Relief is slow to reach victims of Philippine typhoon; looters steal medical supplies

November 11, 2013

A massive relief effort after one of the deadliest storms in a century was hampered early Tuesday by the widespread wreckage in the central Philippines, where the super-typhoon left trees splintered on the streets, bodies festering in open view, and desperate towns short of food and water.

The destruction across a chain of Philippine islands leaves authorities with a complicated relief operation, on a scale exceeding any other in the history of the disaster-prone nation.

Although rescue workers have reached many of the areas that Typhoon Haiyan hit on Friday, others remain inaccessible. Pharmacies have been swept away and hospitals gutted. Looters have hauled away medical supplies, according to local media reports. The half-dozen provinces hit most directly by Haiyan’s 150-mph winds still lack electricity or mobile phone connections. In some remote areas, relief can arrive only by boat or helicopter.

Early Tuesday, a clearer picture of the destruction emerged as rescue workers reported on conditions on the ground and the Philippine military provided aerial images of towns ground into wood beams and rubble. Photos showed survivors walking the streets, covering their noses with clothing to shield them from the stench of bodies.

The typhoon cut a path through the middle of the country, directly affecting about 10 percent of the population. As many as 10,000 people are feared dead in Tacloban city alone, according to unconfirmed accounts, and thousands nationwide are missing. The government’s death toll rose to 1,774, but it is expected to climb greatly.

Videos show Typhoon Haiyan’s charge across the Philippines.

“I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way — every single building, every single house,” U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said after taking a helicopter flight over Tacloban, according to the Associated Press.

Said Sandra Bulling, an emergency communications officer at CARE, a humanitarian agency, who made it to a village 20 miles from Tacloban on Monday: “It is really a massive disaster. Aid is slowly getting through, and the local authorities have started distributing. But what the municipalities are telling us is they’re running out of their stock, and now they’re really relying on international support.”

Global assistance

Nations across the region moved quickly to help the Philippines, a country in which 40 percent of the population lives on $2 or less per day and whose shoddy infrastructure makes it vulnerable to typhoon damage.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry told Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario that the U.S. government will provide “all necessary assistance.” The U.S. Agency for International Development announced $20 million in immediate humanitarian aid. The agency is helping Philippine agencies evaluate damage, and a U.S. disaster team is in Leyte province, one of the hardest-hit regions. The team’s initial report suggested that 90 percent of housing there has been significantly damaged or destroyed.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the USS George Washington and other Navy ships to the Philippines to help with the relief efforts.

Support has flowed in from more than 20 countries, Philippine authorities say. Australia announced $9.4 million in assistance. Japan said it would fly in medical staff. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released $25 million in emergency funding. One of the main goals is to quickly reopen roads and airports, said John Ging, a director at the office. According to the United Nations, about 2.5 million people are in need of food because of the disaster, and the risk of malnutrition is “extremely high.”

“The scale of devastation also impacts the capacity to get aid to the people where they most need it,” Ging told reporters in New York. “Clean drinking water is a very big priority right now.”

Even in the best of times, traveling between islands in the Philippines can be difficult. The nation has for decades underinvested in infrastructure, according to the World Bank, and its airports are among the most inferior in Asia. Its military, too, is stuck with Cold War-era aircraft and boats, despite recent modernization attempts.

Before Haiyan made landfall, the Philippines evacuated hundreds of thousands of people, but for those in its path, the storm was nearly inescapable. Survivors say tsunami-like walls of water flooded streets and homes within minutes. Some towns reported waves as high as 12 feet.

Some meteorologists and scientists say a global rise in temperatures has created higher-power storms, and a Philippine delegate at U.N. climate change talks in Warsaw said Haiyan is a “sobering reminder” of the dangers of climate change.

“It can be considered a perfect storm,” Lucille Sering, secretary of the Philippine Climate Change Commission, said in a televised interview with ABS-CBN News, a Philippine media network. “They were hit not only by water brought by the wind, but also by water brought by the rain due to the increase in temperature.”

On Monday night, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III declared a state of “national calamity” — a maneuver that pulls away red tape and can speed up the government response. He told law enforcement agencies to take all necessary measures to maintain order in the wake of looting.

Since taking office in 2010, Aquino has spoken out against national and local corruption, saying that it undermines growth. And on Monday, the government tried to make sure that the money and food arriving in the devastated areas wind up in the right hands.

Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, a key lieutenant for Aquino, urged local governments to distribute relief goods as quickly as possible and keep finger-pointing to a minimum. He also asked that local governments designate leaders who can assess where relief is most needed.

“We all need to work together,” Almendras said. “There’s a need to organize ourselves well.”

The typhoon made landfall in Vietnam on Monday, but its winds were far weaker than those that tore into the Philippines. No casualties were reported in Vietnam. State media in China reported Tuesday that the typhoon has killed eight people in southern China.

Those in some parts of the central Philippines could be without power for as long as six months, the Philippine Department of Energy said, because the typhoon destroyed hundreds of electrical posts. Total damage from the storm could reach $14 billion, according to a Kinetic Analysis Corp. study cited by Bloomberg News.

“The restoration of communications and power lines are urgent and critical now,” said Marco Boasso, the chief of mission in the Philippines for the International Organization for Migration. “Without that, we cannot get a clear picture of the true magnitude of this mega-disaster and the ensuing needs,” he added. “What we are seeing now is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I am sad to say that over the coming days, we are likely to see a sharp and tragic rise in Haiyan’s impact.”

Harlan reported from Seoul.

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