Disaster in the Philippines defies the usual definitions

It will be a long time before the full extent of the devastation in the Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan is known, but it is clear that two words will become part of the vocabulary for describing what has taken place: historic proportions. With a death toll expected to surpass 10,000, more than 9.6 million Filipinos affected in 41 provinces and tens of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed, words fail to adequately describe what has occurred.

The super typhoon — one of the world’s strongest — battered the central part of the country with sustained winds of 195 miles an hour and caused storm surges of up to 10 feet along coastal towns and inland.

The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands, is no stranger to Mother Nature’s power and might. Tropical storms and typhoons are annual occurrences. In 1991, tropical storm Thelma claimed the lives of 5,100 people in the central region of the country; the deadliest on record was the 1976 magnitude-7.9 earthquake that triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in southern Philippines killing 5,791.

If the estimates of Typhoon Haiyan’s death toll prove accurate, a new record for Mother Nature’s destructive power will be set.

While the dead are to be mourned, it is the living who require the undivided attention of the world. Althought monetary and other aid have begun pouring into Tacloban, Ormoc City and other communities that have been reduced to rubble, residents are virtual prisoners of the devastation. They have nowhere to go. Drinking water and food are so scarce that people are falling ill. The elderly and children are most at risk.

Many nations have pledged money and other assistance, but there needs to be a coordinated effort to reach the hardest hit areas of the country.

At midweek, the United Nations called for nearly $301 million in financial aid for shelters, water and sanitation, food, security, nutrition and other emergency requirements in the tragedy.

By Tuesday, the U.N. had already released $25 million from its central emergency relief fund.

Rotting bodies

In addition to concern about the spread of diseases as a result of bodies rotting on the streets and people drinking contaminated water, there is also the danger from looters who not only stripped bare shelves in shops and malls, but are also targeting trucks carrying food and water.

The Philippine government, along with other countries, should send heavily armed troops to the hardest hit areas to ensure that there isn’t a total collapse of law and order.

Toward the end of the week, soldiers sat atop trucks in Tacloban distributing rice and water, while chainsaw-wielding teams cut debris from blocked roads.

The first C-130 transport planes arrived early Thursday morning, the first nighttime flight since the typhoon struck Nov. 9.

It is to be hoped that these developments are a preview of the massive relief operation that must occur if the death toll and the spread of disease are to be kept from exploding.

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