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Typhoon Haiyan: “I saw water fly”

Children play on a wreckage-strewn Estancia beach
Children play on a wreckage-strewn Estancia beach

I’ve just entered Save the Children’s field office in the town of Estancia on Panay Island, one of the places worst hit by typhoon Haiyan. It’s chaos:  the sound of the generators and the traffic outside is so loud you can barely think, let alone concentrate.  But everyone seems to be managing.

To date, Save the Children has reached more than 300,000 people, the majority of them children. We are providing health and nutrition services, shelter, water sanitation and hygiene, food security and livelihoods, child protection and education. This is why this office, a huge space packed with hard-working teams, is the loudest and busiest I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the generators go off and at times there is no internet.

Non-stop rush hour

The health teams run mobile clinics that provide basic health services; the nutrition teams are busy informing mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding in a crisis, as well as screening children for malnutrition. We have more than 100 staff and countless volunteers here. It feels like rush hour, all the time. Most of the staff and volunteers are local, so are suffering the consequences of the typhoon themselves. Their dedication is admirable. The government has said it will take four years to rebuild the hardest-hit areas; Save the Children’s response plan covers the next three years. This is going to be a long haul.

The field office in Estancia is among the tallest buildings in town, offering a great view from the roof. There is destruction everywhere you look. Tarpaulin instead of roofs, broken tree trunks, electricity poles and lines on the ground. There’s been a mild tropical storm recently, adding to the challenge for our staff and the locals.

“I saw water fly,” one survivor, Annalyn, told a colleague of mine. “That’s not possible: water can’t fly,” was my colleague’s reaction. But it did that day in November. Annalyn tells me her husband crawled, crying, to his home from the pond, fearing for his family. They lost their house and the children fell sick. But they’re alive. “My four year old son, the only one of us who can swim, was shaking from cold and fear,” says Annalyn.

Six million children affected

This may have been the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall. The closest comparison, in terms of storm surge and floods, is the 2004 Asian tsunami. Typhoon Haiyan brought maximum sustained winds of 235 kmh and gusts of 275 kmh; few buildings can withstand that, especially the flimsy ones in poor areas. More than 1 million houses are now in ruins. Fourteen million people were affected, of whom six million are children. Four million people are still displaced.

Filipinos are not new to natural disasters: their country experiences around 20 typhoons every year. Haiyan was the 25th typhoon to hit the Philippines this season, and more will follow. Save the Children will need to help them rebuild – and rebuild better.

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