Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It would have been my fourth or fifth day in Tacloban. I was standing in the City Hall, my phone pressed to my ear, trying to catch what the crackling phone line would permit of a conference call with Manila. I felt a hand on my arm, gently asking me to step aside.
The young woman walked past me and then turned into an office. It slowly occurred to me that she was walking into her office and I realized that around me people were busily clearing desks, sorting files and putting things to order.
People were returning to work.
That brief interaction – the young Filipina civil servant politely asking me to move aside – was one of the more memorable of my time here. As I was standing there I saw that without consciously thinking it, that I was seeing that building as a ruin – a remnant of Typhoon Haiyan. But for that young woman and her colleagues it was their place of work. Yes it had been severely damaged in the storm, but the damage could be repaired and the mess cleared away. And that task would be easier if the confused UN aid worker would step out of the way.
I arrived in Tacloban on a US Navy Osprey on Friday 15 December – a week after the storm. We flew in low over the city on our approach. My first thoughts were of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The storms surges (there were at least two in most places) had wiped away all but the sturdiest of buildings. Those still standing had been shattered and ripped by the wind. Despite all the media coverage and field reports I had seen, it was much worse than I had expected.
The drive into town was even more confronting. Body bags were sitting along the side of the road and the air was thick with their awful smell. The roads were still clogged with debris. It felt then like the city was broken.
I joined a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) (please link: http://www.unocha.org/what-we-do/coordination-tools/undac/overview) team that had been on the ground since the first day.They had set up a UN Operations Centre alongside the Government’s operations base at the city’s sports stadium.
Their first week had been tough. They had been working around the clock to get the humanitarian response underway. The task was daunting. The airport had taken a direct hit from the storm, and it took the military days to get it back up and running and able to receive consignments. The roads, as I said earlier, were blocked with debris. There was very little fuel available. Vehicles were also in short supply – many of those that had survived the storm had left in the days immediately following as people fled to their families and friends.
The first few days were a blur: stolen meetings with Government officials and NGO representatives, 15-minute meetings with colleagues from different UN agencies (with few chairs to go around we usually stood), media briefings in a sweaty building to the side of city hall.
Slowly, though, things started to improve. The authorities began to clear major roads of debris. The airport became fully operational and planes laden with aid started to land. Vehicles from other provinces and from as far afield as Manila began to arrive.
The fuel problem was also solved, in large part by the work of the Fuel Relief Fund, an American NGO (link: http://fuelrelieffund.org/). A feeling of momentum began to build. Aid was getting through. Within days, more than 1 million people had received food aid (a figure that climbed steeply each day). Filipino and foreign medical teams set up field hospitals. The water supply in Tacloban was re-established. Life started to return to the streets.
I remember a trip to Tanuaun, a small town south of Tacloban that was smashed to pieces by Haiyan. That was barely two weeks after the storm and already the focus of people was on picking up the pieces and restarting lives. One woman, when I asked what she needed, was very clear. She wanted material to rebuild her home and she wanted cash to re-start her small business.
That was what took me about the office workers in city hall. Less than two weeks after the strongest storm to ever make landfall, people were doing all they could to return to normal. They still face a massive task. It will take years for some communities to rebuild, and some areas are still very much in need of basic support. This is still the beginning of a long response.
I was looking only at the critical needs. The people were already focusing on their recovery.