LONDON, United Kingdom — Super Typhoon Haiyan was one of the strongest storms ever recorded, and the most destructive in the Philippines’ modern history. Ten years on from the disaster The Borgen Project talks to Nick Hilton, who was at the heart of the emergency response with the NGO Plan International.
Hilton’s distinguished career in international development has spanned 25 years, seven nations and three continents. He discusses the challenges and achievements of the international aid mission.
“The U.N. resident representative had called the U.N. and NGO community to prepare for the incoming storm – although they didn’t know how strong it would be,” Hilton told The Borgen Project.
Haiyan (referred to locally as Yolanda) tore into the southern Philippines on the morning of November 8, 2013. Winds of up to 196mph hammered into the eastern islands of Same and Leyte and swept westwards relentlessly across Cebu, Iloilo and Palawan.
“It took a few days for the scale of the disaster to unfold,” Hilton revealed. “People didn’t understand what a storm surge was.” The brunt of Haiyan’s devastation was borne by the low-lying eastern coastal metropolis of Tacloban City. The gales were accompanied by a deadly storm surge, estimated to be as high as 7.5m (24.6ft). The Pacific Ocean flooded into the city, destroying 90% of all its infrastructure.
By the time Super Typhoon Haiyan had left Philippine jurisdiction, it had impacted over 16 million people. Tragically, it left 4 million homeless, 20,000 injured and 6,300 dead, according to Climate.gov. Nonoy Fajardo, a first responder from UNICEF, described what she saw in Tacloban as “mud and ruin – only mud and ruin – where once there had been all the normal signs of life.”
In light of the extent of the damage, the Philippine government declared a state of national calamity, which released emergency funds for international assistance. The NGO Plan International recruited Hilton in the aftermath of the storm to manage logistics. It had been two years since his last emergency response, which was after tropical storm Sedong (Washi).
The U.N. released an initial $25 million of relief funding on November 11, 2013. The task of procuring and distributing emergency aid kits for the affected areas, particularly the devastated Tacloban, began immediately. The World Food Programme (WFP) imported food, hygiene and shelter kits from the Middle East to be distributed locally by the U.N. and NGOs such as Plan.
However, the sheer magnitude of the damage created obstacles for the initial relief mission. A lack of preparedness meant that Plan and other locally-based organizations struggled to manage the vast quantities of aid packages.
“Plan didn’t have the capacity to procure and distribute emergency supplies, and systems were not suited to large-scale procurement,” Hilton said. The WFP had to deliver kits to Cebu Airport, the closest functioning area. Hilton explained that the airport “didn’t have the experience or capacity to deal with an increase in emergency flights.” The chaos led to Plan losing around 1000 aid kits, which Nick later managed to track down.
He visited Tacloban in January 2014, around two months after the storm, and observed the still-apparent damage for himself. He arrived at a roofless Tacloban Airport, before taking a taxi ride through the surrounding areas. The brute force of Super Typhoon Haiyan had reduced buildings and warehouses to “twisted metal frames” as if they were made of modeling clay.
At this stage, Hilton’s task as the information manager for logistics was to ensure supplies were going to the correct places. Disorder still hindered the distribution of vital aid to desperate communities. To overcome this he and his colleagues at Plan and the wider NGO community were both innovative and collaborative. “Plan relocated its main emergency operation office to Tacloban employing local staff,” he said. This move enabled far better communication with important communities.
Organizations also pooled their efforts to ensure the most effective response. “The U.N. Coordination Committees in various sectors were the main forum for sharing data and information and this was where the church NGOs and other local NGOs were able to help us,” he said. The Catholic Church, which over 86% of the Philippine population belongs to, provided NGOs with a critical network to help organize their operations and deliver life-changing aid.
Recovery and Long-term Impact
“After the initial emergency, the situation moves to the early recovery stage” Hilton explained. His contract was for six months, and once the immediate crisis was under control, the focus of the operation shifted toward rebuilding the affected areas.
People lost everything in the storm, so it was essential that NGOs provided aid that would sustainably regenerate communities. One way Plan did this was by providing skills training programs.
Emily was 19 when Super Typhoon Haiyan struck, leaving her jobless and lacking the skills to secure another opportunity. Many young people in Tacloban and the surrounding areas were in Emily’s position. She enrolled in Plan’s training program, which focused on employability and gave her a professional qualification.
“The skills I learned have opened up opportunities for me,” she said. “I now have a job that feeds my family and sends my younger sister to school.”
Hilton stresses that the response was imperfect. He explained how U.N. bureaucracy, a lack of organization and some scarcely believable political maneuvers all provided obstacles to achieving maximum impact. Yet these difficulties should not obscure the incredible achievements of Plan and the wider humanitarian operation.
Plan’s work benefited over 350,000 people, gave over 11,000 children access to health care and created 63 education centers. It also established lasting systems to prepare for any future emergencies.
Hilton reflected on the legacy of the overall humanitarian response to Haiyan. “The main point to remember is that if no international aid was given, the Philippines government would not have been able to recover as well and as quickly as it did.”
Today, the recovery of these areas is a testament to the power international aid has to transform lives. The generous donations of nations, companies and individuals to aid appeals made it possible for Hilton and his colleagues to rebuild lives.
“I visited Tacloban and the surrounding areas last year,” Hilton concluded. “I didn’t notice anything that would suggest the disaster of 10 years ago.”
– Henry Jones