The Tragic Logistics of Disaster Relief

In the base operations lounge of the military’s central command at Cebu City’s airport, an energetic phalanx of air force pilots and aid workers comes and goes from all over the world.

A bar in one corner has been made into a ‘Flight Crew Check-In’ counter for what is being referred to as ‘Relief Airlines’ – in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, the largest aid mobilization the Philippines has ever seen.

The relief effort coincides with reports over the weekend that local governments have finally begun to regain control of their communities in Samar and Leyte despite reports of widespread looting, carjacking and banditry in the interior. Some commercial banks have reopened limited operations, with several ATMs operating in Tacloban City. The local Department of Public Works and Highways is taking over debris clearing operations. Gas stations, hardware stores and other establishments are reopening. Even inmates liberated when the roof blew off their jail are starting to return, most of them having fled to help their stricken families.

When this is all over, the Philippines might want to take it upon itself to re-define its whole idea of disaster response, of priorities it must take before another powerful typhoon inevitably comes around.

As expected, initially there was confusion as to what to do as foreign governments and many of the world’s well-known humanitarian organizations lined up to give succor, nearly overwhelming local government efforts to coordinate with them. Operationally, international correspondents and aid authorities were taken aback when they asked who was in overall charge, to be told that nobody was.

However now this has evolved into a complicated and intricate international logistical ballet of men and women, airplanes, trucks and ancillary equipment, being shaped ad hoc into an efficient conduit to deliver aid to millions of stricken people,

The staging point for operations to bring aid to the devastated islands of Leyte and Samar is Cebu, the second largest city in the central Philippines. Eventually the Central Command’s Air Force base – as it is located in the Visayas region of the country’s midsection – became the hub of more advanced C-130s from countries including Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and others.

Tacloban’s airport, which had been destroyed by the storm surge, has turned into a frenzy of planes and helicopters always on the run, with a constant roar from dawn to dusk and even late into the night as some C-130s, the airplane of choice for its ability to land on short runways and even dirt roads if necessary, would be off to somewhere, their pilots equipped with night-vision goggles. With the control tower destroyed, US Marines established an air traffic navigation and coordination system to guide in the planes.

At one end of the runway sits the Philippine Air Force, whose fleet of about half a dozen Hueys and Sokols has made more than 400 sorties to other far-flung affected areas delivering tons of sacks or boxes of relief packs. The Americans have their Ospreys and Black Hawks.

The Tacloban airport itself has become a little enclave where things shake and move, with the Philippine military in charge as if in a camp, the Americans bringing in their heavy machines to clear up the mess and the Australians having set up a sophisticated hospital in tents equipped with about 50 wards and two operating theaters for the typhoon victims, while refugees wait in a long queue to get out, either to Cebu or Manila. It is also the place that has received a fair amount of disaster tourists.

In Cebu, passengers – aid workers flying out, refugees flying in – equipment, loads of relief goods had to be coordinated –with the assistance of a 26-year old Stanford graduate named Luke Beckman, a systems analyst with experience in humanitarian logistics on loan from the Manila Observatory.

“Every time a plane takes off, it should be fully loaded, otherwise it’s a waste,” he said.

Overall the flights have gone according to plan, better than expected in the ensuing chaos from the tragedy, which struck on Nov. 8. The geographic layout for the flight missions distributing aid appeared to run as smoothly as airline schedules. They were flying at an average of 25 per day.

From Cebu, military planes flew to Tacloban City, the focal point of the disaster for the scale of its casualties, and Ormoc City, both in Leyte province; and to the small surfing town of Guiuan in eastern Samar, which was the first hit by the typhoon.

Guiuan is a territory dominated by the Americans, who call it ‘Florida’ for its shape at the bottom of a Samar peninsula, with the aircraft carrier USS George Washington based offshore in company with two more ships in eastern Samar, four in Leyte Gulf, and one off Ormoc – areas they have codenamed Texas, Colorado, California.

The carrier’s deployment is of “national interest” and shows a “firm resolve to help the Philippines,” said a Filipino officer on the ground. ‘They don’t send a carrier battle group just like that.” As it readies to leave after nearly a week of relief operations, a US Marine expeditionary unit is about to arrive with amphibious craft. (Japan has followed as well, sending a ship of about 1,000 men to the Leyte Gulf.)

The landing craft will bring in the trucks, Humvees, and other equipment to “open roads with some capability that the Armed Forces of the Philippines don’t have or can’t get right to,”’ said an American colonel who made Guiuan his lead with an advance team.

A staff-level senior officer from the general headquarters in Manila had to put order to a system of flight details and cargo handling in the absence of a template to go by. Today as in the past, said Colonel Rodolfo Santiago, “the default government response is relief, relief, relief. We’ve forgotten there was search and rescue before that” – which, as seen in the aftermath of Haiyan, has come too late with the government’s lack of capability. A council handling risk reduction has basically been reduced to doing body count.

Mostly these disasters have revealed the Philippine government’s stark inadequacy in organizing a comprehensive response despite a history of frequent typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. An average of 20 typhoons strike the country’s 7,000-plus islands annually, sweeping in across the vast reaches of the South Pacific to build to unimaginable fury. In the past year alone, the Philippines has been battered by a series of natural disasters that included three super typhoons and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake.

President Benigno Aquino III has blamed local officials for not preparing in advance, but on both local and national levels, the issue largely revolves around continuing failures to understand the scope of the hazard, the vulnerable areas and the means by which they must be protected. The official government website reports a stunning 3.95 million persons have been pushed out of their houses and opted to stay with friends and/ or families. More than 5,200 are dead with 1,600 still missing.

The return of the Americans to this part of the country is historically linked to the liberation of the Philippines at the end of World War II when General Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise to return, landing in Leyte. Samar’s history is much darker; it was in the early colonial years that American forces fighting Filipino guerillas vowed to make it a ‘howling wilderness’ for their brutality and abuses.