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Philippines typhoon: U.S. aid efforts begin focusing on recovery

Two weeks after Typhoon Haiyan swept through the central Philippines, food, clean water, plastic sheeting and other life-saving supplies are being pushed out to affected communities, and humanitarian workers are beginning to shift their focus to recovery efforts.

But survivors in hard-hit Tacloban city and other areas are worried that relief goods might run out before they get back on their feet.  The Nov. 8 storm, known to Filipinos as Yolanda, was one of the most powerful typhoons ever to make landfall, packing sustained winds of up to 195 mph and triggering storm surges that devastated many coastal communities on the islands of Leyte and Samar.

At least 5,235 people were killed and an additional 1,613 are still listed as missing, according to the latest government count. More than a million homes were damaged or destroyed and 3.4 million people displaced. The storm also swept away trucks and fishing boats, ravaged businesses, and left agricultural fields under water. 

Nancy Lindborg, the assistant administrator for humanitarian assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, visited some of the worst-hit areas. She discussed the U.S. response with the Los Angeles Times' Alexandra Zavis, who reported from the Philippines Nov. 13 to Nov. 20. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.

There were complaints about how long it took to get aid to the affected areas. What has been accomplished and what remains to be done?

At this point the United States has provided a little more than $50 million in humanitarian assistance, and that’s all money that has gone out and is in people’s hands in the form of life-saving supplies.

We really focused on, first and foremost, getting the logistical foundation in place for a full-on response. That’s the air bridge that the Marines did, the funding that we provided to the World Food Program, so that they could get their air bridge and the barges and the ferries operational.

Secondly, we focused on getting urgent shelter materials into people’s hands. You may have seen people who were camping out. We were able to get this really heavy-duty plastic sheeting out that they could put over roofless houses, or on some of the wooden frames that I saw people assembling as they pulled wood out of the debris.

Third was clean water and water sanitation material, so soap, things that can help prevent the spread of disease. We worked with UNICEF to pretty quickly get up and running the Tacloban municipal water system. So by the time you were there, that was already serving 100% of the municipality, about 200,000 people. And with our NGO partners, we were getting chlorine tablets out to the remote areas.

And then finally, food. We gave a little over $7 million immediately for purchase of rice locally, and that was put into family packs by Philippine volunteers and distributed to 2.7 million families last week. We also airlifted out of our regional hub highly nutritious food bars and a kind of nutritious paste that is very digestible to children, for about 35,000 people. And then we pulled a ship from one of our regional hubs in Sri Lanka [with] a little over 1,000 metric tons of rice that will arrive early next week. So that will help keep the pipeline going.

What are the biggest needs at the moment?

We’re past the super-urgent people-are-dying phase. So now it’s keeping those supplies flowing, but also moving as quickly as possible into early recovery.

We’re looking at removing debris and getting the systems more fully up and running -- the water system, making sure that the transportation is operating and looking ahead at things like transitional shelter and livelihoods. They have two months to get a rice crop in for an April harvest. So one of those things is how do you get those rice paddies remediated and planted so they don’t miss a really important crop.

Part of what AID has been doing with the government and various universities and institutes in the Philippines has been working on better preparedness and management of these kinds of risks.  And that’s included investing in the development of salt-resistant rice seeds that we’ll see if we can put to use in this emergency.

What are the main obstacles?

The biggest challenge is really just the scope of the damage. The United States is focusing our efforts in the Tacloban area, which you saw is the hardest hit. There is a much broader swath of damage. But the worst, because they had the storm surge as well, is Leyte and Samar. So we will be focusing on those worst-hit areas.

It has been called one of the worst typhoons ever to make landfall. How does it compare to other disasters you may have been involved with?

I’ve been in Haiti, in the Pakistan earthquake and flood, and [in South Asia after the 2004] tsunami, and what’s the same about all of these is you are in these landscapes of just utter debris. You stand there, and you’re just surrounded by this eerie destruction -- mangled structures and vehicles and boats tossed about and landing in trees. It’s surreal.

What’s different is, unlike Haiti, you have a functioning government that has the capacity to manage the response. I don’t know if you had the chance to go see the command center in Tacloban city, where they were dispatching the food packets, and they had the pedicabs and the buses and the trucks going out on a daily basis to the various communities.  This is part of an incident command system that we’ve been working with the Philippines government. It’s based on the U.S. Forest Service approach. That’s an important capability that this government has.  And they need it because they get hammered by these kinds of storms on a regular basis.

Within a week, we were seeing people starting to rebuild in the same low-lying areas that were devastated by the typhoon and using the same kinds of flimsy materials.  Has there been any thought as to how to avoid the same thing happening again the next time a big storm hits?

Yes, there’s a conversation underway about how to do the kind of risk mapping that would enable the reconstruction [effort] to be aware of the risks and how to mitigate against them, both in terms of structure and location. It’s just like what we went through here with Katrina and super storm Sandy. This is all a part of dealing with a new normal of extreme weather events.

After the earthquake in Haiti, USAID was criticized for bringing in food that farmers were already growing and accused of destroying the local economy. Were there any lessons learned that might be applicable in the Philippines?

Yes, we have put a big premium on being able to do local purchase. This was the Obama administration’s proposal for food aid reform last year. We’re very fortunate that this disaster happened early in the fiscal year, while we still have cash, flexible cash, that enables us to do local and regional purchases, because it’s critical that we provide the kind of assistance that is sensitive to local markets and local food production.

This is a piece of what is being considered as we speak in the Farm bill, the degree to which we are able to use these flexible approaches. What the Philippines does is really underscore how important, how valuable it is to have flexibility in how we provide our food aid.

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Twitter: @alexzavis

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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