Relief at last for victims of Typhoon Haiyan as aid distribution gathers pace

‘In disasters like this, the sad reality is that the poorer you are, the greater the chance there is of dying’

Members of the Australian National Critical Care and Trauma response team arrive in Tacloban on Thursday to help people affected byTyphoon Haiyan. Photograph:  Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images

Members of the Australian National Critical Care and Trauma response team arrive in Tacloban on Thursday to help people affected byTyphoon Haiyan. Photograph: Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images

Fri, Nov 15, 2013, 01:00

Arc lamps turn the night time day as the propellers of a giant Hercules C131 transporter plane scream to a halt. More refugees are disgorged to safety, food, water and shelter; and more pallets of aid are loaded for the return flight to Tacloban.  

A massive and sustained air lift gathered pace throughout yesterday and into last night as finally, assistance was delivered en mass from Cebu in the Philippines to the stricken people of the neighbouring island provinces of Leyte and Samur.  

This was all of six days since Typhoon Haiyan had ripped through the central Philippines, killing at least 2,300 - though probably more - and disrupting the lives of millions of others.

The office of the base operations squadron, which opens out on to the airport apron in Cebu, was last night bursting with a gaggle of nationalities.   The most noticeable group were the red-shirted members of the Philippines Red Cross. There was a party also from the German Rapid Deployment Unit (water supply). The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency was there too. So also was the World Food Programme, the UN High Commission for Refugees, the Australian embassy, with disaster support staff, military and civilian, and other assorted military and police types.  

All were engaged in earnest discussions about timing and logistics. In a cordoned-off area of the base’s VIP lounge, Philippine military personnel and aid co-ordinators poured over charts and “to do” lists.   Out on the apron as the Hercules taxied to a halt and emptied, forklift trucks loaded on more aid. Across from the base office, the new arrivals were looked after in billets while earlier arrivals sought the latest information from them about their stricken city.

Some wanted to return to Tacloban already, the immediacy of their fears apparently passed.   Brig-Gen Raymundo Elefante, wing commander of the Air Base Wing and the man overseeing operations, appeared deceptively relaxed leaning against the operations office counter chatting to a colleague while all about him, emergency workers came and went, a sudden burst of monsoon-like rain distracting absolutely no one.  

“I’ve been to many UN operations, in Haiti for instance,” he told me, “but compared to this, my mission there was nothing.”  

The mission to hand yesterday saw upwards of 24 sorties across the Camotes Sea to Tacloban from the Philippines Air Force base that adjoins Cebu’s civilian airport. Priority was given to disaster relief workers and aid going in, and to refugees coming out.  

In the days immediately following last Friday’s typhoon, which destroyed Tacloban, a city of some 220,000 people, tents and tarpaulins were airlifted in but food and water remained so scarce, that looting erupted.

Irish aid worker Eoghan Rice of Trócaire got to Tacloban yesterday. Aid is arriving also from Oxfam Ireland, Concern and Goal.  

“The aid is getting in,” Mr Rice reported. “I met a woman today who was one of 600 people sheltering in a seminary building and receiving three meals a day. Some people are trying to move to unaffected areas, but the vast majority are trapped in this city and completely dependent on aid. They don’t have the ability to buy food, so they are reliant on the distributions that are coming in.”

He drove to the city from Ormoc, a port on the opposite side of Leyte to Tacloban.

“We saw workers today searching and pulling bodies from the rubble - about 100 bodies in different parts of the city. Most were pulled from residential areas. In disasters like this, the sad reality is that the poorer you are, the greater the chance there is of dying. In these areas, the shelter wasn’t strong enough to withstand the storm.”

  Back on the air force base apron in Cebu, an MV22-B vertical take-off plane, whose propellers start like helicopter blades but swivel forward once airborne, was readying for another dash across to Tacloban.