Philippine disaster aid, one year after typhoon

A Philippine family helped by ShelterBox.
A Philippine family helped by ShelterBox.

• One year ago this month, Typhoon Haiyan devastated large swaths of the Philippines. As a humanitarian effort, the Southern Rensselaer County Rotary Club quickly raised $10,000 to purchase 10 ShelterBoxes to help the recovery effort there. What follows is a personal reflection from ShelterBox’s country coordinator in the Philippines.


Toby Ash
Toby Ash

By TOBY ASH

“When are you moving in?” I asked a beneficiary of one of our newly-built shelters yesterday.

“Not until we’ve brought good luck to our new home,” she replied. “The first things we bring in are containers of sugar, rice and salt. Then we will plant a kalipayan (happiness) tree by the foundations. Only then can we move in.”

So, yesterday was much like every other day of the last seven months I have spent here in the Philippines — it was a day of learning.

I arrived here at the tail end of the emergency phase, some five months after Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the country, leaving more than 6,000 dead and a million homes destroyed. By April, the basic needs of those affected had been largely met –- most had access to some basic shelter to protect them from the elements. But, traveling through the great swathe of the country that was affected, it was clear that the future of many of the Haiyan’s survivors remained precarious — the road to recovery would be long and difficult, and many would not be able to get there without further assistance.

ShelterBox was one of the leading international shelter agencies that responded to the typhoon last November. Over the course of more than five months, we helped almost 7,000 households with more than 100 ShelterBox response-team members distributing boxes, tents, shelter kits, solar lamps, water purification systems and other desperately needed equipment.

In many disasters, the provision of a tent and other household items are all that is required for those affected to start rebuilding their lives. But, the scale of the damage wrought by Haiyan has made the process of recovery much more difficult.

The typhoon destroyed millions of coconut tree, many rice fields and thousands of fishing boats, leaving those who depend on them for their living without income. With no income, there can be no rebuilding. Even those able to eke out a living are faced with the stark choice of having to put food on the table and sending their children to school or buying building materials. Then, of course,  there are society’s most vulnerable. How does a frail, elderly woman rebuild her home by herself?

Once the frenzy of the emergency phase had calmed, we began to look at how we might be able to continue our assistance to help these survivors recover from this devastating and traumatic event. I traveled extensively across the typhoon hit areas in a bid to better understand the needs of those affected and to look at how we could assist the most vulnerable, building on our legacy from the emergency stage.

Given our limited operational resources in the country, a key goal has been to identify project partners to help us continue with our work. The initial ground work on this was done by Sam Hewett, one of our operational coordinators who oversaw the emergency response in the early part of the year. Jo Reid, our projects consultant at HQ, and I followed a strict and rigorous criteria for selecting our partners that examined every aspect of their proposals including the nature of the shelter project, its location, the partner’s track record and the likely speed of completion.

Over the course of the summer we signed partnership agreements with four large international aid organizations — ACTED, Handicap International, Islamic Relief and Catholic Relief Services. In total we will be building almost 1,700 transitional shelters built mainly of locally-sourced materials in four separate locations badly affected by the typhoon. Although not permanent, they are designed and built to be resilient. Each will meet the “build back safer” guidelines as recommended by the International Federation of the Red Cross  (IRFC) shelter technical team here.

But, in many ways these projects are bigger than the individual shelters themselves. We are working with our partners to create shelters that can serve as exemplars of safe building practice in the communities they are built in over the coming months and years. Moreover, we are directly training carpenters and engaging the wide community in safer building practices, with the goal of leaving them better prepared for natural disasters in the future.

I have been a ShelterBox response team member for six years and have delivered ShelterBoxes to many far-flung places across the world. The last few months has been a different ShelterBox experience, but one that has been equally rewarding.

Last week we handed over a specially adapted shelter to Conchita Suamer, a frail 89-year-old woman, that will allow her to live in dignity after months in a tiny shack cobbled together from rusty lengths of corrugated iron. At this stage in the disaster, almost a year after the typhoon struck, a tent would be not be the right shelter solution for her. The shelter we have built for her and her family is.

ShelterBox’s response to the calamity that hit this part of the Philippines last year has been its most complicated and multi-faceted to date. Institutionally it has been a learning process, but one which will hold us in good stead in tackling the complex shelter issues that will invariably be thrown our way in the future.

And what I have learned? Many, many things, but first and foremost what a wonderful country the Philippines is and how warm-natured and resilient its people are. And, of course, to have a container of rice, sugar and salt in my home, and a “happiness” tree planted close to its foundations.


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