by Michel Rooijackers

I have worked as a humanitarian in some of the world’s biggest disasters for the past ten years, across Africa and Asia. I am used to seeing human suffering. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in October 2013.

Up to 20 typhoons slam into the Philippines every year. Some cause no damage at all, but others can cause severe localized damage. As a humanitarian, I always hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Save the Children has been working in the Philippines for 30 years. We store emergency equipment in warehouses all over the country so that we can distribute basic necessities instantly in the event of a disaster such as Haiyan.

1 000 still missing

Haiyan hit and…nothing. People talk about the calm before the storm, but this was a calm after the storm. The eerie silence that terrified us all.

The storm had damaged the telecommunication infrastructure, making it impossible to contact with anyone in the region. As the initial news reports finally filtered through, a horror dawned on us: the devastation caused by the typhoon was much worse than we could have predicted. Haiyan is actually the biggest storm to have ever made landfall since we began recording these things. The wind speeds were unprecedented. It killed over 6 000 people. Almost 1 000 people are still registered as missing.

My greatest concern for those bearing the brunt of the typhoon was the storm surge. Even though people had gone inside to shelter from flying debris when the violent typhoon arrived, many were underprepared for the 17ft (approximately 5,20 meters) wave of seawater that barreled through the region. People were swept to their deaths. Many drowned.

Bodies in the street, debris everywhere

After a terrifying ordeal for those on the ground, the winds finally dropped. The storm passed. With great relief, we re-established contact with our team of experts. They told traumatic stories of dead bodies in the street, whole towns flattened by a storm so ferocious the surge pushed a ship right into the middle of Tacloban. Houses were totally blown away, trees uprooted, cars picked up and tossed like toys. It is difficult to imagine what a wind speed of over 275 kph feels like. Nobody outside would have been safe. I have heard stories of people whose skin was literally sandblasted off because of the power of the wind on the coast.

Now it was time to focus on the survivors. In the face of such unimaginable chaos, our teams mobilized and headed to the Visayas, the middle of the country, where the storm had passed.

In Tacloban, the epicenter of the destruction, they were greeted with scenes of absolute carnage: bodies lying in the middle of the street, debris everywhere, dazed people wandering around in shock at having lost family members, their houses and all of their possessions.

The sheer scale of devastation was overwhelming, but my colleagues and I are experienced aid workers. We were proud to be the first organization to get essential supplies to survivors. We gave food to hungry families, provided temporary shelter to those made homeless, and provided child friendly spaces so parents would know their children were safe and being looked after while they tried to put their lives back in order.

Now, a year on, Save the Children is still helping survivors in the affected areas re-establish their lives. We have reached almost 800 000 people. Some have received life-saving food supplies and medical treatment. Others have received cash to build their houses and restart their livelihoods. Every day we hear stories of hope and it gives us great encouragement. However, we know the road to recovery is long and difficult for those who lost everything. That is why we’re committed to working alongside the communities affected by Haiyan for at least the next two years.

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Michel Rooijackers is “Save the Children”’s Haiyan response team leader and deputy country director


Caption : Edgar et sa famille devant leur nouveau maison, Ormoc, Leyte, Philippines.
Copyright: Jonathan Hyams/Save the Children