For survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, 365 painstaking days could not have come so soon.
Nov. 8 marks the darkest day in their lives, a constant reminder of the deaths of their loved ones, destruction of their properties and how everything they had almost vanished with the storm.
I say “almost” because being on the ground in Tacloban — considered the “ground zero” of the catastrophe — for the third time for the anniversary have led me to learn that hope springs eternal for these people. While the storm washed away the material things they worked hard for, their sense of optimism, hope, comradeship and resilience is still unwavering.
“The onset of Typhoon Haiyan has become both an opportunity and a challenge for us here in our community,” shared Pel Tecson, mayor of Tanauan, one of the hardest-hit municipalities in Leyte province. For this government official, who has become a father figure to his constituents, the only way to recover from the tragedy is to move forward and to see each day as a new one and another chance at life.
Much has changed in the affected communities a year after the storm, with significant progress visible on the ground. According to figures from the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, about 320 people remain in evacuation centers, 4,760 live in tents and about 19,700 are in “transitional” housing. Children are back in school, hospitals are operational, business is back, transportation is relatively smooth and the mood is generally upbeat.
But there’s still a long way to go. Several international aid groups I spoke with admit it will take at least four years (until 2017) for the whole recovery and reconstruction process to be complete — and that is if everything falls into place.
On the anniversary of the disaster, here are a few lessons learned so far by the government, international nongovernmental organizations, corporations and even the media that should guide future disaster response operations in this region and the whole Philippines — all of which are words which start with the letter “C.”
In disaster situations, communication is vital for both victims and aid workers.
“Clear communication is important, even crucial — internally in the organization and externally with people we work with/for,” said Cecil Laguardia, World Vision’s communications manager for the Haiyan emergency response. “During disasters, we have to consider a well-oiled communication strategy because we are in the role of helping save lives.”
She added that apart from a clear communications strategy, you also have to convey the message in a way that will be understood by the people concerned. After all, how the message is delivered is as important as the message itself.
The controversy over the storm surge, for instance, became one of the biggest communications challenges during and after Haiyan. Since the idea was not widely known — and, to a point, got lost in translation and interpretation — not just by the local community but by local officials themselves, preparation was insufficient and inappropriate.
“[The message] has to be made simple so people across affected communities will be able to grasp what the message is,” Laguardia explained. “Audiences have become very discerning over the years. Communicators must be sensitive and respectful enough to know and how to do this well.”
Another important lesson learned is the need to understand and incorporate context into every single operational plans that concerned stakeholders will employ. Organizations should not just go into the ground without knowing the situation beforehand.
This means that international humanitarian response plans should be aligned with the recovery and rehabilitation plans of the national and local governments to avoid overlap, inconsistencies and inefficiencies, where rural and urban contexts remain an issue.
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Understanding the context also helps an organization’s preparation plans prior to ground deployment for staff safety and well-being, as well as overall long-term response and recovery plans.
“Preparation is key. We recognized the need to level-off training in more basic and pragmatic elements of response work: outdoorsmanship, basic survival and first aid,” noted Martin Nanawa, ChildFund Philippines communications manager. “It also helps us in prepositioning ourselves.”
Coordination is central in any relief and rehabilitation operation, and lack of it led to certain communities being neglected after Haiyan. Getting everyone on the same page was very difficult in the first few days, despite the U.N.’s cluster system and the government being in charge.
One main problem, for instance, was too many organizations working in the same locations while others barely received any aid.
“Relief work is composed of so many people working together coming from different contexts and with different skills,” Laguardia said. “But they are bound by the same goal of helping those in need. We may do it differently and in various ways, but we always look at one purpose and one end.”
Even the government admits that it was tough to navigate so many stakeholders and bureaucratic bottlenecks born out of lack of coordination.
When doing disaster relief and recovery work, aid workers must show commitment on the ground to the plight of the survivors and be compassionate with them.
“[Disaster relief] is not an easy thing to do, but we believe the people in affected communities deserve no less than this,” Laguardia shared. “We know fully well that survivors are waiting at the end of the line so we have to surmount the challenges.”
The World Vision official added that when a catastrophe strikes, it’s natural to be overwhelmed by the devastation — even if you are a seasoned development worker. The most key is pull yourself together and have the heart and mind to stay there and be committed to the work that you do because it will become a learning opportunity and an enriching experience.
“You carry with you the long years of experience, but each time you learn [something] new that you can take to the next one,” she said. “It is an inspiring lesson learned — the goodness of the human spirit shows and prevails over and beyond any challenges.”
Nanawa added that local communities should have the same drive and determination to recover and get back on their feet.
“Filipinos make extremely dedicated development workers, and faced with a disaster of this magnitude, I was amazed to see just how selfless everyone was [including the affected victims],” he said.
5. Climate resilience moving forward
The last lesson learned and, arguably, the most important one moving forward is to get to know more about and embody climate resilience from the ground up to the policy level.
Global warming will only make the Philippines even more vulnerable to natural disasters than it already is, and inaction on this could bear a much larger cost in the future.
Prevention is always better than a cure, so governments of vulnerable countries — and this one in particular — cannot wait any longer to prioritize climate-proofing all operational functions, from the budget, policies and programs down to the community level. International groups and organizations should take part in this, making each of their programs mindful of climate resilience and environmental sustainability.
Everyone has a role to play, and the need to work closely together is needed now more than ever.
Super Typhoon Haiyan left a wake of devastation when it swept through the central Philippines on Nov. 8. How has the situation in the worst-hit provinces changed one year after? Devex is in Tacloban to give you the latest news and analysis from ground zero. Stay tuned for more coverage.
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