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Nov 19 2013

Toofan

The word typhoon comes via India, Iran and Arabic.

Toofan. Storm. The Typhoon. It is a word that conjures up power.

We can put aside what I think about global warming. We can put aside about what I think about religious missionaries. We can put aside all that and say this.

Typhoon Haiyan was a real monster. The speed, size and power of this storm is so great that we are considering the establishment of new criteria to judge it. 

And what it hit was the Islands of the Philippines, with little shelter, large numbers of slums and shanty towns the rural sector provided little protection against the storm. Even structures made out of brick and concrete were knocked down in this storm where winds exceeded 300 Km/h. Large families pressed together tried to seek what shelter they could find but in such shanty towns what would be considered shelter is fleeting. A corrugated steel roof can be ripped off and hurled into another house. Walls simply can act as a kites and be blown away in a dedicated gust.

The Philippines is no stranger to typhoons. In fact in the aftermath of this storm, many people here are worried as to what will happen if another storm appears? The damaged caused by this one may not have ended with this. The loss of any shelter can make the next one deadlier. And the Philippines judging from past weather patterns, is due for at least 1 to 2 more cyclones. While they may not be as powerful as Haiyan they may  actually cause more deaths.

So why can’t we say what’s going wrong? Well we don’t know what’s happening. The eyes and ears of a nation are it’s communication network. And a lot of it is down. Power, Telephone, Radio Towers, Mobile Masts…. many of these were knocked down by the storm.

Tacloban has the Internet up but in rural parts of the Island? There is nothing. A lot of silence and that is worrying. But that’s changing now. Word is coming in of settlements that were badly hit and people such as Medicin Sans Frontier are out there in the middle of nowhere doing cutting edge frontline work.

This is something “new”. Haiyan’s destruction in Tacloban is well known, but what do we know of other parts? Certainly aid is pouring into Tacloban but how much of it is moving to places like Ormoc (the second largest city in the Leyte region)? Many people are complaining about a lack of aid distribution and we must bear in mind that Tacloban is not the only place.

There is water everywhere but that’s normal after a cyclone or a typhoon. See in built up cities there are few casualties. Big reinforced concrete buildings mean that even strong winds are deflected. Here it was less so. There were a few more gutted buildings. And more damage to slums. And a washed out bridge.

Tacloban’s airport already had a clinic set up as I came in. If I were not used to this having worked in field units before I would consider it filthy. But it’s the best people can do. They reduced the distance between aid delivered and the people who needed it.

From this hub the aid spreads out. There was only one hospital here on Monday. Now there are more hospitals and clinics as the city shakes itself from the blow.

And aid is pouring in. First the local relief efforts began. Then came the larger players. Medicin Sans Frontier sent in 50 medics, logisticians and aid workers and brought aid with them. They quickly spread out many of them forging into the villages and rural sector to set up clinics or re-establish ones. Red Cross and even the USMC showed up and just yesterday saw the arrival of an aircraft carrier. Not to be shown up? I heard that the UK’s sending one of ours over too.

But when all is said and done, what’s being done here. Every major charity is out here. From the likes of the UN to the Red Cross to Medicin Sans Frontier to Oxfam to Catholic Relief. I even saw an Operation Blessing t-shirt. And many atheists may say that atheist charity is best but now is not the time. I am openly atheist to those who ask me my faith but that does not come up now. We are here to help and faith is the last thing on our minds. And in such tragedy what does it matter if faith gives people some hope?

The work has been simple and elegant. Restore Infrastructure. Restart, Revive, Replace. If it’s there and not working restart it, if it’s there and broken fix it and if it can’t be fixed then replace it. This is zen medicine, how to do medicine with nothing. But what is needed here is less elegance and more bog standard bread and butter medicine. You are treating injuries, you are treating diarrhoea and respiratory diseases. The big killers if left unattended.

Then we got other charities who aren’t medical. Oh these are the unsung heroes. You see it is easy for me to stand up and say “I SAVED A LIFE” but there are workers who do a lot of saving lives who never get to see the lives they save nor do they get to see the results of their actions. In fact? My work is relatively straight forward. Problems arrive and I keep knocking them down and then I go to sleep. I then wake up till I can take a break. But for others it’s thinking sideways to fix problems with little to no resources.

Logistics for example. The art of moving vast tonnages of aid through washed out roads and bridges. If not for these folk a lot of aid workers and aid would be sitting on roads and not moving anywhere. Charity moves on it’s stomach and if food does not make it into areas affected by disaster then soon violence breaks out. In Tacloban there were violent riots and aid workers have been attacked and sadly force was required to ensure aid kept moving. Rioters and Looters have died. And even without those there have been casualties. A day or so ago some people died in a press when they dislodged a wall and it fell on them. They just wanted food. Food and Water are more valuable than gold.

The biggest joke is that our society works on the potato standard. Empires live and die on wheat and rice. We are just 3 meals away from anarchy and it holds true here too. Success in disaster relief has always been on the rapidity of deployment of food. People were starving out here and if this continued? People would have killed for rice. Logistics is the heart and soul of charity and is one of the more unsung group of workers.

Another group are the engineers. They build the infrastructure of relief. They fix bridges or in some cases can even relay them. They build water facilities such as wells and pumps and they restore power and communications. Their job is just as vital.

There are others out here all fighting to get Tacloban moving again.

So how big is the scale of effort?

600,000 odd people are homeless and the death toll is constantly rising. The estimate is so far at around 2,500 dead but that is an estimate. An estimated 9 Million people were affected by the storm in different ways and a lot of them may have houses but still need help.

The big picture is what’s to come. The fear is more storms may be on the way and the damage those can cause is worse due to the existing damage to the area.

The job of the aid worker medic is to treat diseases of disaster.

Bodies are still trapped under debris, bodies that have contaminated standing water which for many is the only source of water. In addition sewage systems have gotten flooded and this has poisoned the drinking water. This is a mix of sewage, dead bodies and drinking water and many diseases spread via this. We saw this at Katrina and we see this at cyclones across Asia. This is something that needs to be fixed quickly.

This means the population is at risk of diarrhoeal diseases. Everything from Amoebic Dysentery to Cholera. And it’s not just drinking water, it’s food and it is also contact spread.

Almost all the injuries you see are from rusty objects either buried in the water or as debris. This means tetanus shots are needed and that I can safely say is something we are running low on. In fact most places are low on all vaccines and basic medicine and many places has seen looting and riots over medical aid.

And the big fear is eliminated diseases will come back. This sort of environment is perfect for Polio and many kids are not vaccinated.

Then there are other diseases which thrive in such waterlogged conditions. Leptospirosos, Malaria and Dengue fever are all capable of being epidemic diseases here with large numbers of people in confined spaces and large bodies of still water for the vectors of these diseases.

So that’s the situation here. A lot of good is being done and honestly the worst has passed but a lot of good still has to be done. The Philippines will need a hand to get back on it’s feet. To put it into perspective? The Philippines growth has been set back by around 13% overall (Normally it’s estimated to grow around 8% a year, this year the economy is set to rise by around 7% thanks to just the costs of this single disaster).

And you can do this by donating time if you can to fundraising events and money if you can. I hear Skepticon is nice this year but I sadly cannot attend mainly because I live and work far away but  I also would  have gone down to help here and had to cancel. I hope that people use this opportunity to spread the word. I won’t point out charities, I won’t name names. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, just give to a charity with a proven track record. I suggest not looking at low overhead charities because many of the things high overhead charities have cost money to operate. You may think the money doesn’t go to helping “people” but you are paying for full time expertise in many cases and for equipment that allows for skill. Can’t dig a well without equipment and that is all overhead.

And please don’t donate clothes, food or medicine. No one likes second hand clothes and in many cultures it is considered an insult to give such. We need food that’s relatively homogenous to help people. A can of beans isn’t going to help anyone.. The money spent could be used to buy beans wholesale instead. And we get our medicines from manufacturers who often donate in kind or we use generics. Half used prescriptions are not helpful to us. I know of people who have stabbed each other fighting over a tin of peaches because when you have absolutely nothing the little things mean the world to you. So think, you may think an entire pallet of beans will help but frankly we move so much food it cannot be fathomed. We need food by the tonne. So it is better for you to simply give the charity money and allow them to handle the donation via the appropriate methods.

Whenever people give us toys or clothes or medicine it often ends up unclaimed and wasted. Fuel and money went into delivering things that were useless. In many cases these attract pests and livestock often eats the clothes.

What we do need is people spreading the word. Get people giving to the organisation of your choice. If you got the time spend it helping to fundraise. If you got the skills then use them to help others. You may think we don’t need a cartoonist but if you can draw and use your drawings to fundraise then your skill has helped someone. You may not think we need engineers but we do. There are charities that can take you on board and if you prove you can handle the stress of this then you may find yourself helping out.

If you can, Donate Money. If you can, Donate Time, If you can, Donate Skill.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Maureen Brian

    Well done, Avi1 Thanks for taking the time to update us.

    I endorse everything you say about sending money and letting the people with the expertise and the equipment get on with the job.

    I’m sure every last one who donates clothes launders them beautifully before they go but they still have to be sorted, fumigated, packed and shipped. That labour costs, the shipping costs – the money could be better spent, for instance buying Avi some more tetanus shots from, quite possibly, somewhere else in the Philippines which was not flattened. And once he’s got enough tetanus shots someone can buy locally made t-shirts.

    Keep up the good work, kid!

  2. 2
    Pen

    Thank for the news and hang on in there. You’re doing more than most of us can. I wish we had better organised international funding for disaster relief.

  3. 3
    Wrath Panda

    Re: UK sending a carrier. Yup, HMS Illustrious shipped out over the weekend.

    Stay safe out there, fella.

  4. 4
    Holms

    Money has the additional advantage of being liquid – it can be exchanged for any item or service as and when that thing is needed. Clothes and food will always be clothes and food, regardless of need.

  1. 5
    A First-Hand Account Of The Aftermath Of Haiyan | Meddling Kids

    […] Avi often brings a very interesting and unique perspective to things. Today, though, he posted a fanastic first-hand account of what is facing the people of the Philippines, and it’s absolutely worth reading. I found it especially interesting having […]

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