11/17/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Can We Learn From Typhoon Haiyan?


The Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Credit: MSF


That's the best way to describe the numbers and images emanating from the disaster zone in the central Philippines. Even among those of us who are veterans of many other major disasters, and to those of us who have lived and worked in the Philippines, the impact of possibly the most powerful storm ever to hit the planet continues to shake us to the core.

The numbers speak for themselves.

When the typhoon made landfall it walloped with winds of 235 km/hr for a hellish 10 minutes and peaked for one minute at a devastating 315 km/hr. Rain fell at rates of up to 30 mm per hour.

The latest UN figures place the number of people affected at a staggering 13 million - more than 10 percent of the entire population of the Philippines. Almost 4 million are displaced, though that number is likely to increase as new areas are assessed. According to UNICEF, a staggering 5 million children are impacted.

Over half a million men, women and children are homeless and living in the open, desperate for food, safe drinking water, says the UN.

In stark, almost extraordinary, language the UN is not mincing words when describing the devastating impact of Haiyan:

"The scale and scope of this tragedy has shocked everyone. Despite the evacuation of people before the typhoon hit and the presence of humanitarian teams on the ground, nobody anticipated the ferocity of the typhoon and the storm surge. People in the Philippines are resilient; they deal with numerous crises each year, but this situation was outside their experience. "

The UN says as much as 90 percent of housing is completely destroyed in some areas.

Even for a disaster-prone country such as the Philippines - where earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and extreme weather are commonplace - emerging quickly from Typhoon Haiyan will be extremely challenging. The UN appeal to fund immediate, life-saving humanitarian needs is $301 million, of which only a quarter is funded.

"This will be like re-building an entire economy from scratch," Asif Ahmad, the UK ambassador to the Philippines said Saturday.

As the storm hit an area that relies heavily on agriculture and fishing, long-term recovery will be daunting. Officials say that poverty levels and malnutrition rates in at least three of the affected regions were already higher than the national average.

Currently, the final death toll is at around 4,200 -- significantly lower than the 10,000 originally feared. The deadliest storm to hit the Philippines was in November 1991, when as many as 8,000 people perished.

The lower death toll is, in part, due to the fact that many people in the storm's path were evacuated hours ahead of time. Still, the fact that the majority of people in the central Philippines live near the water and at sea level makes escape difficult. Compounding vulnerability is that years of deforestation has stripped the hills of their ability to block waters. In addition, most Filipinos in this archipelago nation do not know how to swim. There are also reports that officials neglected to warn coastal dwellers of the likelihood of storm surges, which in some areas rose to the second floor of buildings.

As in many disasters, there are complaints that disaster relief is arriving too late to the worst affected areas. In fact, the UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, during a visit to the Philippines this week, appeared dumbfounded why things haven't moved faster. "I think we are all extremely distressed that it is already day six and we have not managed to reach everyone," she was quoted as saying.

When trying to comprehend the scale of the recovery effort and how we can respond better in the future, several factors need to be kept in mind:

  • After the departure of the huge U.S. presence in the Philippines in the early 1990s, the country lost one of its biggest assets in a disaster: the huge logistical and lift capacity provided by the U.S. Air Force and US Navy, housed respectively at Clark and Subic on Luzon Island. Their presence in their former colony made an enormous difference in the aftermath of the devastating eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in June 1991 -- even though it coincided with their eventual, quick departure.
  • Because of the devolution of power in the Philippines, governance has been delegated down to the very basic and local levels (the barangay is the smallest administrative unit). As with the Haiti earthquake, much of that infrastructure is gone. Many officials are likely displaced, missing, searching for loved ones, injured or even dead. This may help explain the slow response pace in some areas. It also appears that the central government in Manila was less prepared than expected to meet this disaster head on.
  • This region of the Philippines, especially Cebu, is known as industrious, innovative and hard-working. I have personally seen that what often gets done in Cebu could never be accomplished in the political gridlock of Manila. A roll-up-the-sleeves attitude prevails here and that will surely help speed the pace of recovery.
  • Severe and widespread devastation in the Philippines has stripped most hills of their ability to absorb water. This is a serious problem that will factor into future severe typhoons. Immediate action needs to be taken as part of the "build back better" approach to promote reforestation. Similarly, as Senator Loren Legarda pointed out at the recent UN climate talks, populations need to be re-settled away from vulnerable coastal areas. The devastated peninsula near Tacloban, Barangay 88 (also known as San Jose), which took the brunt of the storm, probably needs to be returned to nature and its 200,000-plus inhabitants resettled.
  • Moreover, as super storms become more commonplace, the pre-positioning of relief supplies (i.e. medicines, nutrition biscuits, shelter materials, water and sanitation supplies) in the disaster-prone areas will become an absolute necessity. Some UN agencies, such as UNICEF, have been pre-positioning supplies in remote parts of the world, however funding for this type of preemptive exercise is hard to come by. Reinforced warehouses will be needed to house the supplies. In addition, stepped up training of volunteers, community health workers and others will help save lives in the immediate aftermath of future disasters.
  • With millions of Filipinos working overseas, as so-called Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs), the pressure on members of this far-flung labor force will increase dramatically. Most OCWs are already over-stretched as it is, having to cover expenses abroad and send money home every month to support immediate and extended families. Employers, support organizations and others will need to provide flexibility and maybe even salary advances to help ease the pressure.
  • Emergency services and protection to women and children must not be ignored. With some 3 million women of reproductive age in the affected area, WHO forecasts 12,000 babies will be born in the next month alone.
  • The next planting season is around the corner, in December and January. The rapid clearing of debris, draining of sea water on inundated fields, and the distribution of seeds and fertilizer needs to happen immediately to allow for a harvest in March/April. Similarly, fishing communities and fish farmers need their livelihoods restored.