It will be weeks before the world gets a handle on the full scale of devastation and death wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan, which ripped through the central Philippines last week, but it’s clear from initial, incomplete accounts that the impact has been staggering. Millions of people have been affected, hundreds of thousands displaced and untold thousands or tens of thousands killed. Widespread looting has been reported, and the threat of more disorder is real.
International organizations are gearing up for what will be a vast, complex and challenging relief effort. It’s essential they get priorities straight and the resources to do the job.
Although initial news reports have focused on the horrific destruction in the provincial capital city of Tacloban (population 220,000), 360 miles southeast of Manila, there are many fragmentary dispatches from rural and remote towns and villages suggesting a widely dispersed calamity. That means huge logistical problems will need to be resolved to carry out an effective relief effort that reaches people and places victimized by the storm, which packed sustained winds of nearly 200 mph, equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane. Regional airports must be repaired and roads and bridges rebuilt and cleared in a hurry — all this in a country where transportation infrastructure was already inadequate. Electricity is out over an enormous area, as are communications systems.
Equally important is averting a public health disaster. That will mean distributing food, clean water and medical supplies. With homes, public buildings and infrastructure flattened across hundreds of square miles, tents, blankets, field hospitals and generators are desperately needed, as is equipment to rebuild communications networks, the power grid and sanitary systems. Not least, it is critical that bodies are buried quickly.
The United States is furnishing transport aircraft, as well as surveillance planes and helicopters, to help with search-and-rescue efforts that can save lives in the crucial coming days. U.N. entities, including UNICEF, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, are mobilizing. So are dozens of nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit groups, such as the Red Cross.
Still, the scope of destruction is daunting, and there are worrisome signs that the international community faces an uphill struggle to mobilize for it. UNICEF said in a statement Monday that as many as 4 million children in the Philippines have been affected by Haiyan. In the same statement, it said a UNICEF warehouse in Copenhagen was sending supplies — water-purification tablets, soap, medical kits, tarps — for just 10,000 families.
Certainly, more aid and material will be forthcoming from UNICEF and other key agencies. Fundraising drives are under way, and about two dozen countries have announced relief efforts — though the efforts planned by some, such as China’s pledge of $100,000, seem grossly inadequate.
By contrast, the U.N.’s humanitarian affairs office quickly released an initial $25 million from the world body’s emergency fund. That suggests more realism about the scale of the tragedy. Still, speed is essential.