Learning from super typhoon Haiyan

When Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, battered the Visayas Islands in the central Philippines on Nov. 8 2013, the strongest typhoon ever recorded momentarily paralyzed the global community. The world watched the horrifying mismatch between Mother Nature's destructive power and man's survival skills. According to the most recent estimates, the super typhoon killed or left missing some 8,000, displaced 500,000 and affected 4 million others.

Following Yolanda's onslaught, individuals, governments, and the global community mustered huge resources in the spirit of humanitarianism to aid the victims, during and after the disaster. Offers of assistance and pledges of aid poured in as the tragedy unfolded. Locally and internationally, donations of cash, food, supplies, medicine, technical equipment, along with disaster relief expertise, helped ease the burden of the cleanup. Amid the chaos, a sort of "international relations sympathy map" emerged as state and non-state actors engaged in relief and reconstruction.

The most interesting feature of this sympathy map is its lack of borders uniting the local and global landscapes. It could be said that for a moment, the enormous weight of challenges brought by Yolanda erased the ideological, political, economic, and cultural boundaries that separate people. At the height of the calamity, 65 governments and seven international organizations came to the rescue of the Philippines.

The spirit of humanitarianism reigned supreme as assistance was offered and accepted without conditions or negotiations. The cooperation among the countries and international organizations involved in the rescue and relief operation are the epitome of natural disaster diplomacy as a fulcrum for global cooperation.


Paradoxes of human nature

The super typhoon was also a mirror, revealing the contrasts and contradictions of humanity, our vulnerability and resilience in the face of a colossal disaster. Freighters run aground after super typhoon Yolanda struck Leyte on Nov. 8 Yolanda unmasked the inconsistencies that define us: intimacy versus separation, hope versus despair, godliness versus decadence, altruism versus selfishness, discipline versus disorder, patience versus impatience. These contradictory faces of human nature and behavior are perhaps brought to the surface with greater force in a disaster of Yolanda's scale than they are in other settings.


Mirror of Humanity, Vulnerability and Resilience

Human virtues are universal, but natural disasters have the effect of polishing them or clouding them. Taking account of the realities of human nature can give us insights in how to deal with such tragedies in the future.

Phases of natural disaster

Preparing for and responding to typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters is essential to community life in this part of the world. The Yolanda experience demonstrated how critically important it is to understand the various phases of these disasters and their effects on communities. People living in potential disaster zones, rescue teams, and all those directly and indirectly involved must be equipped with the basic knowledge required to respond to disasters when they strike. Some observations of what happened before, during and after Yolanda may offer practical clues for dealing with similar catastrophes.

A. Pre-disaster phase

The key consideration in this phase is preparedness. At this stage, data on population, settlement locations, available equipment and resources are of critical impor-
tance. Unfortunately, communities hit by Yolanda were inadequately prepared for the storm from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. Many survivors and officials said they had not expected a storm of such magnitude. Residents of coastal towns and villages said that although they were concerned about the wind from the super typhoon and had prepared for it, they had been caught off guard by the storm surge and tidal forces it unleashed.

Basic knowledge of natural disasters, delivered in a timely fashion, could have saved many lives. People living in areas where disasters are likely must be trained in prevention and have the proper mindset before a disaster strikes. People in these communities must be briefed, reminded and urged to strictly follow all policies and guidelines set by the authorities to minimize loss of life and property. This means having the right people in place to provide people with the information and instruc-
tions they need when disasters strike.

In developing countries such as the Philippines, a low degree of preparedness and inadequate disaster response to major events such as Yolanda are apparent in trans-
port and communication, heavy equipment, emergency food supplies and storage, security, evacuation implementation and facilities, national and local government coordination and other areas. Indeed, a country's disaster preparedness is intertwined with its level of economic, political, socio-cultural and technological development.

B. Disaster phase

The period when disasters unfold is not the time to formulate, debate and decide policy; it is the time for swift action. Presence of mind and calm must be maintained to ensure maximum safety and minimum loss of life. Speedy, wellplanned and carefully executed rescue efforts are essential to saving as many lives as possible. When Yolanda struck, Filipinos were characteristically brave and devout, struggling for life and seeing prayer as their most potent weapon. Most Filipino survivors said they prayed hard during their ordeals. Religious devotion is an important aspect of Filipino culture and helps people cope with disaster, although it can lead to fatalism.

C. Post-disaster phase

After a typhoon, earthquake, or tsunami has passed, concerns shift from what is often an improvised emergency re - sponse to a more deliberate and systematic recovery and rehabilitation phase. At this stage, what is essential is an effective organization and management system to cope with the heavier longterm demands of reconstruction. Government agencies, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, and other local, national and international entities all have vital roles in the post-disaster phase. They cover, over the long term, designated geographical areas and are in the category of the multi-task operations. Undertakings are longer term and move from an ad hoc to a more permanent approach for postdisaster programs and activities.

Learning from experience

In this global era, we can discover best practices in disaster management by learning from the experiences of other countries. The lessons from super typhoon Yolanda are many. Individuals and families in the areas directly hit by the disaster - those on the front line of the battle between man and nature - took their own lessons from the ordeal. At the community level, the worst storm experience ever will have left to Philippine society some valuable collective lessons and wisdom.

In this regard, it is interesting to compare the response to Yolanda with Japan's big earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The Japanese amazed the world with their dignified discipline, patience, orderliness and bureaucratic meticulousness in dealing with the disaster. The Filipinos, in turn, impressed observers with their strong family solidarity, courage, devout, but at times haphazard approach.

Two Countries, One Solution?

Although their cultures differ markedly, the Philippines and Japan share certain geographic and climatic features that make them vulnerable to similar types of natural disasters. They are thus ideal partners in terms of disaster-related research, training, technology and systems development. Japan and the Philippines should jointly create an Asia-Pacific institute for the study of natural disasters to deal comprehensively with these challenges in the region and beyond. The borderless wisdom gained from these events must be shared globally.




Sylvano D. Mahiwo

Sylvano D. Mahiwo is a professor of Japan Studies and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.