Tag Archives: The Philippines

‘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

Typhoon Haiyan – Orla Fagan Radio Reports from The Philippines

ORLA FAGAN HEAD SHOTOrla Fagan; Spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the PhilippinesFrom Al Jazeera News, VOA, Bloomberg, Financial Times, BBC World, CNN World, ABC Australia to Marian Finucane and Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio 1, Orla has been working around the clock bringing essential updates on one of the world’s greatest disasters  –  Typhoon Haiyan known locally in the Philippines as ‘Yolanda’, live from the UN / Humanitarian Mission offices in Manila.

Orla Speaking to  Sean O’Rourke Wednesday 13th November 2013 [Travelling with Valerie Amos UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator   in Tacloban]

Click on pic to listen [Duration 08:05]
Click on pic to listen
[Duration 08:05]      
Orla Speaking to  Sean O’Rourke Monday 11th November 2013

Click on pic to listen IN 01:02:00
Click on pic to listen
IN: 01:02:00

Orla speaking to Marian Finucane Sunday 10th November 2013

Click on pic to listen  IN: 58:53
Click on pic to listen
IN: 58:53

Orla speaking to Marian Finucane Saturday 9th November 2013

Click on pic to listen  IN: 37:20
Click on pic to listen
IN: 37:20

TYPHOON HAIYAN -  father by tent in ruins

Dazed survivors of a super typhoon that swept through the central Philippines killing an estimated (unconfirmed) 10,000 possible deaths and millions of people left begging for help and scavenged for food, water and medicine, threatening to overwhelm military and rescue resources.  * Death toll could rise once isolated coastal villages are reached. * Roads, airports and bridges destroyed. * U.S. sends Marines and sailors to help.  The government has not confirmed officials’ estimates over the weekend of 10,000 deaths, but the toll from Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded, is clearly far higher than the current official count of 2400. The Armed Forces in the central Philippines  reported a death toll of 942.


Bodies litter streets as at least 2400 killed by Typhoon Haiyan –  latest report say the number dead may increase.

RESCUERS in the central Philippines counted thousands dead and many more injured today, a day after one of the most powerful typhoons on record ripped through the region, wiping away buildings and levelling seaside homes with massive storm surges….. read on…..



The typhoon that struck the Philippines produced an outpouring of emotion on Monday at United Nations talks on a global climate treaty in Warsaw, where delegates were quick to suggest that a warming planet had turned the storm into a lethal monster….read on….



typhoon ship

coastal shot

see more here….




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Blog Edited by Ed Darragh for Orla Fagan in the Philippines

Flagellation, Fast Food and Crucifixions

Diary April 2013

578099_10151593217747269_318518209_nAfter a short sojourn back in Baghdad, which was a gloomy affair and not worth wasting ink on, I arrived in the Philippines a couple of weeks ago and relieved to be out of the open prison that is the UN in Baghdad.

The Philippines, made up of thousands of islands, drifts from one natural catastrophe to another.  Earthquakes, mudslides, typhoons, volcanoes – it is all here. It was occupied by Spain for generations – and took its name from one of the King Philips’. When the Spanish left, the Americans took over and English is widely spoken along with their own local language.

Philippines mapI had forgotten what south-east Asia looks and feels like.   While I couldn’t point out the Philippines on a map before I came here, it reminds me a lot of parts of Indonesia, with the same vegetation, traffic jams, architecture and propensity for unabashed consumerism.  This makes sense when you do look at the map and realise its proximity to China – a hop, skip and a jump and you’re in Beijing.

phillipens floodsTouching down after the long flight, the chaos of the arrival hall in Manila was a bit of a culture shock. It was manic.  People were milling around with no obvious queue for passport control and an hour later I reached the booth and where I had the passport stamped.  I can’t figure out why there is such chaos, there is no fingerprint or iris scan like most other countries.   I probably should have booked a wheelchair – that queue seemed to be moving a lot faster.

In typical UN fashion they put me in to an expensive grotty hotel, with 20-Watt bulbs in the room so you couldn’t see just how grotty the room is, but I did notice the cockroach catchers strategically placed around the bathroom.  The ants scurried over my papaya at breakfast the next morning and the waitress noticed them just as she was putting the plate down in front of me.

Philippines FloodsOn my first evening my colleague Ivy, (a Chinese/Indonesian based in Australia), brought me around to view the place where she stays- a hotel and apartment suite. Finding my way back that evening became a little fraught, as I couldn’t remember where my hotel was located and nobody I asked had ever heard of it.  I am not sure whether it was just my pronunciation that nobody could understand me or whether I just have difficulties understanding the Filipino accent.  It took me the best part of an hour to eventually find my location, which was five minutes on the other side of the road.    I stuck out the grotty hotel for another two days until I just moved in to the hotel where Ivy has her apartment.

Filipinos are paranoid about electricity and go around after you unplugging everything, kettles, laptops, air conditioners.  You arrive back to your hotel and every single electrical appliance is unplugged.  There must be a lot of fires but it has to be more to do with poor wiring than anything else.  Look up at any electricity pole anywhere in the Philippines and it’s like a spaghetti junction.  I’ve seen some streets where the wires almost hit the ground there are so many hanging off the poles.

MANILL A CITY1Manila has no centre but made up of barangays, villages – and my local village is Bel Air Barangay.  Bel Air and village in the same sentence just doesn’t seem right. The office in Manila is based in a modern skyscraper in the heart of the business district, and there are several restaurants, a museum, a chapel and a gym in the building.

The Filipinos are not really in tune with fine dining, but I suppose it’s handy to run out and get a sandwich at lunchtime and the Korean restaurant wasn’t at all bad. McDonald’s and KFC are ubiquitous, a bit like Dublin before all the pubs closed down, where directions were once based on what turn you took after what particular pub; expect of course in the Philippines it would be either McDonald’s, KFC or Starbucks.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many fast food joints in my life and it is reflected in the numbers of overweight Filipinos spilling out of them.   At least though there is choice and I can’t complain if I compare to the auld crap dished up in Baghdad on a daily basis.

MANILLA MEGA MALLThe Philippines closes down for Easter.  The laundry, the shops, the taxis – there is nothing open from Thursday to Saturday evening.  The mall did open on Easter Saturday but most small businesses remain closed until Sunday and people escape from Manila. It makes travelling around the roads out of the city a lot more manageable for those who venture out, especially if you have to contend with the stress of daily traffic jams in high heat and humidity.

This is the only Christian country in the region and the population are 90 per cent Catholic.   Other Christian religions vie for sinners and the biggest competitor is Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), started by a Filipino who left the Catholic church.  When the Protestants didn’t do it for him he set up his own version of Christianity.  INC reminds me of McDonald’s with the same style of distinctive church every couple of kilometres. There is of course a big Muslim population in parts of Mindanao in the South, where they want to cede from the main Filipino government. They’ve managed to kidnap more than a few Irish priests over the years and it’s not a particularly accessible area, especially when a typhoon hits and the people who require assistance are put out of reach when the rescuers are in danger of kidnapping or indeed murder.

On Good Friday we hired a car and driver and headed to San Fernando, a fairly industrial town about 100 kilometres north of Manila.  It’s not a place you’d normally visit as a tourist, except around Easter when visitors from around the world and locals come out to see the re-enactment of the crucifixion. Along the streets of San Fernando men walk in procession, with bare feet and bare upper body’s with heads covered with black cloth bags.  Some wore a crown of thorns and they whipped themselves as they walked along.

734491_10151593217782269_1846790030_nWe arrived just in time to see these men in the throes of self-flagellation making their way along the street.  Old women came out to give them water and juice and they lifted the black cloth to take the drink.  It was impossible to get to the front of the procession without becoming splattered with blood and with no umbrella and wearing a white shirt, I didn’t risk the splattering.  Even if I had an umbrella with me, I don’t think I would fancy a blood-speckled brolly. The men stopped, I assume outside their individual home’s, where they prostrated themselves.  One young woman took off her shoe and patted, (as opposed to beating), the penitent relative on his wounds.  Outside the front of the church, they came to a stop and tossed their crowns of thorn on the roof before dispersing.

While the self-flagellators most likely made their way to the local hospital for some pain killers and dressings for their wounds, we moved on to see the re-enactment of the crucifixions, which was held near the basketball arena.  A couple of hundred people gathered to watch the events.  The arena has a corrugated roof and no walls, to protect people from the scorching sun.  Men sold ice cream and water from bicycles and did a thriving business as the heat of the afternoon began to take its toll.  The proceedings took place outside, with relevant gospel readings and hymns blasted through megaphones.

8067_10151593217812269_174705287_n‘Jesus’, dressed in white, was raised on the cross and they used ropes rather than nails, thankfully.  They also provided him with a little platform to stand so he wasn’t hanging off the cross.  Only one sinner, dressed in red was raised beside him.  They had a bit of difficulty with the third cross and it came down as fast as it went up.  I assume they hadn’t assembled it properly – probably should have gone to Ikea.

I expected it to be a more gruesome affair.  I suppose if there were a few screams or shouts from the self-flagellators it would have made it worse and certainly Jesus didn’t seem to be having that much of a hard time.  When they took him off the cross (using a ladder), they put him on a stretcher, but I didn’t go see if they buried him alive, nor did I go back on Easter Sunday to see if he rose from the dead.

There was a piece in the newspaper coming up to Easter warning people of the potential damage caused by hammering nails through your hands and the consequences of hitting the wrong spot.   The weekend newspapers then pictured a screaming Jesus who was literally nailed to the cross, so I was glad not to witness that particular crucifixion.

philippines1The remainder of the day was spent in Tangatay, a volcano South of Manila, where they charge outrageous prices to take a small boat over to the volcano. Rather than feel as if I was indeed going through self-flagellation by paying the €50 for the 10 minutes boat ride, I found a restaurant selling beer and happily viewed the volcano from the bottom of a beer glass.  Nothing like a nice cold beer all the same after day of flagellation, fast food and crucifixions.

Until next time.

Yours…. Fagan