haiyan. Media wouldn’t have been her forte.
It’s easier to respond to an emergency when it is an island country – you can just ship in the humanitarian aid. Nepal is landlocked and it has just one runway in its main airport, with an apron that can take just five planes at a time. Transporting goods from India through the road network was an alternative, but it didn’t solve the problem of transporting goods to the remote villages.
Kathmandu, what to do….
Kathmandu is as chaotic as any Asian capital city – it’s polluted and normally choked with traffic because of the small roads. On top of that every male driver thinks the horn on his car is somehow relevant or connected to his penis and he insists on honking his horn every five seconds, making it as noisy as every other Asian city I have ever visited. It can take five minutes to cross the road, dodging cars, bikes, busses and motorcycles. You need the agility of a prizefighter to weave and duck in order to avoid impact with the oncoming traffic. This time, when we drove in from the airport, Kathmandu was strangely empty – no traffic, no people and 90 per cent of the shops closed.
I expected to see something similar to Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 earthquake, as we drove through the city to the office, but it was surprisingly intact with little evidence of the earthquake. Buildings remained upright and Nepal wouldn’t be renowned for its excellence in building standards, so that was surprising. It didn’t take long to look behind the facades though and when I went out to some of the temporary shelters, I found thousands of people sleeping outdoors in parks, fearful to return home because of the aftershocks. The city had emptied as the migrant workers returned to their villages high in the Himalayas to ensure family members were okay.
The first time I visited Nepal we went left the office after work one evening looking for somewhere to eat. Durbar Square is a 20-minute walk from the office and a UNESCO cultural heritage site. I knew very little about Kathmandu so I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the square – palaces and places of worship all in one spot. There was a holiday atmosphere, yet few tourists. It was very much a place for locals, especially young people – hanging out sitting on the steps of the temples – the square had a romantic, magical atmosphere that made it such a pleasant place to visit.
When the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos, visited for three days in the aftermath of the disaster, part of her itinerary included a visit to Durbar Square which was unrecognizable. It was reduced to a pile of rubble where the military worked to clear the square, there was so much dust you could feel its grit in your mouth and in your lungs. At the best of times because Kathmandu is in a valley, like Kabul in Afghanistan, the pollution is trapped in the valley, leaving an acrid smell from the fumes that pour out of baldy maintained trucks and cars on the road.
Setting the wheels in motion
After a week in the office of the usual manic post-disaster response, I headed to Gorkha, (where the famous Gurkha army comes from). I went to see the devastation caused by the quake. It’s a four hour drive, through the most spectacular countryside and as an added bonus, the further the distance we drove from Kathmandu, the clearer the air.
Even the town of Gorkha, where the buildings looked as if they are naturally tilted, I was surprised to see so many standing. We called into the local administrative office where we met a young man Suedip who was working in Afghanistan when the earthquake happened. He worked for a non-government organisation when he heard the news and got on the first flight to return to his mother’s village to help out. He spoke with passion about the work they had already carried out and how they were trying to coordinate. They had distributed tarpaulins for people to have shelter, food and cooking utensils. In a country where the caste system delineates the high from the low caste, boundaries were coming down like buildings in an earthquake as neighbours who would normally never speak, helped each other out. If you wanted to look for a positive outcome of this terrible tragedy, then this was it.
We set up a coordination office there a few days earlier, so there was an office tent and a separate tent with camp beds. Nights were very cold and I felt guilty in my warm sleeping bag as most people slept outside without decent blankets. On the first night we slept in a field with no access to running water, so a bottle of water was used to wash. We had a porta-loo of sorts, but having a pee with 467 bluebottles, isn’t a healthy scenario. The following day we moved to a hotel and camped on its grounds, so we had access to a room with a shower.
I have a fear in these situations that I will literally be caught with my knickers around my ankles, sitting on a toilet when the next disaster happens, or in the middle of having a shower. None of the doors of the hotel would close properly, no matter how hard I tried. Kirsty, a colleague travelling with us from the NGO Map Action went for a shower the day following a fairly big aftershock and got locked in to the bathroom, where the door refused to close the previous day. She had to phone to another colleague to ‘rescue’ her.
Devastation in Gorkha
While my colleagues went off to set up the coordination structures for the response, I went with the driver Gyanu to the off-road areas to see what the damage was really like. Neither of us having visited the area before, I asked him to just ask somebody on the street where the best place was to see the destruction. He scored well. The first person he asked happened to be the local health inspector, Sharad Shrestha who knew everybody in the area and had no hesitation to jump into the car with us and to show us to areas where some of the damage was greatest.
Nepal is an agricultural country and because of the mountains, farmers have created steps into the side of the hills, to grow their crops – rice, corn and vegetables. Just a half hour drive outside Gorkha it was a very different reality. The terrain is challenging at the best of times and its people are tough, living so remote from the rest of the world, walking or using donkeys to transport goods to the village – they are a resilient, hardy people. However, the earthquake had utterly demolished houses built of mud while many of the animals, mainly water buffalo, fettered under shelters died, leaving farmers without a means to plant crops.
They were lucky in a sense – the earthquake happened coming up to midday on 25 April, a Saturday. Over 3,000 schools were destroyed – unbearable to think of if it was a school day. If the quake had occurred during the night, hundred of thousands of people would have lost their lives. On a regular Saturday, people were out and about in the fields working, reducing the death toll but leaving them without homes and sometimes livelihoods.
We parked the car and walked up to the villages to speak to people. One man I met showed me a photo of himself and his wife on the balcony of their home and stood on the rubble with the satellite dish sitting on the top, so I could take his photo. Even if there was a house left standing, people were so nervous they slept outside under tarpaulins. It was interesting to see just a solitary door standing while a building was completely demolished – something that stuck in my mind. We called up to the Nareshwar Health Clinic where Dev Nath Yogi was waiting to see the health inspector. The back wall of the clinic displayed a major crack and is about to fall down, so the ‘treatment room’ and pharmacy was a desk at the front of the building. Recovery from such devastation will take some time.
I returned to Kathmandu, after two days, leaving the remainder of the team behind to work on getting the aid out to those remote villages I had visited. I was happy to go back to my comfy hotel that didn’t look as if it was going to fall down. They were busy days, trying to advocate for the Nepali affected by the quake and raise the funds for the response.
We were located in the UN compound in Kathmandu, where most of the offices are fitted with an earthquake alarm. It’s not that you wouldn’t feel a major shock, but sometimes tremors can build into something bigger and you need to be aware that the tremor is starting, in order to ‘leg it’ out the door. One day while conducting a press briefing with mainly local journalists, the alarm sounded.. bong, pause….. bong pause… Everybody ignored it. I interrupted the briefing to point out that in fact it was indeed an earthquake alarm. When it went off again several minutes –there were fewer pauses between the bongs. It was the shortest press briefing in history and we made a good escape from the journalists and the quake by evacuating to a safe area.
I was frequently summoned to Jamie the Humanitarian Coordinator’s office for meetings and it was at one such meeting on Sunday afternoon when the alarm went off. Myself, Jamie and another colleague, Stine took to the stairs like three demented escapees fleeing from the unknown. Stine, a tall, fit, much younger woman led the pace and I was on her heels. I don’t think I have run as quickly as that in 20 years and once we reached the outside I gasped for breath after the dash.
With no proper space set up for the influx of surge staff, Leszek and I were sharing a desk. At lunchtime he went off looking for another colleague on the same floor, when the earthquake alarm went off. There was no pause this time; it was just a high-pitched screech of an alarm indicating that this was a serious quake. I fled from the desk, leaving everything behind and ran outside the area heading for the stairs. I passed the doorway leading to Jamie’s office, which is double the size of an average door and I spotted another colleague under the doorway holding on. Remembering the solitary doors that had remained standing in Gorkha, I jumped under the door. Soon we were about eight people all squeezed in. Stine, whose office was facing the door where we sheltered, came out of her office as if in slow motion; she was like an old woman with her arms stretched out, fingers splayed, trying to keep balance. Once she realized she wasn’t going to fit under the doorway, she retreated back to her office and under her desk for protection.
It was the longest 45 seconds of my entire life. I could feel my breath shortening in panic as I gulped for air. I didn’t want to die. I was told that the building was earthquake proof, but if something is shaken for such a long time, eventually even the strongest building will give and tumble down. We had experienced a 7.3 magnitude earthquake; the original quake was a 7.9, considerably stronger. As the alarm bells slowed, we rushed down the stairs out of the building and on to safe ground.
After an hour or so, Leszek made a dash to recover his laptop and also recovered my phone. I was reluctant to retrieve my laptop and it was at least five that evening before I took up the nerve to race upstairs and pick it up.
There had been several aftershocks that Leszek had felt during previous nights, enough to make him run outdoors. I was obviously too tired and slept through them all. It probably had something to do with the fact that I had earplugs to block out the noise. The crows go berserk when an earthquake occurs, waking up Leszek, while I slept peacefully on.
Back to the 12 May and the 7.3 magnitude quake and we stood outside the building waiting for the all- clear but in the space of 30 minutes there were another five aftershocks, one measuring six on the Reciter scale. After some time we headed to the tents that had been set up on the grounds, to do some work. The international media began calling so I got on with the job, setting up interviews.
I recovered my laptop before we left the office for the evening and returned to the hotel. Shops were once again closed as shop owners and staff went back home to their loved ones. As we walked down the street on the way to the hotel, old and young, men and women sat outside on the pavement, afraid to stay inside. Some of our own colleagues opted to sleep in tents in the hotel grounds. That evening, exhausted from the day’s events, I soon dozed off and slept with one foot on the floor.
I slept well until, what felt like a poltergeist banging my bed off a wall woke me up at 2.05 a.m. Jumping from the bed, I ran down the stairs. A number of other hotel guests followed – we waited outside as the crows went bananas for several minutes. Eventually we went back inside. An hour later, sleep eluding me, we had yet another aftershock; this time not as strong but still enough to be felt and just three other hotel guests and myself stood outside the building. The remaining idiots had decided it wasn’t worth it to take themselves out of bed and out of the way of danger leading me to believe that some people have shit for brains. One man came down the stairs and sat in the reception area, presumably as a safety precaution.
Logic obviously doesn’t come in to the equation for many. When I stood outside the hotel the first time shortly after the first aftershock I noticed the perimeter wall of the hotel had collapsed, presumably from the afternoon’s quake. A Swedish woman and her daughter were standing outside when I pointed out the collapsed wall. “We don’t know if it was the earthquake that caused the wall to fall,” said the woman. “What,” I asked, “do you think made it fall – somebody blowing it down?”
There was fun with hard work, stress and reward of a job well done. But perhaps the most memorably documented moment of the three weeks I spent in Nepal was during the visit of the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos. She was meeting with the Prime Minister and I had organized a TV interview with Al Jazeera, who had a temporary studio set up at the site of the nine-story tower, which was a national monument and had collapsed, killing many. Markus my colleague who had led the mission was accompanying Amos along with her special assistant Manu (Emmanuel), on these official visits. I needed to ensure she would make it to the live panel interview. The following is a transcript of the texts we exchanged on that Saturday:
Me: Markus. The interview for Al Jazeera takes place in Dharara Square at 10.45. Orla.. There is an area where Valerie can prepare if she gets there early.
Markus: But she has the Indian Amb(assador) at 10.30!! If the program has changed, I need urgent advice. Please get back to me now.
Me: Give me five.
PHONE CONVERSATION IN THE MEANTIME
Markus: VA will need some stats on accomplishments over the past several days. How much has come in? Teams? Items? Some key snappy points on what has happened by 11.30 for Al-Jaz.
Me: On the case. Will get it to you and bring hard copy.
Markus: Good. Just to confirm that you also be at Durbar Square.
Me: See earlier message. Dharara Square. Where the big tower was.
Markus: Well copied. Yes. FYI VA will go back to PM so will be late for Al-Jaz.
Me: Straight to Al-Jaz after?
Markus: Yes. On the way to square. VA wants to do this quickly. Few questions.
Me: This is a live weekly show.
Markus: Where are you?
Me: Many gone for you… sorry Manu.
Me: Manu gone out to you.
Markus: You see us?
Me: Where are you?
Markus: Arrived at entrance to square. Same place as last visit.
Markus: We’re at the wrong location.
Photography by Orla Fagan. Click on pics to enlarge.
Until next time
Political Studies Association of Ireland Annual Conference 2015
Gresham Metropole Hotel Cork, 16 – 18 October 2015
The annual conference of the PSAI will take place in Cork over the weekend 16 – 18 October 2015. Paper proposals are invited from all areas of the discipline. A detailed list of themes is included below and is also available on the conference website at http://www.ucc.ie/en/government/psai/
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Ten years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami wiped out huge tracts of Aceh in Indonesia and killed thousands in Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Thailand, as well Somalia and the coastal areas in Kenya, I’m back in Thailand and still working in emergency. It’s hard to believe that I began this path with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, arriving in Banda Aceh just a few days after the tsunami wiped out more than 240,000 lives, destroyed homes and infrastructure – schools, shops, mosques, hotels, hospitals, road, sewage, water and electricity systems. I remember arriving to Jakarta with less than six months to run on my passport. In many countries in Asia, they simply don’t admit travellers but they were making exceptions for those who arrived to assist.
I had a few days in Jakarta buying tents and equipment to transport to Aceh where my Goal colleague Sheilagh Henry was busy trying to set up office and find us accommodation. I managed to get a flight up first to Medan before securing a seat on a flight to Banda Aceh where a driver, recognisable by his Goal baseball hat, picked me up. Mobile phones weren’t working properly and coverage was intermittent, so with a little luck and a lot of persistence I was able to contact Sheilagh eventually.
The earthquake that caused the tsunami measured 9 on the Reciter scale – it was massive. I can’t begin to describe what a terrible scene greeted me – it was an Armageddon. It seemed as if an angry god had thrown his toys out of a pram; boats, cars, houses all thrown together. Mobile and communication masts were mangled and broken and the amount of sticky, dirty mud was incredible. Everything was covered in it – everything was dirty. You could see the water/mud marks on the houses that remained standing, like a high-tide mark.
There was a ship that ended up in a housing estate with the steering wheel of a car sticking out from it – I couldn’t help imagining that there were many bodies buried beneath. The top floor of a hotel lay on top of a pile of rubble that was once three or maybe four other floors – who knows. But many, many bodies buried beneath and I doubt ever located.
Such was the chaos in the days after the tsunami it took me more than a week to realise we were supposed to be driving on the left hand side of the road – the same as Ireland. I think people who had survived this tsunami just disregarded rules – in the grander scheme of things, it really didn’t seem to matter.
We had two local women working for us with the Irish NGO, Goal. Kurnia was a young woman with excellent English. She accompanied me as we travelled around in the car. The volunteers in the Red Crescent Society, the real heroes, were out on the streets bagging bodies and leaving them on the side of the road to be collected, like garbage. It was the only way it could be done. It was a mammoth task and Kurnia, who had lost members of her family just didn’t want to see bodies up close and personal. You didn’t need glasses to see just how distended and distorted bodies were.
The bodies took weeks to collect many of them never to be found. All numbers were just estimated as whole families died, I’m guessing with nobody left to report the deaths. The authorities opened a mass grave outside the town and didn’t bury the bodies deeply enough so coming in and out from assessing the areas outside Aceh, the smell of rotting corpses that would greet you when the helicopter landed, was stomach churning.
I think one of the most poignant things for me was standing on a street one day, looking down and there was a family photo album flapping, pages turning randomly. It felt like sneaking a look into some family’s life and being privy to very personal moments. The smiling happy faces stared back at me, making me realise that there were very real, ordinary people, just like me, who had probably not survived.
The other woman who worked with us had qualified as a doctor and was in Jakarta visiting relatives when the earthquake and tsunami struck. Her home wasn’t the only thing she lost; Fita had two children, a boy and a girl aged about eight and ten. Both children were lost in the tsunami. She was desperate to find them and went off looking at even a hint of unaccompanied children showing up. She kept saying her children were not dead; she had no bodies, but that they were missing. Fita, like so many others was in denial. She would have been in her late 30’s by that time and within weeks her husband had her attending a fertility clinic to see could they have more children. I’m not sure Fita was ready for that – she just wanted her missing children, who like so many more, never turned up again.
Fita also shared with us the stories that were in circulation among the community, that Christian soldiers had been seen drinking alcohol while sitting on the graves the previous evening and that’s what caused the tsunami. We had trouble trying to convince Fita that they were indeed, just false rumours.
I managed a small office in Calang and travelling on the helicopter up along the coast you could see just the tiles of where the houses once stood. The trees were gone, the grass was burnt and it was best described as desolation. Every now and again you could see small camps where tents were erected for villages to protect them from the elements.
From Banda Aceh to the town of Calang, a distance of some 130 kilometres, there wasn’t a house left standing. Nothing stood, except the odd mosque – the source of another rumour, that god protected the mosques, that’s why they remained standing. Nothing to do with the fact that there was much better building materials used and because there were so many windows, it allowed the water to travel through.
The tsunami came in for about 1.5 kilometres and at the speed of a jumbo jet. When people saw the water going out, they ran out to fetch the fish that were left behind. I met a man from the mayor’s office in Calang one day at the heliport who told me he knew what was happening when he saw the tide go out; gathered his family and they ran to the hills where they watched the town die.
Calang is a peninsula, so the water came in from all sides. If 20 per cent of the population survived, it was all that survived the wall of water. Just one house remained and was used by the army and for our coordination meetings. We lived in tents by the water and worked and slept there. We travelled around by motorcycle (until a safety officer arrived from Goal headquarters and put a stop to all that). The roads were unusable by car and the road from Aceh to Calang was only accessible by helicopter.
Calang was a dangerous place to be and more especially so if you were national staff. I had a young water engineer from Jakarta, Satya, working with us – it was his first job and he would travel to the villages and assist them to de-salinate the wells, essential for the community.
At the time the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement wanted autonomy from national government in Jakarta. The western coast of Aceh is rich in oil and it was believed that most of the oil money went to the capital while Aceh remained a poor relation. Like other freedom movements, when they begin, they are full of ideals. This group, like others, descended into violence, causing fear among communities and more so for those who were not from Aceh.
The tsunami cut off the GAM volunteers from their food access, so they were more likely to come closer into the towns and villages to try and get food. Foreigners and people from Jakarta were easy targets and Satya was stopped on more than one occasion questioned where he was going and what he was doing. He and I both were terrified something would happen. He left the camp one morning and when he hadn’t returned at the agreed time I began to really worry about his safety. I eventually went to report it to the local army captain who radioed ahead to the outposts to keep an eye out for the team and report back on any untoward incidents.
Long after sunset when I had no nails left on my fingers and many imagined conversations with his parents explaining how he had died and how I was responsible, Satya showed up to the camp. I didn’t know whether to kiss him or admonish him, but I was never so relieved in my life to see anybody. The bike had a puncture and the radios weren’t charged…. If it could go wrong, it did.
Three months after the tsunami, the Goal operation closed down in Aceh. It was a pity, we were doing some real and meaningful work there.
I returned to Ireland and joined the other Irish NGO, Trocaire covering the tsunami region and began another great adventure based in Jakarta, but travelled to Sri Lanka, India and Thailand to report on the work or their partners.
Today, 10 years later, the Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos will speak at a commemoration ceremony in Phuket. There is still a disconnect with the Aceh authorities and the government in Jakarta, so much so, there is no national commemoration.
I would like to think that if another tsunami came racing for the shore, that people would be smart enough to get out of its way, but we won’t know that until it happens again. In the meantime, I continue to work in emergency reporting on disasters throughout Asia Pacific.
My wish for the New Year would be to be made redundant – no more disasters, no more wars, no more human suffering. I hope 2015 brings you peace wherever you are reading this.
Aginas 16 cradles his sleeping 2 month old niece Safa
Young patients at the Blang Padang clinic in Banda Aceh
Boat and orphanage
Until next time
I went back to Tacloban one year after the biggest typhoon believed to ever make land struck the Visayas, the central islands of the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) left death and destruction, destroying people’s jobs, their homes, their schools and health clinics. There was so much debris on the road from the airport to the town it prevented the much needed rescue operation getting under way for several days.
I visited with the UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos, flying over the city and it was like as if somebody had tossed their toys out of a pram. Masts were mangled, cars and motorcycle taxis strewn around, ships gone aground and everywhere the corrugated tin roofs and houses blown to shreds.
A tidal wave caused by the storm killed many hundred of people living along the shoreline in shanty towns. One aid worker travelling to a meeting a few days after the typhoon saw the leg of a dead child sticking out from under the debris.
Stopping at the spot to rescue the body on his return, they lifted some of the debris to find 50 bodies beneath. These were the poorest of the poor; the people who live in shanty towns built on the shores of the ocean and whose only means of earning a living is by fishing. Many are undocumented, probably never registered at birth adding to the uncertainty of just how many died during that time – we may never know the true numbers.
One year on and Tacloban is a different city. Traffic is back, people are trading on the streets again, the city is alive. There are large numbers of very vulnerable people who remain living in less than ideal conditions and there are concerns that when the next puff of wind comes along, they will be the most affected. The very poor have no safety nets. To truly protect them, you would first need to tackle the problem of endemic poverty.
However, standing in the streets of Tacloban and looking around the improvement is remarkable and visible. All is not perfect, but in true Filipino fashion, they have dusted themselves off and are getting on with their lives. Their resilience is awe inspiring and often times humbling.
Jeff Manibay is one such example of Filipino resilience. Both his elderly parents died during the typhoon. “We are well used to typhoons,” he told me, “but nobody expected the tsunami-like surge of water that came.” With the death of his parents Manibay lost almost everything he held dear, including his business.
The owner of a small cable network Cat8, all Jeff’s equipment was lost when the ocean surge crashed through the streets of Tacloban. His team were out filming the typhoon at the time.
Rather than wallowing in pity, Manibay set out to rebuild his life, energising the community and bringing them together to remember those who were lost during the typhoon. He organised the candlelight vigil and worked tirelessly to ensure people across the Philippines and the world do not forget what happened to them.
Mass was celebrated at the graveyard in the morning where the victims were buried. Thousands came to mourn their dead. I watched one woman stand alone at a grave, head bent, sobbing silently. She was like so many others who came. The heads of the UN agencies came to pay their respect, as did the non-government organisations who were so crucial to the recovery efforts in the clean up operation.
Tacloban is Marcos-country and Imelda herself arrived via helicopter. She was then brought in a wheelchair to the awning, where she sat at the top row. I know the woman is 85 years-old but she has had some amount of plastic surgery, not a line on her face, or her make up was so thick you just couldn’t see what was behind the mask. She was wearing a wig and had a beautiful diamond swan broche pinned on her dress. She was wearing a pair of Ecco sandals, which resembled something a nun would wear… I wasn’t impressed with the choice of shoes from a woman whose footwear take up the contents of a museum in Manila.
The Marcos and Aquino families are political opponents, so there was minimal representation from the government, which is currently Aquino-led. The Mayor (a relation of Imelda) is critical of the government’s response to the recovery efforts. At the end of the day everything is political, even rebuilding communities after a typhoon.
That evening people lined the streets in a candlelight vigil that stretched for over 24 kilometres. The atmosphere changed from the somber graveside prayers earlier in the morning to an almost carnival-like celebration with candles lined along the main streets, winding around the side roads and out as far as the settlements housing those who lost their home duirng the storm.
I was privileged to be able to return one year after Typhoon Haiyan; privileged to stand with the people of Tacloban; and privileged to call some my friends.
Imelda Marcos uses her body guards as crutches to help her to her seat at the commemoration mass for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan
Remembering the dead at the one year anniversary mass for victims of Typhoon Haiyan
Check out some of their stories on unocha.org/philippines
ABC Australia News Radio Report
Irish aid worker Orla Fagan is based in the Philippines and she tells John this morning about civet coffee produced in an unusual manner using civet cats. You can follow Orla on her blog at http://www.fagansblog.com
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Thank you to Pete Muller for this photo showing just how devastating Ebola is on the people of West Africa. It is truly heartbreaking.
Classical science teaches us that water is composed of the chemical elements hydrogen and oxygen and exists in gaseous, liquid, and solid states. There is a now awareness of a fourth state of water – a plasma. Water is one of the most plentiful and essential of compounds. It is vital for life, participating in virtually every process that occurs in plants and animals. Although the molecules of water are simple in structure (H2O), the physical and chemical properties of the compound are extraordinarily complicated.
Water is a colourless, tasteless, and odourless liquid at room temperature. One of its most important properties is its ability to dissolve many other substances. The versatility of water as a solvent is essential to living organisms. Life is believed to have originated in the world’s oceans, which are complicated solutions. Living organisms use aqueous solutions – e.g. blood and digestive juices, sweat and urine – as mediums for carrying out all biological processes.
The water molecule is…
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