TACLOBAN, Philippines — On November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), the strongest typhoon in recorded history, creamed the city of Tacloban, Philippines. Over 7,500 people died or went missing. The U.S. people and government contributed heavily to the relief effort to help the Filipino people, with $86 million of U.S. government aid and 13,400 military personnel mobilized to help, plus all the assistance from multiple NGOs and faith-based organizations.
I have always wondered how aid donations to NGOs and faith-based organizations are utilized, how the operations are run and what the role is of the local population in rebuilding. So when Samaritan’s Purse (SP), a Christian aid organization, asked if I would like to see firsthand how the relief efforts were coming along, I jumped at the chance.
As much as I tried to mentally prepare for the destruction, it was still hard to comprehend. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed with 1.9 million people left homeless; freighters that had washed up to the main road were still sitting high and dry like steel ghosts of the past. Tents and tarps were everywhere, twisted steel, downed coconut palms and collapsed buildings were abandoned. It’s so sad to think of the intensity of the storm, and the ensuing pain and suffering it caused as 6 million people were displaced.
I spent a few days with the Samaritan’s Purse staff understanding their disaster relief process and program. I must say, I came away from the experience incredibly impressed with their results, their mission and their ability to genuinely make a long-term difference in vulnerable people’s lives.
When SP heard of the impending typhoon bearing down on the Philippines, they went into mobilization mode, contacting key employees from around the world to get on planes and deploy to the Philippines, without even knowing exactly where aid would be needed. So people flew from Sudan, Mozambique, North Carolina and all over the world to converge in Cebu City.
Keeping in mind that SP had no offices or presence in the Philippines, I was amazed at how quickly they were able to connect with local leaders to assess and respond to the situation. Through their other works like Operation Christmas Child, they distribute literally millions of shoe boxes of toys to the poorest of the poor each Christmas season. Due to this program, they have ongoing relationships with local pastors in Tacloban who would be of great assistance to all.
When the SP “Disaster Assistance Response Team” (DART) arrived in the disaster area just 48 hours after the typhoon hit, they came fully prepared and empowered to quickly act and make things happen. No calling back to headquarters for permission to make decisions, rather they were trusted and had cash in hand to make progress fast. They purchased vehicles so they could get to Tacloban, purchased chainsaws to clear coco palms that needed to be moved, bought local food from Cebu City to help with distributions – basically they took care of whatever they needed to do to reach the affected areas and provide aid. By day five, they were in full food distribution mode working with local churches in this crisis. Soon they had distributed 4,000 food kits and 4,000 sanitation kits, eventually growing to 213 tons of food distributed in the first 45 days.
As more aid organizations arrived, they had weekly meetings to help decide which organizations would provide which services, to which areas. This helped ensure no organization was duplicating efforts and that the most needy were being helped. Food aid was high on the list of priorities, with USAID delivering 2.7 million food kits with the help of the U.S. military. USAID was able to quickly distribute food utilizing locally sourced items, as it has a small amount of flexibility to buy local. If they had provided aid in the manner that most U.S. food aid is delivered, via American-flagged vessels purchased from U.S. farmers, it would have arrived too late to help any starving people. It is clear that food aid reform, regarding how and where USAID can purchase relief supplies, is critical to get help quickly to where it is needed most.
As more aid organizations began work on the ground, SP focused on providing shelter, clean water, sanitation and mobile medical clinics. With almost 50 inches of rain per year in Tacloban, providing shelter before the rainy season started up again was a priority. First, many local indigenous employees needed to be hired. When I was there, SP has reduced their ex-pat employee staff from 80 right after the disaster, to 28, but had over 400 local employees on the payroll. They had local assessors travel to people’s homes to assess the damage. Depending upon the severity of the damage and the size of the family, a determination was made by the local staff on which housing kit the family would receive – for an entire house, part of one and size of a home.
The local recipient first had to attend a course on how to rebuild the home with structural integrity. The homeowner was trained on how to build correctly, then he was given the materials and tools to build the home again. The homeowner provided the labor and rebuilt the house, SP provided the materials and knowledge. Locals also performed the inspections during construction, to ensure safety for the family. In viewing these homes, I was amazed by the pride of the homeowners who did the work, and I was touched by the graciousness of the populations. Signs abounded everywhere thanking the aid organizations and workers who had come to help. SP was churning out 160 housing kits per day, plus an equal number of sanitation kits. The scale they had achieved in such a short period of time was incredible.
Clean water is a huge problem in the Tacloban area. When SP performed water quality tests around town, they found evidence of fecal contamination in 100 percent of the water sources, and e-coli was commonly found in the water. Before the hurricane, most families had no access to sanitation, so SP mounted a campaign, working with local village leaders and pastors, to implement a variety of water filtration and sanitation systems. As they work to have 10,000 transitional homes built by the end of June, they are also working on having 10,000 septic tanks implemented by the end of June, as everyone in town needs to have access to sanitation to be truly effective.
Once again, rather than a hand out, SP provides a hand up. SP provides the training and materials for the toilets and septic tanks with leach systems, but the homeowners dig the hole, make the forms, pour the concrete and take responsibility for sanitation at their homes. SP also used their clean water knowledge to provide different filtration systems based upon the local situation, with different filters and water sources depending upon each area.
Though Typhoon Haiyan caused much pain and suffering, SP is working to leave the population better off than before the disaster. I have never met so many passionate, committed professionals in disaster relief; it was truly an inspiration how this faith-based organization is making the world a better place.