Unprepared Government Failings Intensify Haiyan Aid Disaster

Typhoon Haiyan has left entire regions all but inaccessible in the Philippines, while the ensuing chaos has hampered the efforts of relief workers. A country hit by about 10 typhoons a year ought to be better prepared.

Hartmut Schwarzbach / argus / DER SPIEGEL

By , and

It was the day after the typhoon when Peter Görgen's phone rang. As an operations manager for the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), Görgen is one of the first people to receive a call when Germany expects to provide aid in a disaster zone.

He and his wife were just having lunch and discussing an art exhibit in Grevenbroich, a town near Düsseldorf. The call was from his boss, who said only a few words: "Can you go?" Görgen said "yes" and immediately shifted his mental focus from Grevenbroich to the Philippines.

Görgen, 65, is organized. His main job is as an engineer in the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning, but he knew exactly how to react after the call, and didn't even forget to throw some socks into his backpack before getting into a waiting car to the airport for a flight to Manila two hours later.

Whether they are talking about an earthquake in Pakistan or a tsunami in Sri Lanka, men like Görgen refer to their operations as casually as others mention family vacations. No matter where in the world a particular disaster has occurred, Görgen always puts on the same dark blue "multi-functional operations suit" and hits the road.

His mission in the Philippines is to organize something that is immediately needed in crisis zones: clean drinking water. When people start drinking from puddles, for lack of other sources of water, or from rivers in which dead bodies are floating around, the most dangerous consequence of a disaster is bound to ensue: disease epidemics.

Görgen and his team have prepared two large water purification systems, along with a laboratory and tools, which enable them to supply drinking water for up to 36,000 people a day. Görgen is one of the most experienced operations managers at THW, having been on more than 40 foreign missions in 22 years. But he can't leave Manila immediately. First he has to coordinate his operation with the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry, which involves requesting helicopter flights and reviewing aerial images. For Görgen, the most important issue is deciding where to locate the facility.

Aid Catastrophe Follows Typhoon

Finally, on Wednesday, Nov. 13, Görgen was up at 3 a.m. and took the first flight from Manila to the northern, typhoon-stricken part of the island of Cebu. Upon arrival, he got into a car with the German honorary consul, who drove him to the north. Along the way, they saw devastated cities, collapsed school buildings and palm trees that had snapped in half. Children stood by the side of the road, holding up signs that read: "We need water."

Super-typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest typhoons ever to hit the coast, with winds of up to 379 kilometers (235 miles) per hour, had struck the Philippines days earlier on Friday, Nov. 8. Haiyan had derived its strength from warm ocean waters with temperatures of up to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), growing into a massive storm that destroyed entire regions. Its most devastating aspect was a storm surge up to five meters (16 feet) high, which leveled entire cities. Several thousand people died, although the official death toll remains uncertain. The damage is estimated at €10 billion ($13.5 billion).

But after the catastrophe, the aid disaster began. For several days the world, and especially the government in Manila, was unable to help many of the storm's survivors. Entire regions were cut off, with relief workers unable to reach them. The survivors had nothing to eat or drink, and there were no medical personnel to care for the wounded. Looters ransacked what was left at warehouses and shops, and the disaster zone descended into chaos.

"I do feel that we have let people down because we have not been able to get in more quickly," said Baroness Valerie Amos, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator.

Haiyan's arrival was not a surprise by any means. The Philippines is hit by about 10 typhoons a year, and the government in Manila should have been prepared. "The emergency plans are very poorly conceived," says a senior official in Manila who, eager to avoid conflict with President Benigno Aquino, does not want to see his name in print.

Government Unprepared for Disaster

The Philippines consists of more than 7,100 islands, and according to the official, most parts of the country are easily accessible by ship. To be more prepared for disasters like Haiyan, Manila could station a handful of freighters around the country and keep them on call, with water filtration systems, emergency food supplies, medicine and tents on board. After a disaster, these ships could reach the affected areas more quickly than international aid workers, who must be flown in.

The government also bears some of the responsibility for the deaths of many Filipinos. It could prepare the country more effectively for typhoons. Many cities are too close to the water, where storm surges are quick to wash away flimsy huts. And meteorologists can predict the arrival of typhoons with a fair degree of accuracy, sometimes hours or even days in advance. In other words, people could get out of harm's way, the government official says angrily. But many don't.

The Philippines is one of the poorest countries in the world. Some residents own nothing but a "TV set and a kettle," which they want to protect from looters, says the official from Manila. For that reason, they often stay in their huts -- and die there. The police and military should maintain a stronger presence in provincial areas, to establish order and stop looters, says the man from Manila. If these steps are not taken, the next typhoon could cause as much damage as Haiyan did in Tanauan, a city on the island of Leyte.

At 10:30 a.m. last Thursday, 26 more names were added to the list of fatalities in the city. On this day, civil defense officer Chat Ortega, 53, maintains two lists, one for those reported dead and one for the missing. Six days after the storm, there are more than 1,000 names on her first list. The list of the missing is longer, so long, in fact, that Ortega doesn't have the time to add up the numbers on all the pages. There are people waiting in line in front of the city hall. Some want to know where to bury their dead, while others are waiting for news on the missing.

After that, they intend to leave the city.

No Provisions a Week Later

Thousands are already embarking on an exodus out of Tanauan, making their way north on foot, by bicycle, or whatever means possible. Their goal is to get out, and to somehow travel the roughly 20 kilometers (13 miles) up the east coast of Leyte to the airport in Tacloban, where large military aircraft are taking off and landing. The refugees hope that by reaching Tacloban, they will be able to get something to eat and drink, and perhaps a seat on a flight out of this nightmare.

The road from Tanauan to Tacloban begins at the Embarcadero Bridge. Mountains of debris -- palm trees, roof trusses, a minibus, a coffee table -- have piled up against the bridge. Bodies float in the water, stuck in the debris, and the stench is unbearable.

"There are a few dozen bodies under this bridge," says dentist Quintin Octa, who is helping local official Ortega manage her lists of the dead and missing. "We have no means to recover them." Men pump water out of a well a little farther down the canal. "Drinking water is our biggest problem," says Octa.

Tanauan, a city of about 50,000 before the storm, was destroyed. Located directly on the Pacific coast, it was defenseless against the storm surge. There are no longer any habitable dwellings between the waterfront and the city hall.

Almost a week has passed since the typhoon, and still no fresh water, not a single food shipment and no gasoline have arrived in Tanauan. She doesn't want to complain about her government, says Ortega, since she herself is part of it, but -- "no," she says, interrupting herself and angrily turning her face away.

Confusion Prevails

By last Wednesday afternoon, German THW operations manager Görgen know where he and his team can provide the most effective help. On this day, they decide to install the water purification equipment in the northern part of the island of Cebu.

The plan is straightforward: The equipment has to be flown to Cebu, where his personnel will load it onto trucks and take it to the north. There they will set up the equipment and begin providing the local population with drinking water. Time is now of the essence.

His unit of 18 men and one woman is already in the air, on board a Lufthansa cargo plane, along with 22 tons of equipment. The THW staff have brought along German federal property certificates, letters of recommendation and customs stamps for the Filipino authorities. They are determined not to lose any time.

The team of specialists in the field includes mechatronics engineers, electricians and chemical laboratory assistants. If all goes well, they will be able to unload the materials immediately after landing and begin driving north. They hope to be able to begin setting up the equipment by evening.

But things are not going well. The cargo aircraft was diverted from the civilian airport to a military field. A portion of the team is on board another aircraft, which has landed at the civilian airport. The men at the civilian airport decide to drive to the military airport. The two airports are only five minutes away from each other, but a guard at the military airport refuses to let them in, citing his orders.

"But I was already here this morning," says the German honorary consul, who is still accompanying Görgen. "Flights with relief supplies are constantly landing at the airport, and the Americans are also there."

The guard is sweating. He doesn't respond. The consul, Franz Seidenschwarz, has been living in the region for 26 years, is an honorary citizen of Cebu and speaks the local language, Visaya. He knows that if he raises his voice and humiliates the guard, he will have lost the argument. As in many Asian countries, it would amount to a loss of face for the guard.


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nedwatsons 11/20/2013
1. The truth about Philippines
For Europeans what happens in Philippines is very hard to understand as they really can not visualize the society and the government structure in this country. As an Australian Business man living in the country for 5 years let me explain. This country is built on corruption from top to bottom. There is no government official, police, military or church member who is not corrupt. Its hard to believe but this is the truth. For them the disaster is a blessing as they are now filling their pockets with what they can get. I can categorically tell that if the aid is not distributed by the foreign organisations by themselves on the ground it will be stolen. When the disaster happened they waited for 5-6 days without really doing anything as they knew the west will come and help. Unfortunately its the truth in this country.
spon-facebook-1583455657 11/20/2013
2. Philippine efficiency
This is almost exactly how the country was run in 1998 when I studied in Palo Leyte the month of Christmas. Rampant graft and extortion by petty local government officials all tied together by family links are not responsible to anyone higher in government which are organized by more powerful families, where Manila is more distant than mere kilometers and a dozen or more obscure local dialects. Our efforts at aid during a non disaster were routinely blocked or outright stolen before they reached the poor whom the American do-gooders I worked for sought to help, often with a shy grin and a shrug, that is simply how things are in the Island nation. The article is quite correct, if all you own is a TV set and kettle in a bamboo and palm frond house, you will stay and die guarding it from your fellow Filipinos.
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