Friday, November 15, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan diary: A week in the wake of devastation

By Maya Igarashi Wood, Emergency Officer for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

A family of typhoon survivors living in a vehicle in Tacloban
© UNICEF Philippines/2013/JMaitem
These last few months have been Monsoon season across East Asia and the Pacific. As a member of UNICEF's regional emergencies team, I have been monitoring floods and typhoons in many countries, along with the response of UNICEF and our government partners. Yet, I was absolutely frightened by the scale of the super typhoon that hit the Philippines last weekend, and shocked by the results. There has been nothing comparable in other countries, even if I add up the impacts in all of those countries throughout the year.

Since early September, when fighting broke out in coastal villages near Zamboanga city in the south of the Philippines, our Emergency team geared up our technical support and coordination with the Philippines Country Office, particularly through close communication with Nonoy, the emergency focal point in Cotabato.

About a month later, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit central Visaya in the Philippines, near Bohol city, affecting another 3.2 million people. We followed the same practice: gather and analyse the information available, get in touch with Nonoy for an on-the-ground perspective, and determine UNICEF’s course of action.

Then, a month after that, Super Typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) scythed through several provinces in central Philippines. Unlike the previous two emergencies, we knew it would be bad before it happened. We started communicating with the Country Office in advance on prepositioned supplies, staff deployments and so on. Immediately after the typhoon left the country, Nonoy Fajardo was already in a C-160 plane heading to the most affected area, Tacloban. You can read Nonoy's blog here.

Nonoy Fajardo shows children their pictures
during his visit to an evacuation camp Tacloban
© UNICEF Philippines/2013/JMaitem
Although the Philippines Government and UNICEF have extensive capacity and experience of dealing with emergencies, it was clear that their capacities and resources had been overstretched, following three consecutive emergencies. Consequently, UNICEF decided to mobilise all our offices behind this emergency, from country to global level.

With all the fears and concerns, our crazy first week in wake of the devastation began. Two colleagues from my team were deployed to the Philippines so the rest of us took up their tasks.

We held meetings and conference calls day and night to communicate the latest information and coordinate our response across the different offices: How many people, particularly children, have been affected? Where? What are their needs? Who is available to support the UNICEF country office and coordinate our response with other humanitarian partners and the Government? When can they fly in to the Philippines? What are the best approaches for fundraising to meet the needs of children and their families?

Based on these discussions, each of our programme sections has been working full swing to support the response on the ground. Currently the immediate needs are food, shelter, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Among those, UNICEF is the lead agency for the provision of drinking water and adequate sanitation to people in the affected area. Our regional WASH specialist in emergencies flew to Manila early this week to help coordinate UNICEF’s response in different affected areas.

WASH supplies are now reaching people in different affected areas. I spoke to UNICEF’s regional WASH expert, Chander Badloe. “UNICEF WASH team on the ground is doing tremendous job by efficiently identifying the needs and mobilising supplies,” he said. However, he also recognised the persisting challenge of reaching out to all those who need support due to the limited logistics, increasing security issue and debris on the roads.

Newborn babies in a hospital chapel in the typhoon-hit city of Tacloban
© UNICEF Philippines/2013/JMaitem
Our regional Communication Chief, Chris de Bono, also flew out to the Philippines to do overnight interviews with international media – when it’s midday in New York, it’s 1am in Manila. You can read Chris's blog here.

Other communication and fundraising colleagues have been reaching out our UNICEF supporters, from individuals to companies and celebrities. I spoke to Andy Brown, who was coordinating regional communications, including social media. “It was really exciting to get Jackie Chan on board yesterday,” he said. “Jackie has over 44 million fans on Facebook – more than all our UNICEF Facebook pages combined. He has really helped to get the message out and the response from his fans has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Our actual relief activities are just starting, with the delivery of water and sanitation supplies to affected areas. UNICEF’s Regional Emergency Advisor, Carmen van Heese is cautious. “There are areas where no one has reached. There is still much we do not know,” she told me. “We will continue to gather information and strive to support UNICEF and our partners’ response on the ground in all possible ways.”

As the first week comes to an end, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I am relieved to know that more UNICEF relief supplies are reaching affected people, particularly children. On the other hand, the needs are overwhelming and there is so much more that we would like and need to do. I am getting ready for another hectic week to come.

You can donate now at: www.supportunicef.org 

The author
Maya Igarashi Wood is Emergency Officer at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific regional office

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