Helping smart: Haiyan and lessons from past disasters

Aid agencies and disaster experts give lessons and best practices on responding to calamities of Haiyan's scale

COORDINATION KEY. Disaster experts say it is vital for the government and aid groups to set up coordination systems to efficiently reach the people who need help the most. Photo by Noel Celis/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – “Work within chaos.”

This is how Patrick Fuller of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) describes the daunting challenges the Philippine government and aid groups face in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

Yet Fuller, who was also part of relief efforts during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, said that the Philippines and the international community can draw many lessons from past calamities of this scale. 

“In 2004, it was chaos too and you have to work within that chaos,” Fuller told Rappler. “You have to work as best as you can with local authorities, within coordination mechanisms to ensure the vulnerable communities have their needs.”

While the devastation from Haiyan is overwhelming, Fuller and disaster experts said there is a lot that the government, the so-called aid industry, and even ordinary citizens can do to help. Experience teaches that the key lesson is to help smart.

Haiyan and tsunamis: How similar are they?

In learning from past crises, experts said it is important to understand that all disasters are different in scope, scale, and the nature of the impact.

Journalists and observers compared Haiyan to the Indian Ocean tsunami because of the storm surge. Yet Fuller said there are key similarities and differences.

“In the tsunami, you didn’t have the wind. But a similarity is the difficulty of reaching these areas – wide geographical areas. The tsunami affected 13 countries. It was massive. Here, we have a particular problem of just how many different islands are affected. It seems no one has a clue. Has anyone heard from these places?” 

Martin Mulligan, who headed an Australian research project on the recovery effort after the 2004 tsunami, told Rappler via e-mail that Haiyan and the Indian Ocean tsunami differed starkly from the 2011 Japan tsunami.      

“The Japanese tsunami struck with greater force than either the 2004 tsunami or Haiyan, but the affected communities had better protection, stronger housing, and stronger infrastructure; as a result the death toll from the Japanese tsunami was much less than that following the 2004 tsunami,” said Mulligan, who is also an associate professor at the RMIT University in Melbourne. 

The Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 200,000, while the Japan quake and tsunami left more than 15,000 dead. Over 2,000 are confirmed dead in Haiyan so far but officials expect the final death toll to be “horrific.”

Despite the differences, experts said there are basic but sometimes overlooked lessons that can prevent the victims from experiencing a second disaster:

MILITARY ROLE. The military plays a key role in speeding up the pace of relief efforts and collaborating with aid groups. Photo by Photo by Noel Celis/AFP

1. Set up systems for coordination   

Fuller said it is critical for the government and aid groups to set up a system for coordination, especially with “a plethora of aid” coming from abroad.

“You want to avoid duplications where organizations go to the same place, giving the same relief. That system is designed to facilitate people coming in. It takes days, even a week or more, to set that up but you also have to go with some kind of relief now, that’s the expectation of people. Getting the balance right is difficult,” he said.

Mulligan said the relief effort in Haiyan appears to be off to a slow start and the military plays a key role in speeding this up. The Philippine military and the US marines are now working together to do just that.

Fuller said a lesson from Haiti was to ensure aid groups and the military collaborate well. “They have to accommodate the needs of humanitarian groups, not just military cargo coming in. In Haiti, there were difficulties working together, communicating our needs, and getting relief out.” 

2. Fundamentals first, recover dead later

Philippine officials said they are prioritizing the needs of the living over the dead. The statement drew criticism from international media, with bodies on the streets of storm-ravaged Tacloban unrecovered for days.

Yet Paul Arbon, director of the Torrens Resilience Institute in Australia, told Rappler there is a rationale behind this.

“We have learnt that there is less need to focus immediately on recovering dead bodies because actually, they pose little risk to health. It diverts resources from immediate rescue and supply and there’s relatively less concern about the risk of spread of communicable diseases,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Arbon said the focus has to be on fundamentals first: water, food, health care, and essential infrastructure like power and water supply systems, and communications, transport, and logistics.

‘PLETHORA OF AID.’ Helpers of the German Red Cross and of the German technical relief organization THW (Technisches Hilfswerk) load aid packages for the victims of typhoon 'Haiyan' in the Philippines. Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP

3. Donate cash, don’t just charge into disaster zone

The experts stressed that ordinary people can aggravate the situation by donating unnecessary items or showing up unprepared.  

“[There is a] need to control better those who are allowed into the disaster zone – so that recognized international teams with appropriate support and [are] able to look after themselves in the field are privileged over self-responding sole volunteers,” Arbon said.  

“There is often an influx of well-meaning individuals into disaster zones and this creates a secondary problem for those attending to manage the event,” he said. “Don’t create a burden or a secondary disaster by your actions.”

Arbon added that donating cash allows aid groups to buy goods close to or even in the disaster zone, an added benefit in getting economic activity and employment back on their feet.

4. Recovery is both physical and social 

After the immediate relief, Mulligan said long-term rehabilitation starts with a thorough assessment of needs and inclusive community consultation.

Here, it is vital for international NGOs to identify widely respected community members and involve them in relief and recovery work.

“Very often tsunami survivors were resettled in new locations where they had no family or social support and had little access to paid employment. Physical planning for resettlement needs to be matched by thorough social planning to ensure that the complex needs of the disaster survivors can be addressed as well as possible.

Mulligan said recovering from a disaster as big as Haiyan will take years.

“A great deal of patience is needed to work with traumatized and dislocated people and communities. International agencies must be involved because a disaster of this magnitude exceeds any local or national response capacity,” he said.

5. Don’t go back to how things were

Now more than ever, experts said national governments and the international community must understand that poor communities in the Asia Pacific are highly exposed to the risk of climate change.

Arbon said it takes commitment and investment to build resilience.

“Recovery returns us to where we were when if fact we should think about how communities could develop. Learn lessons and apply them, and get to a place where they are more resilient, more capable should such an event occur in the future.”

Beyond donating and volunteering, individuals must also take action.

“Reflect on this event and think about your own preparedness. What are the potential hazards and risks to your community? How prepared is your household? How would you survive for a number of days cut off from external support or supply?” Arbon said.

“Do you have a plan?” – 

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