Grim Warning on the Philippines

(This is an advisory from the Manila-based country risk firm Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a subscription only service. It paints a grim but comprehensive picture of traveler safety in the typhoon-hit provinces of Samar and Leyte in the Philippines reminiscent of Cormack McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road.)

The situation in Samar and Leyte—the two most affected areas from super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda—remains problematic. Recovery and rehabilitation work remains challenging due to the logistical constraints relating to severe infrastructure damage, transport difficulties, and scarce or unavailable resources. There are reports that fuel supplies have been depleted in Leyte Province. This situation could continue for at least the next 48-72 hours.

Utility services—power, communications, and water—have yet to be fully restored in many parts of the affected areas. Local residents who would like to evacuate the area as well as those engaged in the relief and recovery efforts are both faced with limited transport services. Security is fast becoming a serious problem, with increasing reports of looting, robberies, hijackings, and ransacking involving both armed and unarmed groups.

Relief and Rescue Operations President Benigno Aquino III has estimated the death toll at 2,000-2,500 people, but the casualty figures could be much higher as more information becomes available in the coming days and weeks. As of mid-afternoon on November 13, official government figures already list 2,275 dead, 3,665 injured, and 80 missing.

Approximately seven million people were affected by this disaster, and several towns remain isolated in Leyte and Samar, while towns in other affected provinces have yet to provide official casualty figures. The Philippine Red Cross’ missing persons database lists around 22,000 people still unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, the distribution of relief goods has reportedly been very chaotic with local authorities in some affected areas complaining of not receiving any donations of vital supplies for their localities. Some vehicles transporting relief goods are reportedly being mobbed by desperate local residents, some of whom are armed with knives, prompting some relief agencies to abandon organized distribution efforts.

Financial and humanitarian assistance from several foreign governments and international aid agencies have started to arrive to assist the Philippine government and local humanitarian organizations. On November 13, a US aircraft carrier and three US warships arrived in Leyte to augment the initial contingent of US military personnel that arrived earlier this week. This will provide much needed helicopter support to aid relief efforts; not to mention other vital support services provided by these naval vessels and personnel.

The British government is also deploying naval vessels and military personnel to assist in the relief and recovery operations. Canada and several other nations are also deploying personnel for relief assistance.

Security There is currently high safety and security risks when traveling in Samar and Leyte due to the reported breakdown in law and order in parts of these provinces; especially along the major highways.

National authorities earlier deployed military and police personnel to both provinces to contain the security situation; facilitate the relief and recovery operations; and secure government, media, and relief workers. The security situation in both areas, however, is not yet stable and has become a serious problem, with increasing reports of looting, robberies, hijackings, and ransacking involving both armed and unarmed groups.

In many cases, these security deployments have failed to prevent locals and lawless elements desperate for food, water, and medicine from looting and ransacking warehouses, commercial establishments, and private homes.

The security situation is further complicated by the escape of about 130 prisoners from the Leyte Provincial Jail in Tacloban City; there are unconfirmed reports that the escapees have been responsible for several of the attacks on relief goods and home robberies.

This morning, the government ordered the additional deployment of government security forces in both areas. The Armed Forces of the Philippines deployed another battalion of personnel to both areas, and has placed another military unit on standby for deployment.

The Philippine National Police has now deployed close to 2,600 police officers to Tacloban City and other parts of Leyte Province. The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) also sent additional personnel to augment its initial 200-strong contingent, while the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) deployed 559 personnel to the affected areas.

Authorities also expanded the curfew from the original 10PM-6AM on November 12, to 6PM-6AM as of November 13.

Government authorities in both Manila and Cebu are already preparing for a large influx of displaced persons. Many of these families and individuals will be homeless and without means of sustaining basic livelihood. This could lead to further challenges for government security and disaster relief agencies in Cebu, Manila, and other major urban centers.

Utility Services

As of November 13, authorities confirmed that many areas of Leyte and Samar are still without power. The Department of Energy and National Grid Corporation of the Philippines said that full restoration of power in both areas could take a year. The United Nations announced plans to distribute solar-powered lanterns in the affected areas, focusing on the most vulnerable segments of the affected population, while power lines are still down.

Although telephone landline services have yet to be restored, mobile communications have been partially restored, including in Tacloban City. Smart Communications reported that lines have been reactivated in 83 percent of the affected sites, while Globe Telecoms has reactivated close to 60 percent of its communication lines. Both mobile phone service providers, however, appealed that communication be limited to text messaging at this time to prevent communication breakdowns due to congestion.

Meanwhile, areas that continue to have intermittent to no mobile phone services include towns in Eastern Samar and Leyte provinces. Both service providers have setup temporary facilities in the following areas to provide residents with free satellite phone services:

  • Borongan and Guiuan in Eastern Samar

  • Tacloban City and Dulag in Leyte

Authorities said that water services have been partially restored in Tacloban City, although the vast majority of the affected areas remain with little to no potable water. Some residents have resorted to digging up and smashing open underground water pipes in parts of both provinces to access water.

Transportation

To date, Tacloban City’s airport operations remain limited to small aircraft. Airline companies, particularly Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific, have increased commercial flights from Cebu City to Tacloban City.

Land travel, meanwhile, further improved with more highways and major roads cleared of debris. However, government check points have been established to secure these vital land routes and facilitate the transport of relief goods and aid workers.

Sea travel to and from the affected areas are back to normal operations.

Due to the volatile situation and frayed nerves of the local populace, PSA clients are advised to carefully consider the essential nature of any travel to these affected areas. However, those who need to extract their personnel are advised to contact the following agencies: