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On November 12, four days after Typhoon Haiyan, I was on a plane to the Philippines. Our emergency response team had tracked the typhoon for days and when we heard the initial damage reports, we grabbed our bags and headed out.
With an enormous disaster like Haiyan, it’s critical to be on the scene. In Manila, my colleagues and I quickly made contact with the government and other disaster relief groups to coordinate travel and assessments. The Philippines are spread over thousands of islands, only a few are connected by road. It can be a 30-hour drive on a single road (and a ferry passage) from Manila to the hard-hit island of Leyte, where the cities of Tacloban and Guiuan had been flattened and the situation was dire.
I found a seat on a commercial aircraft and met a shipment of our emergency medicines going from Cebu to the one of the few functioning hospitals in Tacloban. Then I drove through the city to see the situation for myself: To assess needs, personal contact is critically important. Even a week after the disaster, bodies were still being pulled from wreckage and body bags were a common and heart-wrenching sight along the roads in Tacloban. I’ve seen destruction before, but never so much loss of life: I felt intensely how vulnerable we all are and how quickly our lives can change.
Outside the city, amid rain showers and smoke from burning debris, I visited wrecked and wasted neighborhoods to interview survivors. While some were sheltering in churches and schools, other survivors were living under dripping tarps in the shells of soaked and battered homes.
People came out to the street to talk to me; I asked how they were, what they needed and where they could get medical care. About 15 miles outside Tacloban in San Antonio, I met one man who had a severe cut on his finger; he’d bandaged it with a plastic wrapper held with a rubber band. Before the storm, he had relied on a nearby health center, now destroyed. For any health care, he would have to travel more than 6 kilometers, not easy when roads were impassable and gasoline scarce.
In damaged hospitals and rural health centers in Samar and Leyte, I met doctors and nurses working through their own trauma: One doctor had lost 11 family members who had been gathered for a family party when the storm hit. Another had just sent her children to live with relatives in Manila, safely out of the disaster zone. I was glad to be able to help them better address the needs of their patients by directing medicines and supplies to their hospitals; I pulled to the side of the road whenever I found a cell phone signal to email the doctors’ needs to our teams coordinating shipments in Manila and Cebu.
Even north of Tacloban, where health centers were still standing, lack of power was a huge issue. Doctors were concerned about delivering babies safely; without power, they told me, it is too risky to perform cesarean sections. There, in the field, we began planning to provide quality generators that damaged health centers could use immediately but would also remain in place for future disasters.
Back in my office, I can see my team’s early field work being put to use: We provided medicines to treat diabetic patients who would have otherwise lost limbs, a wheelchair for an elderly patient who would not have been able to maintain his independence because he couldn’t afford a replacement, and generators that allowed health professionals to safely deliver babies in areas without electricity. With our plans and funding, rebuilding has begun on several rural clinics in the area.
I know AmeriCares contributions will help many for years to come and I’d love to return to the islands to visit the brave survivors I was privileged to meet.