Super Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Central Visayas area of the Philippines, not only leveling Tacloban City where she made first landfall, but ripped through the islands of Samar and Leyte, Northern Cebu and the Panay provinces and swiped Busuanga Island, on her way out to the Western Philippine Sea. One apt description of Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) was “easily a Category 4 Hurricane, but combined with a tornado having a hundred-mile wide damage path .”
The impacted area is about the size of West Virginia, but with the added complication of being scattered islands and archipelagos, relying on key transit points including airports, seaports and vital roads and bridges that are mostly inoperable. Thanks to a storm surge of up to 24 feet, much of the infrastructure may remain closed or damaged for months. Reports of casualties vary, but victim narratives backed by initial media coverage and official government tallies seem to confirm that at least over one hundred people lost their lives in the storm. That number is likely to rise as contact is re-established with the harder-hit outlying areas. As of the time of this article’s publication, the storm made landfalls over 5 islands, displacing over 600,000 people, destroying or damaging at least 20,000 homes and structures.
The Philippine Government had sufficient warning and heeding past incidents, pre-positioned relief supplies and began mandatory evacuations of residents into emergency shelters such as stadiums and other sturdy structures. No one was prepared however, for the immense damage wrought by winds close to 190 miles per hour with gusts exceeding that figure, along with flash flooding and storm surges that easily came to rooftop levels in most locations. Possibly the only saving grace is the speed of the storm that wrought those winds also made a quick transit of the Visayas region.
With Haiyan now well off-shore and threatening the Vietnamese coast, damage assessment efforts have begun. A generous outpouring of international aid both near and far, and deployment of US Navy units out of Japan will bolster current government operations to bring immediate relief. The challenge is that the entire area is dark, literally. A complete power and communications blackout has hampered efforts to reach both major population centers and the the more isolated townships and villages. Tacloban City airport was devastated, but some reports indicate that the runway is mostly intact. Initial sorties by the Philippine Air Force were focused on delivering electrical generators and sufficient communications gear to replace what was lost on the ground and re-establish links to unaffected areas of the country. Based on media photos, a few PAF C-130s and Sokol utility helicopters were seen on the battered and congested ramp, but the lack of electrical power, damage to the control tower and fueling areas will severely limit the number of flights the airport can handle in the coming days. Sealift support by the Philippine Navy includes up to 20 vessels, most notably the hard-working Bacolod City-class Logistical Landing Craft, a familiar sight from recent crises such as the Bohol earthquake and the Zamboanga City uprising. Overall, the government committed a goodly portion of it’s military and civilian assets and personnel prior to Haiyan’s arrival, to quickly deal with the aftermath. This comprehensive effort is being managed through the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), the equivalent to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Perhaps the only benefit of this natural disaster was the temporary cessation of the standoff at Ayungin Shoals – the Philippine Marines aboard the grounded BRP Sierra Madre safely rode out the storms, as did many other of the small, isolated detachments in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) or as the contested Spratleys are known. The Chinese Maritime Surveillance ships quickly moved out ahead of the oncoming tempest for safer harbor.
As with any major Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Recovery (HA/DR) operation, the bulk of relief supplies will have to be sent via ship or ground. Most roads remain blocked by fallen trees and other debris, with the critical San Juanico bridge linking Leyte, where Tacloban City is located, with it’s Northern neighbor Samar, currently under safety evaluation. This vital road link between the two islands is the only way road-bound supplies can reach the impact zone. Tacloban Seaport is blocked, mostly by debris and ships wrecked and washed ashore by the typhoon’s powerful waves. The San Juanico strait is barely navigable, and the bottom which is littered with World War II shipwrecks are now further cluttered by new victims. Assuming the port can be cleared, this will force relief vessels to either pass north through the San Bernardino Straits and swing around Samar or south through the Surigao Straits into Leyte Gulf, adding miles to an already long voyage.
In a scene eerily reminiscent of the days following Hurricane Katrina, lawlessness and looting have broken out in the major population centers, with President Benigno Aquino III resisting calls to impose martial law, despite some local governments ceding effective control and operations back to Manila due to manpower shortages. Government forces are starting to arrive to deliver both aid and establish law and order. The coming weeks will be the critical time, as efforts to rebuild, restore power, establish potable water sources and housing will be racing the clock against starvation, disease and exposure to the elements.
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Juramentado is the pseudonym for Armando J. Heredia, a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.