‘Yolanda’ on my mind

By: Dante Dalabajan November 13,2018 - 09:10 PM

Humanitarian workers are regularly confronted with difficult choices. As a frontline emergency responder for almost 10 years now, I have been in situations where every decision I made had no easy answers. In emergency response, we had to step forward, pivot when needed, and step sideways just to have a sense of motion, in the belief that doing something is better than doing nothing.

Every humanitarian worker has his or her own story to tell. For me, it is the harrowing experience of the dead and the missing, of devastated lives and livelihoods, during the onslaught of Super Typhoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) that will haunt me for years.

Yolanda’s destruction. Yolanda swept through 591 towns and 57 cities in 44 of the country’s 81 provinces. The following day after the massive typhoon, we flew in three rapid assessment teams to badly hit areas of Eastern Samar, Tacloban City and northern Cebu. Within five days, our response was rolling in northern Cebu and Tacloban. However, the situation in Eastern Samar was still largely unknown, so I flew to Borongan with a couple of staff members of the Morong Volunteers Emergency Response Team to scope the impact areas. Within the next three weeks, our global humanitarian team had been fully set up.

The destruction wrought by the strongest typhoon ever recorded in modern Philippine history was staggering. In its wake, Yolanda left at least 6,200 dead and 28,600 injured. More than 550,000 houses were destroyed, and 589,400 more were damaged. The total damage was estimated to be between $13 billion and $14.5 billion.

About a year and a half after Yolanda hit, our emergency response transitioned to long-term recovery. At that time, only a tiny fraction of displaced families had been relocated to permanent shelters on safer grounds. Unfortunately, minimum livability standards (e.g., safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, affordable electricity services, health and education services, and livelihood opportunities) seemed beyond reach.

Building local leadership and partnerships. International development agency Oxfam now heavily invests on building the capacities of local governments and NGOs to mount a speedy and sizable response to calamities. Our emergency response is expected to be “as local as possible and only as international as necessary.” Oxfam stays focused on reinforcing and not replacing local systems, where we can deploy our expertise in compliance with humanitarian standards.

Yolanda forced us to rethink some of our strategies on development programming that could potentially shrink our humanitarian footprint. On top of this is a rational land use planning system that will move vital infrastructure, economic investments and vulnerable communities away from geohazard areas, as well as investing in sophisticated early warning systems that could stretch the lead time for civil and military apparatuses to kick off their contingency plans.

Likewise, incentivizing the entry of the private sector into insurance markets should be a matter of public policy, to prevent losses when an event like Yolanda becomes inevitable. Business continuity planning also needs to be part of the operations of the private sector.

Steps such as land use planning, early warning systems, risk transfers and business continuity planning are what falls into the cracks between the highly compartmentalized zones of humanitarian and development discourses, where you have emergency preparedness and response on one hand and macroeconomics (e.g., fiscal stability, employment and inflation) on the other.

As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of Yolanda, it is necessary to confront the difficult question: Are we ready for the next one?


Dante Dalabajan

-He is currently a senior manager at Oxfam in the Philippines. He manages a team of advisors and specialists on humanitarian and development programming, campaigning, communications and response.

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