Philippines disaster lays bare country beset by challenges

The country has long been starved of money by corrupt and incompetent governments

Residents queue up to receive treatment and relief supplies at Tacloban airport  following Friday’s typhoon Haiyan that lashed this city and several provinces in central Philippines. Photograph: AP

Residents queue up to receive treatment and relief supplies at Tacloban airport following Friday’s typhoon Haiyan that lashed this city and several provinces in central Philippines. Photograph: AP

Tue, Nov 12, 2013, 01:00

Days after one of the most powerful storms to buffet the Philippines on record, the scale of the devastation and the desperation of the survivors are only slowly coming into view.

The living told stories of the dead or dying – the people swept away in a torrent of seawater, the corpses strewn haphazardly among the wreckage.

Photographs from the hard-hit city of Tacloban showed vast stretches of land swept clean of homes, and reports emerged of people who were desperate for food and water raiding aid convoys and stripping the shops that were left standing.

As yesterday dawned, it became increasingly clear that typhoon Haiyan had ravaged cities, towns and fishing villages when it played a deadly form of hopscotch across the islands of the central Philippines last Friday. By some estimates, at least 10,000 people may have died in Tacloban alone, and with phone service out across stretches of the far-flung archipelago, it was difficult to know if the storm was as deadly in more remote areas.

Barrelling across palm- fringed beaches and ploughing into frail homes with a force that by some estimates approached that of a tornado, Haiyan delivered a crippling blow to this country’s midsection.

The culprit increasingly appeared to be a storm surge that was driven by those winds, which were believed to be among the strongest recorded in the Philippines, lifting a wall of water on to the land as they struck. By some accounts, the winds raged ashore at 306km/h (190mph).

Aid struggle
As aid crews struggled to reach ravaged areas, the storm appeared to lay bare some of the perennial woes of the Philippines. The country’s roads and airports, long starved of money by corrupt and incompetent governments, are some of the worst in southeast Asia and often make travelling long distances a trial in the best of times. Yesterday, clogged with debris from splintered buildings and shattered trees, the roads in the storm’s path were worse, slowing rescue teams.

The storm also posed new challenges for the president, Benigno Aquino, who just two months ago struggled to wrest back a major city in the south from insurgents.

Aquino has won plaudits at home and abroad for his fight against corruption during his 3½ years in office, leading to increased foreign investment and an impressive growth rate, but he must still contend with Muslim separatists in the south and provinces that have long been the fiefdoms of regional strongmen and have been resistant to government control.

Looting and robberies
Now add to that list a storm that is threatening to be one of the country’s worst natural disasters, at a time when emergency funds have been depleted by other calamities, most notably an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 that struck the middle of the country four weeks ago. Yesterday, after the reports of widespread raiding of shops and robberies and rising fears of a breakdown of law and order, the government said it was flying more police to the central Philippines.

Although deadly storms are not unusual in the Philippines, typhoon Haiyan appears to stand apart, both in the ferocity of its winds, which some described as sounding like a freight train, and in its type of destruction. The usual cause of death from typhoons in the Philippines is from mudslides and river flooding, as waterways swell with rainwater.

So when Haiyan sped across the islands last Friday, some officials and weather experts in the Philippines thought they had witnessed something of a miracle. The storm that lit up social media for days with dire warnings was thought to have mostly spared the islands because it did not linger long enough to dump a deluge of rainwater.

What they did not factor into their hopeful assessments was a storm surge that some reports said was 4m (13ft) in Tacloban, and which left a trail of destruction that in some ways mirrored the aftermath of tsunamis. One photograph of a large ship that was stranded onland resembled images from Japan in 2011, when an earthquake sent a wall of water crashing in to its northeastern shore.

Low-lying cities
While it was unclear if the power of the storm was tied to climate change, the surge may serve as another reminder to low-lying cities of the need to prepare for the worst. Aquino had urged residents to leave low-lying areas, but he did not order an evacuation.

As the president arrived in Tacloban to meet victims of the storm and to co-ordinate rescue and clean-up efforts, his defence secretary, Voltaire Gazmin, described the chaos in the city of 220,000: “There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate.”

Lynette Lim, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, weathered the storm in a local government office in Tacloban before leaving the city on a military aircraft on Sunday morning. She said that even schools, gymnasiums and other sites that the local government had designated as evacuation centres had failed to hold up against the powerful winds. “The roofs had been ripped off, the windows had shattered, and sometimes the ceilings had caved in.”

Poor neighbourhoods fared especially badly, with virtually no structures left standing except a few government buildings. With no police officers in sight on Sunday morning, Lim said, people had begun grabbing food and other items off pharmacy and grocery shop shelves.

Video from Tacloban on ABS-CBN television showed scores of people entering shops and stuffing suitcases and bags with clothing and housewares.

One photo showed a man holding a gun protecting his shop. News reports from Tacloban told of how officials were unable to get an accurate death count because law enforcement and government personnel could not be found after the storm. Tacloban’s mayor, Alfred Romualdez, was reported to have been “holding on to his roof” before being rescued, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Aid efforts in the Philippines are complicated by the magnitude of the devastation and problems with communications systems. In addition, the Philippine National Red Cross said its relief efforts were being hampered as people grabbed supplies from the trucks sent from the southern port city of Davao to Tacloban on Sunday, the Associated Press reported.

International aid agencies and foreign governments were also sending emergency teams. At the request of the Philippine government, US defence secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the deployment of ships and aircraft to bring emergency supplies and help in the search-and-rescue efforts.

US ‘ready to assist’
US president Barack Obama issued a statement on Sunday saying he expected “the incredible resiliency of the Philippine people” to help the country, a US ally, through the trauma. He said the US government also stood ready to assist the government’s relief and recovery efforts.

On Sunday, about 90 US marines and sailors based in Okinawa, Japan, landed in the Philippines, as part of an advance team assessing the disaster to determine what the Pentagon might need to help in relief efforts.

Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Philippines, said he was concerned that the damage reports seemed to be mainly from Tacloban, where aid has so far been concentrated, and not from the many fishing communities that line the coast.

“The coastal areas can be quite vulnerable – in many cases, you have fishing communities right up to the shoreline, and they can be wiped out” by a powerful storm surge, he said.

“The disturbing reports are the lack of reports, and the areas that are cut off could be quite severely hit.” – (New York Times)

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