Typhoon Haiyan: Was the government prepared?

Philippines President Benigno Aquino defended preparations ahead of last week's devastating storm. Others say local governments failed to mobilize to force evacuations and that the country's response to such disasters is mainly reactive. 

AP Photo/Wally Santana
An aerial view shows the destruction left from Typhoon Haiyan in the coastal town of Tanawan, central Philippines, Wednesday. Haiyan, one of the strongest storms on record, slammed into six central Philippine islands on Friday leaving a wide swath of destruction and thousands of people dead.

Dead bodies clog the basement of the Tacloban City Convention Centre. The dazed evacuees in its sports hall are mostly women and children. The men are missing.

That so few men made it to this refuge shows how dimly aware they were of the threat posed by Typhoon Haiyan, which crashed into the central Philippines on Friday with some of the strongest winds ever recorded.

Many men stayed at their homes to guard against looters. Poorly enforced evacuations compounded the problem. And the bodies illustrate another, more troubling truth: the evacuation centre itself became a death trap, as many of those huddling in the basement perished in a tsunami-like swirl of water.

Those with the foresight to evacuate flimsy homes along the coast gathered in concrete structures not strong enough to withstand the six-metre (20-ft) storm surges that swept through Tacloban, capital of the worst-hit Leyte province.

The aid, when it came, was slow. Foreign aid agencies said relief resources were stretched thin after a big earthquake in central Bohol province last month and displacement caused by fighting with rebels in the country's south, complicating efforts to get supplies in place before the storm struck.

The Philippines, no stranger to natural disasters, was unprepared for Haiyan's fury.

"We're all waiting for our husbands," said Melody Mendoza, 27, camped out with her two young sons at the convention centre, which towers over the devastated coastal landscape.

Local officials say 10,000 people were killed in Tacloban alone. President Benigno Aquino told CNN the death toll from the typhoon was 2,000 to 2,500, saying "emotional drama" was behind the higher estimate.

Aquino defended the government's preparations, saying the toll might have been higher had it not been for the evacuation of people and the readying of relief supplies.

"But, of course, nobody imagined the magnitude that this super typhoon brought on us," he said. 

Warnings unheeded 

Two days before the storm hit, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies predicted a "dangerous" typhoon with winds of 240 kph (150 mph) heading straight for Leyte and Samar - the two most devastated provinces.

Warnings were broadcast regularly on television and over social media. More than 750,000 people across the central Philippines were evacuated.

"As bad as the loss of life was, it could have in fact been much, much worse," said Clare Nullis, spokeswoman for the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization, praising the government's work in issuing warnings.

"Certainly on Thursday and Friday, PAGASA, which is the Philippines' meteorological service, they were sending out regular warnings of a seven-metre (22 ft) storm surge. That was going out on an hourly basis."

But as the storm approached Tacloban and authorities crisscrossed the city, their warnings often fell on deaf ears.

"Some people didn't believe us because it was so sunny," said Jerry Yaokasin, vice mayor of Tacloban. "Some people were even laughing."

Getting relief supplies to survivors has also been chaotic.

Foreign aid workers said they had struggled to get equipment and personnel on to Philippine military cargo planes, with the government prioritising the deployment of soldiers due to widespread looting at the weekend.

Mark Fernando, 33, a volunteer for the Philippine National Red Cross, arrived in Tacloban on Tuesday afternoon after a two-day wait at nearby Cebu city for a military plane.

"They said, 'Our priority is to bring in soldiers and policemen,'" said Fernando, whose 10-strong team plans to clear debris and set up a water filtration system.

One survivor at the Tacloban convention centre said he would have evacuated if he had been told a tsunami-like wall of water might hit.

"On Thursday night we could see the stars in the sky," said Moises Rosillo, 41, a pedicab driver sheltering beneath the centre's distinctive domed roof with his family. "We thought it would just be wind and rain."

Rosillo evacuated his wife and son, but stayed behind with his father and thousands of other men in a neighbourhood near the airport. The authorities warned of a storm surge - a term Rosilla said he didn't understand - but didn't try to forcibly evacuate them.

Winds of 314 kph (195 mph) were followed by a surge of water, which rose to the height of a coconut tree within five minutes, he said. Rosillo was swept into a bay, which he likened to a giant whirlpool, and clung for hours to a piece of wood before struggling ashore. His father died in the water.

Medical workers are treating evacuees at the convention centre for lacerations and other wounds.

But many, like Mendoza, complained of a lack of food and poor hygiene. "People won't come here because they are scared their children will get sick." 

'The preparations were not enough' 

With so little help arriving, people are still streaming towards Tacloban's airport, where hundreds are waiting for a chance to board a flight to Cebu or Manila.

"It appears local government units failed to mobilise officials for forced evacuations to higher and safer ground, out of the way of strong winds, storm surges and widespread flooding," said Doracie Zoleta-Nantes, an expert on disasters at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Typhoons are a frequent phenomenon in the Philippines and the flimsy nature of rural housing means fatalities are hard to avoid. Haiyan was the second category 5 typhoon to hit this year after Typhoon Usagi in September. An average of 20 typhoons strike every year, and Haiyan was the 24th this year.

Last year, Typhoon Bopha flattened three towns in southern Mindanao, killing 1,100 people and causing damage of more than $1 billion.

Zoleta Nantes, a Philippines native, said despite those disasters and efforts to strengthen disaster management since 2010, "the Philippine government continues a reactive approach to disasters".

Survivors complained of shortages of food and water, piling pressure on Aquino whose once soaring popularity has been eroded in recent weeks by a corruption scandal roiling his political allies.

Some officials said they could have done more.

"Now, looking back, the preparations were not enough, especially in Tacloban. What we did not prepare for was the breakdown in local functions," said Lucille Sering, secretary of the government's Climate Change Commission.

More than 30 countries have pledged aid, but distribution of relief goods has been hampered by impassable roads and rudderless towns that have lost leaders and emergency workers.

Hardest-hit Leyte province has only one working airstrip, which is overrun with relief supplies and crowds jostling to evacuate. It can handle only lighter aircraft.

Philippine Army Major Ruben Guinolbay said help from the United States, other countries and aid agencies was slowed by the lack of clear information. Tacloban's government was wiped out by the storm. Many officials are dead, missing or too overcome with grief to work.

"The usual contact people could not be reached because communications were cut and there was no way of getting information," he told Reuters. A U.S. Marine commander came to Tacloban to personally assess the situation, he added. After his trip, help started to flow.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the government's response this time was faster than previous disasters.

"We saw something that is really unprecedented," Abad said. "I don't think we could have prepared for this."

(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Erik dela Cruz in Manila, Maggie Lu Yueyang in Sydney and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva. Editing by Jason Szep and Dean Yates)

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