Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Blue Brigades: Four Days Journey Into the Heart of Haiyan

By Carin van der Hor, Country Director, Philippines

When Typhoon Haiyan (called Yolanda locally) hit the Philippines, almost all of Plan International's areas were hit. We were well prepared. We had worked with communities to stockpile hygiene kits, emergency shelter materials and clean water kits. Yet, the magnitude of the super typhoon and the devastating effect of the storm surges were much bigger than anyone could have imagined.

I have been asked why it is so difficult to deliver aid to the hardest hit areas. The answer is not simple. The Philippines is an archipelago. There are many small islands, many remote areas. Some are a day's walk or more from the nearest town. And then there's the sheer magnitude of Yolanda. Roads were washed out and bridges were destroyed. It's difficult just delivering a couple of hundred jerry cans to a community.

Let me take you on a journey that I just completed to meet with my emergency response teams. We call them the Blue Brigades because of the bright blue Plan International shirts we all wear.

I flew from Manila to Cebu, very early in the morning. No surprise that our flight was delayed. With huge amounts of aid flying into Cebu, flights are unpredictable.

The next leg of our journey includes a ferry ride to Ormoc, in Leyte. Ormoc was hit hard by the typhoon. People are on the ferry to find relatives and to bring food and relief and so the ferry schedule is completely unreliable.

Once we arrive in Ormoc, we find that there is a vehicle waiting for us. We're lucky because without a vehicle in Ormoc, you must rely on little bike carts because fuel is scarce. Our team was the first to arrive in Ormoc on the Saturday after the typhoon. This is what our team found when they arrived: total devastation. They walked for hours and finally had to ask for help to find a safe place to stay for the night.

We headed south to Baybay, where I reached one of our teams. The entire province was out of electricity. We depend on mobile phones, laptops, BGANs and satellite phones to communicate so we desperately need electricity.

The owner of our hostel has agreed to turn on a generator for five hours in the evening. So as night falls, there is a dash to recharge all our laptops and phones. If the team is lucky, they can find 15 minutes to have a shower - it's the only time there is any hot water.

Dinner is hastily prepared - rice and fish. The atmosphere is great, everything is shared and people encourage each other to finish the fish as we cannot refrigerate any left overs! The next morning we go to Tacloban.

Anybody going to Tacloban needs to be self-sufficient; you must bring your own water, food, bedding and anything else you need. We are lucky, because we have an operational office in Tacloban, although there is no water or electricity. We sleep on the floor.

From Tacloban we move on to Catbalogan, where we also have an office. Fortunately, food is available and the office has a generator.

Members of the Plan International Philippines Team
I hear incredible stories of how people managed to reunite with their families when there was no functioning transport. One person I spoke to walked for six hours to find his children. His kids had applied all the disaster risk management techniques he had taught them. His son saved his sister when a storm surge forced them to swim for their lives.

There is a strong feeling of solidarity. I urge them to take care of themselves and of each other. We take staff care very seriously at Plan. Counselors and psychologists have been sent in to work with the teams who are responding. It is important that they are debriefed and that we all look for signs of stress.

The staff poke fun at me because an insect bite the previous night left me with a swollen eye. I don't care; it's great to hear their laughter.

We say goodbye and move on to Calbayog. From Calbayog, we must travel by land, sea and air to make it back to Manila. There are flights from Calbayog - but no seats for nine days. We journey for more than two hours to Allen, where we take a ferry to Matnog. There's no schedule, we’re just hoping it leaves in the next three hours. From there, we have a three-hour car ride to Legazpi. We arrive too late for the last flight to Manila so we’ll take the first flight out the next morning.

What would have once taken a day or two has taken us four full days. But it was worth it to meet with my teams and to see, feel and experience firsthand what it is to be without communications, to fear that your phone battery will run out soon with no way of recharging, to take small sips of water because you don't know when the next bottle will be available and to be hungry, hot, tired and frustrated.

It makes me appreciate those small luxuries we have and so easily forget. It also means I appreciate our Blue Brigades even more. To them I say: respect.

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