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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Disaster Recovery Still a Massive Challenge

By Andrew Drwiega

Super Typhoon Haiyan (locally named Yolanda) slammed into the Philippines on Friday, Nov. 8 and brought havoc to the lives of millions of people as its 200-mph-plus winds and associated tidal surge blasted away buildings, villages, towns and people. It was already expected to be the worst typhoon to hit the Philippines – and it lived up to expectations as one of the worst storms to hit land ever recorded. But once again the international preparations to respond quickly have largely been shown to be inadequate. Typhoons are a common occurrence in the Philippines, but this was always going to be different. Now, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 11 million people have been affected with more than 600,000 displaced. The city of Tacloban is devastated as are large areas of provinces included Cebu and Leyte. It quickly became obvious that a humanitarian disaster had been inflicted on the country with as many as 10,000 potential fatalities being predicted at time of writing (mid November) – and yet the response has been excruciatingly slow.

“The aid has only come in trickles,” said one resident being interviewed by the BBC’s World News five days after the storm had hit. “The government is paralyzed; the army only came to restore order.” Like any previous disaster the basics of water, food, medical aid and shelter are needed within the first 24 hours. But electricity is cut, as are communications (especially cell phones as their towers are down), utilities (water and sewage) are not functioning, roads are blocked, and even harbor areas potentially conceal underwater debris. It is the sheer scale of the humanitarian relief effort required that is the problem.

United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Thursday, Nov. 14: “I do feel that we have let people down because we have not been able to get in more quickly.” Surely the question is why couldn’t the means to deliver immediate help be pre-positioned sooner? Why is there, yet again, a lack of vertical lift in the form of helicopters being rushed to the country to begin the task of delivering aid to those tens of thousands who need it? Aircraft laden with suppliers were sent by well-meaning nations and were being received at unaffected or recently cleared airfields, but again in many cases those supplies remain within the airfield.

The U.S. Marine Corps was one of the first organizations to respond with eight of the new Bell-Boeing MV-22 Ospreys of HMM262 squadron (Pacific Command) on their way within 24 hours. But that represents only the tip of a rotary iceberg. Helicopters need to be in the first wave of aid and while the people cannot eat and drink helicopters, if they cannot get the essentials for life and recovery fast then there is no point in those basics arriving first.

It is also the small things. Cargo nets are tremendously useful. Not only can they be reused time and again, they allow for weighty underslung loads which can be prepared at the dispersal area cutting down on waiting time while helicopters are reloaded by hand. That means many more trips per day. It also gives hard-pressed crews greater safety (there was at least one incident of desperate people rushing a landing helicopter).

Of course it is easy to sit remotely and write about slow response again – but how many times does it take for governments and world organizations to realize that disaster recovery means having helicopters, as well any aircraft capable of vertical lift, quickly available to begin recovery operations?

Why aren’t ships relocated in advance? It costs a huge amount of money to reposition ships and most eyes turn toward the U.S. Navy to see what it will do, especially as their naval vessels are equipped to produce drinking water from sea water in large quantities. The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington (21 helicopters) and escorts were sent in the days following and arrived on November 14, just as the UK’s Ministry of Defense announced that it was diverting its helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious from a patrol around the Horn of Africa to the Philippines. It operates Westland Sea King Mk4, Merlin AW101 Mk1 and Lynx Mk7 helicopters, but it is 4,500 miles away and will take 10 days to arrive, that is over two weeks after the storm impacted.

Disaster recovery on this scale is an impossible task – but we already know this. What is needed immediately are fully equipped, self-sustaining operation centers with the capability to quickly receive then deploy rotary forces. It is command and control and first responders also need to be sustained. It is not so much the point that the task being faced is beyond the wit of man to organize, but rather it needs international agreement, collaboration and of course the financial muscle to allow forces to be pre-allocated and reserved for disasters such as this.

 

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