Aid Worker Diary: People Helping People after Typhoon Bopha

9 December, 2012
Relief supplies in Compostela valley, Mindanao. Credit: OCHA/UNDAC
Relief supplies in Compostela valley, Mindanao. Credit: OCHA/UNDAC

At first, the main road out of Davao, southern Mindanao, to the picturesque Compostela Valley looks completely normal. Lorries and motorbikes weave through the traffic and, by the side of the road, shops and houses are festooned with Christmas decorations.

But as we near the area that suffered the brunt of Typhoon Bopha last week, ominous signs start to appear. A flooded rice field; branches dangling from trees; a tin roof torn up as if by a can opener.

By the time we reach the heart of the valley, the devastation is complete.

There are wooden houses flipped upside down by the power of the wind. Coconut palms have been torn up by their roots and flung across the road. Metal telegraph poles are snapped in two. Wooden houses are completely destroyed; concrete ones have lost their roofs. 

At the heart of the town of New Bataan, dozens of people have been killed in landslides. As we arrive at the main operations centre, they are carrying in yet more bodies. Beside the temporary mortuary, people search through lists of those missing and confirmed dead.

The mortuary is set up in the car park of a battered basketball court,  which was used as an evacuation centre during the storm and is now home to those with nowhere else to go. It is partly destroyed: the floor is one big puddle and the roof gapes open to the sky. Huddled on some steps and wandering outside, we find stunned survivors.  A ten-year-old girl, covered in cuts and bruises, has lost her entire family. A mother, Violie, cannot hold back the tears for her 15 year old daughter, lost beneath the mud.

But mixed up with these tragedies are stories of human kindness and generosity.

As humanitarians, we know that local people are the first responders, the real sources of help in the raw, early days after a disaster. But at times like this, you start to understand what people helping people actually means, and how extraordinary it is.

A local doctor in the evacuation centre tells us that as soon as the storm finished, she and her husband drove straight here from their home in the next town, stopping only to buy supplies at a pharmacy. She set up a trestle table as a surgery and began work. She’s been sitting here patiently cleaning wounds for three days.

The ten-year-old girl who lost her family has been taken in by her teacher, who has volunteered to care for her as long as she needs it.

Food is being prepared for everyone by women volunteers, cooking whatever they can find.

Down the road, fire department and military teams are out working around the clock, clearing the roads, and trucking up to remote villages.

The sound of saws and hammers can be heard, as people start picking through the wreckage and finding materials to fix their homes. The women are busy washing everything that was soaked by the storm, and hanging it out to dry over roadside barriers, fallen palm trees and even the sides of trucks.

Local search and rescue teams are pressing on with the grim job of finding and recovering bodies, still hoping there may be survivors in the mud and debris.

Down the road, in the town of Monkayo, a clinic has been almost smashed in half by a tree thrown on the roof by the storm. The need is so great that they opened anyway, and patients are queuing to see Olivia Lanaba and her colleagues. Olivia has seen 250 people so far, and says the most urgent need is for basic medical supplies like oral rehydration solution. Cases of gastrointestinal disease and diarrhea are on the rise. She hasn’t slept in three days. We leave her all the hand sanitizer we have, along with sanitary pads and diapers.

At the local government operations centre around the corner, things are impressively well organized.  An official is in contact with his counterparts in other sub-districts, even those that are cut off, by VHF radio. He has written details of the damage in each location on one whiteboard. A second board shows all the local NGO donations and available supplies. 

At a public information desk, we are briefed on the number of people confirmed dead in this area (81 so far) missing (14 so far) and affected (94,000, or the entire local population).

The biggest needs are for shelter, drinking water and food; the authorities have been providing 3kg bags, which will feed a family for a few days. People here also need clothing and logistics support. Roads are blocked and some villages are still unreachable except by motorbike. Generators are also needed as the power supply has been completely cut. Much of the assistance is coming from ordinary local people and businesses.

The quiet commitment and compassion of local communities here is common to  every emergency, but it never fails to inspire. There is not enough aid here, and much additional support will be needed in the weeks and months to come, but community networks will and must remain at the heart of the response, as they must in any effective aid operation.

We might be the aid professionals. But today, in Compostela Valley, across Mindanao and the other affected areas, everyone is a humanitarian worker.

Reporting by Imogen Wall.


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