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November 15, 2013

Philippine government defends typhoon response

TACLOBAN, Philippines — The Philippine government on Friday defended its efforts to deliver assistance to victims of Typhoon Haiyan, many of whom have received little or no assistance since the monster storm struck one week ago.

“In a situation like this, nothing is fast enough,” Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said in Tacloban, most of which was destroyed by the storm one week ago. “The need is massive, the need is immediate, and you can’t reach everyone.”

Government officials have given different death tolls, both actual and estimated, as a result of the storm.

Given the scale of the disaster, and infrastructure and communications problems, this is not unusual.

The spokesman for the country’s civil defense agency, Maj. Reynaldo Balido, confirmed early Friday that the figure had risen to 2,360, hours after the United Nations issued conflicting reports on how many people had died. On the ground in Tacloban, authorities handed out a situation report stating that 3,422 people had been killed on Samar and Leyte islands, the two most affected areas.  

Some officials estimate that the final toll, when the missing are declared dead and remote regions reached, will be more than 10,000.

At least 600,000 people have been displaced.

Authorities are struggling to meet their immediate needs, an expected occurrence after major disasters, especially in already poor countries where local and national governments lack capacity.

The pace of the aid effort has picked up over the last 24 hours, according to reporters who have been in the region for several days. Foreign governments are dispatching food, water, medical supplies and trained staff to the region. Trucks and generators are also arriving.

But many people complain that the aid effort is inadequate.

“The government’s distribution system is not enough. They are handing out small food packets to each household. But when you have three families inside one home, one little packet is not enough,” said Renee Patron, 33, an American citizen of Filipino descent who was in Guiuan city on eastern Samar province when the typhoon struck.

Her friend, Susan Tan, whose grocery store and warehouse were completely looted after the typhoon, is despondent but determined to carry on with her life and help others.

She’s now using her empty warehouse as a center from where people can make calls on a satellite phone she got from a friend who works for local telecoms company Smart. There has been no cell phone service in the town since last Friday.

“This was my store. Now’s it’s a relief center and a call center,” said Tan, 43. “It was ransacked by panicked ... people desperate for food. There was no way to control them. We had stocked up on food for the Christmas holidays. They took everything, and not just the food. They ransacked my office too, anything they could find. They took away our furniture.”

Now, the barren blue shelves are empty. Still it is serving a purpose, with about 100 people queued up outside waiting to make calls. The free calls are limited to one minute each.

Johnny Ogriman, one of the men waiting in the line, said he has not spoken to any family members since the typhoon hit last week. “I’m trying to call my brother in Saudi Arabia. I want to let him know that we’re alive, that we’re safe,” he said.

“Although I’ve been looted and bankrupt by this, I cannot refuse my friends and my town. We need to help each other,” she said. “I can’t just go to Cebu and sit in the mall while this place is in ruins.”

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told The Associated Press that armed forces have set up communications lines and C-130 transport planes are conducting regular flights to Tacloban, the capital of Leyte.

“The biggest challenge is to be able to reach out to all the areas and overwhelm them with food and water. There are just a few more areas in Leyte and Samar that have not been reached and our hope is that we will reach all these areas today, 100 percent,” he said.

In Tacloban city, the big challenge is the restoration of power, where many electric posts are down. But it may take some time because of the debris, he said.

Troops are removing bodies near the sea with the help of the Departments of Health, Public Works and Highways, he said.

Water filtration systems are also operating in Tacloban and two other towns in Leyte province, the hardest-hit area. Helicopters are dropping relief supplies, he said.  

Gazmin said that looting has been brought under control and no incidents have been reported over the past two days. “Our augmentation of the police and Philippine army was able to stop the problem of lawlessness,” he said.

A U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, is moored off the coast, preparing for a major relief mission. The fleet of helicopters on board is expected to drop food and water to the worst affected areas. The aircraft carrier will set up a position off the coast of Samar Island to assess the damage and provide medical and water supplies, the 7th Fleet said in a statement.

The carrier and its strike group together bring 21 helicopters to the area, which can help reach the most inaccessible parts of the disaster zone.

The United Kingdom also is sending an aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious, with seven helicopters and facilities to produce fresh water, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said. It said the ship is expected to reach the area about Nov. 25.

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