Haiyan: The Legacy of a Supertyphoon

Supertyphoon Haiyan, known as “Yolanda” in the Philippines, has been classified the most powerful typhoon to make landfall in 2013. Haiyan hit Guiuan, on the Philippine island of Samar, at 4:40 a.m. local time Friday 8th November 2013. Three hours before landfall, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center assessed Haiyan’s sustained winds at 195 mph, gusting to 235 mph, making it the fourth-strongest tropical cyclone in world history. (CNN)

Eduardo del Rosario, executive director of the Philippine National Disaster Rescue and Relief Management Center said that more than four million people were displaced by the storm and over a million houses were damaged, while some 566 transmission towers and poles that bring electricity have been destroyed by the typhoon. The strongest typhoon to make landfall this year caused damages to property and crops amounting to 11.73 billion pesos (US$269m).

The full death toll of the Category 5 typhoon has not yet been fully ascertained, but may exceed 10,000 people.

Rising Death Toll

From initial reports on the early morning of Saturday 9 November 2013 of 4 confirmed deaths, the death toll from Typhoon Haiyan soon increased to 120, then 1,200 by late Sunday with more than one official predicting a horrific death toll of at least 10,000.

Regional police chief Elmer Soria said that he had been told late on Saturday 9th that about 10,000 deaths had occurred on Leyte Island, mostly by drowning and collapsed buildings, while Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim said that the death toll in the city alone “could go up to 10,000.”

On Tuesday 12th, the official death toll was at 1,774, but officials stated that they expected this to rise markedly and indicated that the figure of 10,000 was accurate and perhaps low. President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines, in an interview with CNN on Tuesday 12th November, contradicted this by stating that the death toll was likely closer to 2,000 or 2,500, not the previously reported figure of 10,000. “The figure right now I have is about 2,000, but this might still get higher,” he told CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour in an interview.

It was later reported that the figure of 10,000 had arisen from the number of number of body bags sent by the health department to central Luzon for retrieval operations in affected areas, and that the official who had given the figure of 10,000 had been relieved of all duties.

By Thursday 14th, the official death toll was given as 2,367, but by Saturday 16th November the figure had been revised by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) to 3,681 deaths, and on Sunday 17th a military official was quoted as stating that 3,974 people had been confirmed dead by noon of that day. On Tuesday 19th, the official figure was given as 3,982 deaths and 1,602 missing.

On Friday 22nd November, two weeks after the typhoon, the death toll has now exceeded the previous worst disaster in the Philippines, with the NDRRMC reporting that 5,209 people are known to have lost their lives, with 1,582 still missing. Floods in 1991 in the Ormoc region had resulted in the deaths of 5,101 people.

Some say, however, that the death toll will be much higher. Steven Rood, Philippines country representative for the Asia Foundation says “It is unlikely we’ll ever know the exact toll”, while Tacloban Mayor Alfred Ramualdez has said that some people may have been swept to sea, their bodies lost forever, with one whole neighbourhood of ten to twelve thousand people simply deserted.

With the destruction of infrastructure including roads, bridges and communications networks caused by the typhoon, it is understandable that there has been uncertainty surrounding the death toll. One of the accompanying tragedies has been the difficulty of bringing help to those who survived the typhoon, both for emergency treatment as well as dealing with the routines of daily life and sustenance.

Focus on helping the survivors

The International Red Cross has released a manual on how to deal with dead bodies, demolishing the notion that corpses pose a severe health hazard. The guide says that rumours about potential contamination put political pressure on authorities to resort to rapid mass burials and widespread spraying of disinfectants.

Help Us. Victims of Haiyan call for help. Photo: twitter.com/maria_ressa
Help Us. Victims of Haiyan call for help. Photo: twitter.com/maria_ressa

“The consequences of mismanagement of the dead include mental distress and legal problems for relatives of the victims,” it said. Rapid retrieval of bodies, however, was a priority, because this aided identification and reduced the psychological impact on survivors.
Managing the survivors, rather than the dead, is the determining factor if and when an epidemic may occur, it stated, adding that there has never been a documented case of an epidemic occurring after a natural disaster that could be traced to exposure to dead bodies.

Danger of Epidemics

Unsafe food and a lack of access to safe water, lack of facilities for personal hygiene and safe sanitation arrangements all create a breeding ground for infections, such as cholera. The peak danger period for this is between 10 days and one month after the event, according to the World Health Organization.

Save the Children Fund points out that it is the most vulnerable, including children and pregnant women, that are most at risk. Their main task was to reach 500,000 people in a matter of weeks. Getting aid packages out as quickly as possible – including to remote towns and villages – while Tacloban airport was clogged with debris and many roads were impassable required a 10-hour journey across storm-damaged land to reach the people most in need.

Ongoing normal health risks

Within the affected areas, it is expected that 12,000 babies will be born in November, while people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease still need to get their regular medication, even though their existing supplies may have been damaged, and the hospitals and many transport routes have been destroyed.

Essential Services and Supplies

Water supply and sewerage systems were destroyed in many areas, and the UN identified an urgent need for mobile water treatment units, generators and emergency latrines. There were accounts of people in Tacloban digging up underground pipes in the week after the typhoon in a desperate search for drinking water.

Destruction after Haiyan. Photo: twitter.com/NicoMarquardt
Destruction after Haiyan. Photo: twitter.com/NicoMarquardt

Within 5 days of the typhoon, about 25 humanitarian organisations were operating in and around Tacloban, including international response teams, NGOs, the Red Cross and other UN teams, with French-Belgian and Israeli field hospitals having been set up, and the Philippines Red Cross had begun delivering basic food aid. Tacloban airport was opened but only for military and emergency relief flights. The US aircraft carrier George Washington and its escort ships had arrived off the Philippines coast and the British government had sent 8,836 shelter kits from Dubai on a chartered aircraft, which landed at the main aid distribution hub in Cebu on Wednesday.

Resilience and Recovery

For several days after the storm the town of Guiuan, where the typhoon first made landfall in the Philippines, was completely cut off from the outside world, while aid efforts focused on more accessible towns like Tacloban. The mayor declared a state of emergency after some looting took place, but by Thursday a sense of community spirit and law and order had returned and, despite frustrations, people stood in long orderly queues waiting for supplies.

“It’s remarkable,” said Doctor Mike Vegara, the leader of one of the first outside medical teams to reach the town, “the administration here seems to be in control. Very organised, in fact people seem very calm now.”

Sources: The Independent; USA Today; Chicago Tribune; BBC