In visit to Philippines, Kerry vows U.S. help for ‘however long it takes’

Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Tacloban Wednesday to see efforts to deliver aid to survivors of super typhoon Haiyan. (Reuters)
December 18, 2013

At the typhoon-ravaged airport where Secretary of State John F. Kerry landed Wednesday, workers pinned sheet metal to the punctured roof and vendors hawked sodas and fried banana chips.

But beyond the airstrip, white refugee tents formed grids in the mud, and children scavenged through piles of trash. Dozens of bodies are still being discovered daily. Six weeks after one of the strongest typhoons on record, this central strip of the Philippines is just beginning a tenuous recovery that could require months of U.S. support.

“This is a devastation that is unlike anything that I’ve seen,” Kerry said during a two-hour visit to Tacloban, the worst-hit city in the region. “It is really quite stunning. It looks like a war zone in every respect, and for many people, it is.”

Kerry announced an additional $24.6 million in humanitarian aid designed to help provide clean water, sanitation supplies and temporary shelter. That pledge comes on top of the $62 million the United States has provided in the most extensive cooperation between Washington and Manila since the U.S. Navy and Air Force closed major bases here two decades ago.

Kerry is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Tacloban since the Nov. 8 super-typhoon, which displaced some 3.9 million people and killed more than 6,000 in the deadliest Asian disaster since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

In the days after the typhoon, Tacloban was critically short of water, food and fuel — basic needs that have since been met. The United States sent search-and-rescue teams, humanitarian workers, more than 50 aircraft and sea vessels, and 1,000 soldiers and Marines.

The troops worked to help reopen the airport in Tacloban, which was flooded by a storm surge as high as a two-story building. The U.S. fleet of Ospreys, which fly like jets and can land like helicopters, were also used to send food and water to remote towns that the Philippine army and government were slow to reach.

Although Philippine reliance on the United States is a sensitive topic dating to the colonial period, opinion of Washington has reached its most favorable level in years, some officials here say. When Kerry landed, he was greeted on the tarmac by Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez. The mayor said that for one elderly couple he knows, the arrival of U.S. troops last month brought back memories of American soldiers using this same spot during World War II, ahead of the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese rule.

Romualdez, testifying before the Philippine Senate last week, sharply criticized the central government for what he called its “hesitation” in providing full assistance to Tacloban. In a separate interview after the Kerry visit, Romualdez said he was “very grateful” for Washington’s latest pledge of aid.

Kerry’s convoy shuttled through Tacloban’s dusty streets, passing knocked-out churches, twisted electrical wires and angled basketball hoops without nets. Kerry stopped at a Philippine government rice-distribution center, where he listened to a flurry of briefings and asked questions about the recovery.

Who’s making the bird’s-eye reconstruction plan? Kerry asked.

The National Economic and Development Authority, he was told.

How many hospitals are operating? he asked.

Fifteen in Tacloban, he was told.

“What about all the junk” on the roads? Kerry asked.

“There are several landfills,” Ben Hemingway, a regional adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told him. “They leave it out there for several days, let it grow, and it gets picked away for scrap metal and other items that can be repurposed. Then it gets taken across a bridge” and turned into pulp.

“There is obviously an enormous challenge ahead,” Kerry said later, minutes before returning to Manila. “I could see that just driving by: the amount of wires and telephone poles and the level of destruction of homes along the way.”

“In the coming days and weeks and months, however long it takes,” Kerry added, “the United States will remain committed.”

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