Substantial food and medical aid has finally begun reaching desperate survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, but humanitarian groups warn of huge logistical challenges in accessing devastated, remote island communities.
The unprecedented ferocity of the November 8 storm and the scale of destruction had overwhelmed the initial relief effort, leaving millions in the worst-hit central islands of Leyte and Samar hurt, homeless and hungry, with no power or water.
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Eight days later, a working aid pipeline is in place, funnelling emergency supplies to those left destitute in the ruins of Leyte’s Tacloban city, while helicopters flying off the aircraft carrier USS George Washington brought some relief to outlying areas.
UN agencies on Saturday said more than 170,000 people had received rice rations or food packets, while the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said they would have mobile surgical units in Tacloban by the end of the weekend.
“The place really needs to be saturated with relief,” Red Cross Asia-Pacific spokesman Patrick Fuller said in Tacloban.
“People literally have nothing. Money is useless here,” he said.
The US military said it had delivered 118 tonnes of food, water and shelter items, and airlifted almost 2900 people to safety.
But relief officials described conditions in the sports stadium in Tacloban that served as the main evacuation centre as appalling, with a lack of proper sanitation.
Often children and the elderly were unable to get to relief distribution points in the city.
“I have money … but I cannot eat my money,” said Beatrice Bisquera, 91, a retired school supervisor.
“I need medicine but there is no pharmacy that’s open. I’m hungry but the food we stored is gone,” she said.
In its most recent update, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council put the official death toll at 3633, with 1179 people missing and nearly 12,500 injured.
The UN said 2.5 million people still “urgently” required food assistance.
With an estimated 13 million people affected by the storm, almost 1.9 million survivors are displaced.
The World Health Organisation is worried about the welfare of remote communities on 20 smaller islands. “Because of the geography of the Philippines – an archipelago of many islands – it is essentially like mounting at least seven separate, simultaneous relief efforts,” said Julie Hall, the WHO’s representative in the Philippines.
Frustrated with the slow pace of the initial relief effort, many people with relatives in the impacted areas made their own aid efforts.
Filling boxes and sacks with packets of rice, cup noodles and candles, they boarded ferries from Cebu island to Ormoc town on Leyte.
“That’s my village,” Nick Cantuja said, pointing from the ferry as it approached the coast.
“Our house is gone now. Everything… it’s gone.
“Yesterday, a Red Cross team was able to reach there but it’s not enough,” he said.
Basic medical care remains a priority, with initial assessments that half of the 38 medical facilities in the impacted region wiped out.
Yet some residents of remote areas appear to have been better prepared for Haiyan than those in larger towns and cities.
The tiny Camotes islands, between Cebu and off Leyte, took a direct hit that flattened most villages, but of a population of 89,400 there were five confirmed fatalities.
Alfredo Arquillano, the former mayor of the islands’ largest town, San Francisco, said Camotes residents had been practising typhoon drills for years.
“We knew we were vulnerable, so we made absolutely sure that everybody knew what to do and where to go,” Arquillano told AFP by phone.
All 1000 residents of one of the chain’s tiniest islets, Tulang Diyot, were evacuated to a larger island before Haiyan made landfall.
“My goodness, it was a good decision. It’s fair to say it saved everyone’s life. There is not one house left standing on Tulang Diyot,” Arquillano said.