The days after the storm – a year on from typhoon Haiyan

Vincent Malasador, DRR Programme Officer for Oxfam in the Philippines, was part of the rapid assessment team that responded to typhoon Haiyan in the immediate aftermath. Here he shares his memories one year on. 

“No food, no water, please help us!” signs from the desperate communities greeted us on the day after super typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) ravaged the Eastern and Central Visayas regions.

Early in the morning of November 9 2013, reports from local and international media flooded the television, radio and social media, presenting a picture of vast damage, loss of life and stories of horror in eastern Visayas. As Oxfam staff we are bound to respond to emergencies, but before Haiyan, my only experience in humanitarian response had been when typhoon Bopha (local name Pablo) struck in Davao Oriental Province, Mindanao, in 2012. 

Welcome signs were replaced by messages of desperation for food, water, shelter and medicine

A day after Haiyan, I joined the rapid assessment team that rushed to Cebu city, hoping to get a ride by plane or sea to Tacloban City, one of the devastated areas. At that time, Samar and Leyte were inaccessible by plane and boat so we drove to Northern Cebu. As we entered the areas affected by typhoon, the horrors from the 2012 typhoon flashed through my mind, particularly how the children and infants had suffered. 

We pushed through to the heart of the disaster and the picture became worse: welcome signs were replaced by messages of desperation for food, water, shelter and medicine written on cardboard, sacks and other materials. 

Stories from affected people are so hard to hear yet we need them to support our analysis. We were a three person team; one of us organising the logistics and administrative needs, another taking media calls, mostly from international organizations, and I focused on rapid assessment. It helped a lot that we came from the same office – so we understood each other. We would wake up very early, take our lunch at sundown and take our sleep hours past midnight; this was the life we had to live so that we could provide the support that the struggling communities needed to survive. 

In the communities, we would hear screams and see pregnant women running and mothers carrying their infants to gather in a crowd where a dump track has halted carrying goods with enough food for a day or two. The desperate scenes from these distributions made us determined to prepare a well organised relief operation. 

The team moved to Daan Bantayan Municipality in Northern Cebu to set up the first Oxfam distribution following Haiyan. New faces came in from different Oxfam offices around the globe and local support from the barangay (village) council, health workers, tanod (community police) and teachers also provided extra hands. The screams that we heard at previous distributions were replaced by laughter and smiles. Women, senior citizens, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers had their own express lanes. Assuring the people that there was enough for everyone put them at ease. 

Preserving the dignity of the people is one of the most important things we need to consider in doing relief operationGoing to North Cebu, we saw a private car stop along the way and hand over food and small amounts of money to some affected by the typhoon. Others, who had seen this, ran towards the car, which left. Only those who were quick enough could have a piece of the help. Yes, these victims needed food and money to survive and the person in the car no doubt had good intentions by giving, but how you give is another story. As one of the staff
organising the distribution, we discussed with the support personnel from the Local Government Unit that we would be doing the distribution with respect and all of the recipients needed to be treated with dignity. Helping the communities to build back better is not only about the material aspect, but also, and more importantly, about behavior and personal integrity. Preserving the dignity of the people is one of the most important things we need to consider in doing relief operation.

An old woman whom I assisted during a distribution told me, “This is the first time we have been accorded respect and we do not feel merely as victims but as someone in a family who needs help.” At the end of the distribution, all were tired and hungry, but the words of thanks uttered with smiles and the relief reflected in the faces of the people in the community makes the job worthwhile, memorable and heartwarming. 

One year after the storm

One year after, Oxfam has reached 868,960 individuals of around 173,792 families coming from 644 barangays of 32 municipalities in Eastern Leyte, Tacloban City, Eastern Samar, Western Leyte, Ormoc and Northern Cebu. The support extended ranges from WASH non-food items (water kits, hygiene kits, life saver/water filter, mother and infant hygiene kits, mosquito nets, environmental cleaning kits, latrine cleaning kits, sanitation repair kits and school hygiene kits) and support under our emergency food security and vulnerable livelihoods
work (cash for work, boat repairs, fishing implements, food production support, skills training and others).

A year after the storm, communities are still trying to build back better, picking up pieces of what has been washed away by Haiyan. As for me, both a development and humanitarian worker, the transition from the emergency phase to long term development is very important, we need to assist these people not only by supporting them to build back on what they had before the typhoon, but also by helping them to become more resilient so that they can withstand typhoon and other calamities stronger than Haiyan.

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Author: Vincent Malasador
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.