Disaster Relief in the Visayas & Leyte

Typhoon Haiyan (called Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines), first made landfall on November 7, 2013 and left the Philippines the next day. In that short amount of time it caused catastrophic damage throughout much of the islands of Leyte, where cities and towns were largely destroyed. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council confirmed 6,300 fatalities across the country, 5,877 of those occurring in the Eastern Visayas region.

After volunteering at Villamor Air Base for a week with the Red Cross–which received and processed thousands of refugees being flown in from Leyte–I am deploying to the Visayas, specifically the Bantayan Island group, which was completely leveled. I have two missions: 1) deliver a backpack full of medications (mostly for children) to relief workers and 2) document as much as I can.

After I flew into Cebu City, took a 4 hour bus to Daan, where I caught the ferry (roro) which took me to Bantayan Island, I met up with the relief group. I was happy toto turn over the medications as they took up half the weight and two thirds of the space in my pack.

After assisting in an aid distribution operation in Barangay Baigad at 11am, we moved into an area the aid teams hadn’t reached yet to conduct an assessment and report on conditions.

First sight that greeted me was a forest of headless palms, pictured above. Now think about the fact that every head that snapped off became a 40 to 80 pound club hurtling through the air pushed by 200 mph winds.

At 5am the next day we were on a pump boat with doctors and medication for chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma followed by a larger, amphibious craft carrying a few tons of rice and many crates of bottled water. We were bound for a series of fishing villages on islands not connected by bridges. Our first stop was Batbatan Island. This island has not yet been visited by either first responders nor relief agencies. We assessed damage and provided limited relief where possible.

With team members Alex Coronel & Towee Vasquez

Today we treated hundreds of patients. Hypertension, cough and cold, and minor injuries. There were some people previously diagnosed with CVA (stroke) that still demonstrated remnants of their stroke and were afraid because their medications were washed away. So the doctors were able to give them the amlodipin I brought, courtesy of Doctora Gen Go and her friends.

By the time we had to go, we had not yet passed out goods to all 700 families who had waited in the rain, so we turned over distribution of the food to the barangay kapitana (pictured in last photo in the above slider, wearing a turquoise blouse) and said our goodbyes.

Nov. 22 Hilotongan Island & Mambacayao Island

The advance welcoming party before we hit the beach at our first stop today, Hilotongan Island.

You can see the majority of the villagers on the beach, our pump boat on the left, and our supply boat in the background at Mambacayao Island.

Photo credit: Towee Vasquez

Catching some Z’s while en route to the next relief drop.

Nov. 23: I leave the group for Ormoc, solo

After all our relief drops, we still had a fair amount of leftover medicine, which we couldn’t leave with the villages as they are prescription medications which must be dispensed by a physician. I volunteered to take them to Ormoc, a town on Leyte, and deliver them to the Red Cross. Before we arrived back at Bantayan Island where we said our goodbyes, this happened.

That boat in the background (which I surreptitiously photographed with my phone at my waist) motored by us at close range, carrying three men armed with assault rifles.

They looked at us like “We own this water. What the f*ck are you looking at?” They were quite obviously members of a local warlord’s private army (navy?).

Soon after that we went ashore at Bantayan Island, and I set off for Ormoc by boat.

After landing on Leyte and going to Ormoc, I got into an argument with my dispatcher who was supposed to arrange transport out of Ormoc Airport on a military C-130, and she told me she was stranding me there. I had almost no cash (I had given most of what I had left to my teammates to help them get home), and there was a 5 day wait to catch a ferry off the island! I called my teammates and told them and they said she misunderstood something that one of the doctors told her, but to just go to Ormoc Airport and I should be able to arrange transport on a flight back to Manila.

First things first, I dropped off the medical supplies I was carrying at the Red Cross at Ormoc City Hall where a foreign aid mission told me where I could find a place to sleep, and then as it was about to get dark by that time, I found the place indicated. Thanks to Doctors Without Borders for allowing me to stay in their base of operations.

The next day I went to the Ormoc Airport, which was being operated by the Philippine Air Force. I got friendly with the soldiers guarding the gate to the airfield, passing out cigarettes and making small talk in preparation to asking them if they’d let me go into the terminal so I could try to hitch a ride on a flight. I could see that C-130’s were landing roughly every 30 minutes, bringing in relief goods.

Willie Revillame’s private jet landed too. He’s a very famous Filipino television personality. Apparently he’d donated relief goods and his jet was delivering them. 

While I was chatting with the soldiers guarding the gate, an ambulance pulled up and parked outside the gate. A soldier went over and talked with the driver, then came back and resumed chatting with us. A few moments later a medial officer with the Royal Australian Air Force walked up to us and pointed at the ambulance. He asked the gate guard “Does that ambulance have a patient?”

“Yes sir!”

“And they want to get on the C-130 to Cebu?”

“Yes sir!”

“I need to evaluate the patient and see if she’s well enough to fly.”

“OK sir.”

“Whom do we talk to? Are there medical personnel we can speak to?”

(Looks confused)

Me: Saan ang nurse o paramedic po? [Where is the nurse or paramedic, sir?]

“Doon.” [Over there.] I show the medical officer to the patient’s nurse nurse standing next to the ambulance, who takes him into the ambulance where he evaluates the patient.

The patient, on oxygen, with the medical officer behind her and his assistant in the foreground on the left.

“She’s not ready to fly,” the medical officer says. “She needs to be taken to a hospital and stabilized. She’s very sick. Can you take her to Malaya Mercy?” Everyone looks confused.

“Does anyone know how to get to Malaya Mercy? They have the facilities to stabilize her.”

The driver asks why she can’t fly. I realize there’s a cultural problem happening, because Westerners don’t talk very directly about death. I pull a soldier with us aside and say “Kung magfly siya ngayon, siguro patay siya in-flight daw. Sabi ka sila.” [The doctor said if she flies now, she might die in-flight.] He nods and speaks quietly to the driver.

Meanwhile the medical officer is trying to find someone who knows where Malaya Mercy is. They run the only functioning ER in the city, where the Canadian and Norwegian Red Cross are operating. I realize what the problem is.

“They don’t know the names of the missions,” I explain to the soldier standing next to me. “Malaya Mercy is at the government hospital right?”


I turn to the ambulance crew “ODH! Take her to ODH!”

“Yes sir!” Everyone knows Ormoc District Hospital.

The Australian says “She needs to go now. Where is her nurse?” During the conversation, the patients nurse had slipped away from us. Turned out she’d gone into the terminal to inquire about when the next C-130 was coming in.

“I’ll get her,” I say.

I run to the guardhouse. “Get the nurse!”

“Sa terminal po.” [She’s in the terminal, sir]

“Get on your radio, tell them to send her. Tell her to run.”

He gets on the radio and moments later, the nurse comes running out of the terminal. She jumps into the ambulance, and they go off.

This is the RAAF medical officer (left) and the RAAF nurse who assisted him (right).
The guardhouse (light green roof) is visible in the background.

The medical officer turns to me and says “Wow, thank you so much for translating and helping us. What are you doing here anyway?”

I say “I’m a relief worker and I got stranded here. I’m trying to get home to Manila.”

He tells me to accompany him into the terminal and introduces me to the air traffic controller on duty. “She knows where all the planes are coming from and going to. She’s your best bet on getting out of here.” I thank him and he goes back to work. The air traffic controller, overhearing the end of our conversation, motions for me to take a seat while she works.

I used to teach air traffic controllers when I was a communications consultant for the Republic of Korea Air Force, so I’m familiar with how they work, and I was amazed to see that this woman was handling approach, departure, and ground operations all at the same time — and with no radar. She was glued wide-eyed to an office window, watching the sky for a Royal Australian Air Force C-130 that was preparing to land. She had a visual on two in the air at the time.

With pencil in one hand and radio microphone in the other, she issued clearances in response to requests from the aircraft, moving swiftly from one activity to another: watching the sky, talking on the radio, poring over charts and other papers.

Air Traffic Controller Farah Adam

Farah’s radio set

She had a radio for the aircraft, but no radio to communicate with the ground marshals directing the aircraft. Instead, she turned to a man standing in the doorway and said: “Can you ask the ground crew to direct this landing aircraft to park on the south end? And would you mind asking if they can unload it?”

“They’re with the RAAF and this isn’t one of their aircraft, but there’s no one else to unload it, so I have to ask a favor,” she explained to me. Later, finding no available runner at the door, she dropped her mike and sprinted outside herself as a C-130 touched down to talk to the ground marshals directly.

Then she sprinted back inside to monitor the radio again.

After a few minutes someone relieved her so she could take a break, and told me “All the C-130’s are going back and forth between here to Cebu. There aren’t that many planes going to Manila. But a private plane full of EDC (Lopez-owned Energy Development Corporation) executives are about to take off for Manila, and they have an extra seat. Let me ask them if they can transport a disaster relief worker (me) back to Manila. She asked the pilot. The pilot asked the execs. They said no. Nice.

Then she says “Willie Revillame’s plane is about to take off. It is going back to Manila. Let me see what I can do.” The pilot graciously agreed!

Most of the seats had been removed from the interior, and plastic sheeting put up to protect the walls from shifting cargo.

Willie Revillame’s logo on the seats.

They parked at the private hangars south of Ninoy Aquino International Airport and I hiked out to Roxas Boulevard where I hailed a taxi and made it home on November 25!

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