By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Typhoons are a normal, generally accepted part of life in the Philippines, except for one.
Alfred Romualdez, the mayor of Tacloban, of Leyte province in central Philippines, has seen dozens of typhoons over the years, ranging from 87 to 106 miles per hour.
He said Typhoon Haiyan reached 235 miles per hour and was “something we never imagined would happen.”
He and his wife, Cristina Gonzales-Romualdez, visited Seattle as guests of the humanitarian aid provider Medical Teams International (MTI) for its annual fundraising event on June 7 at Safeco Field. Before the event, he described what it was like to experience first hand the 24th tropical storm of 2013 to arrive in his country.
On Nov. 8, Typhoon Haiyan (or “Yolanda,” as it’s called by the Filipinos) hit the Philippines with such force that more than 6,000 people died, and about 4 million people lost their homes. Haiyan’s record number of deaths makes it the country’s deadliest storm in history.
“Out of the 2,900 dead (in Tacloban alone), 520 are children,” Romualdez said.
Typhoon Haiyan struck with heavy rains. Its winds blew three tsunami-like surges onto Tacloban, the largest being a 16- to 26-foot tall wave that remained on land for two hours before receding.
“The strength of this storm officially was 378 kilometers per hour (235 mph),” Romualdez said. “We talk of typhoons that strong now — maybe the new normal.”
Haiyan’s strength surpassed the previous Philippines’ record holder, Typhoon Reming, which blew gusts of 199 mph in 2006.
In November 1991, Typhoon Thelma (or “Uring” among Filipino citizens), the previous deadliest storm, hit Ormoc City, which is 30 miles west of Tacloban. Flash floods killed an estimated 5,100 people.
Romualdez said, “It’s like standing beside a jet engine before takeoff. My men, we were two or three feet away (from each other), and we were shouting at each other. We just couldn’t hear each other.”
“I saw a car hit the second floor of our police station,” he added.
“The visibility was only 10 feet because when you’re in the coastal area, all of the sand gets blown. We have a lot of coconut trees, and all of the coconuts were falling. If you get hit by that, [they’ll] knock you out.”
Almost 1.5 million acres of farmland were destroyed.
Although advance warnings helped 800,000 people evacuate the area before the storm, Typhoon Haiyan’s unexpected pummeling proved to be too much.
“Two months from now, we’re expecting the rainy season again, and my problem here is I have to relocate 14,000 families,” Romualdez said.
“When the media broadcasted the whole thing — they got the news out right away — we expected Medical Teams International to be there,” he said.
MTI is a Christian relief organization that serves people affected by disaster, conflict, and poverty around the world. Based in Portland, Ore., with an office in Redmond, Wash., it provided vital medicines, medical supplies, and volunteers to help 10,000 people impacted by the typhoon.
In addition to the Philippines, MTI has also provided aid to such countries as Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Myanmar, and North Korea.
MTI president and CEO Jeff Pinneo said, “Given what we do, it’s just our great privilege to respond wherever the needs exist and where they are the deepest, any part of the world, any group of people, and to show up with compassion and professional expertise and effective impact to address the need.”
The organization quickly sent its first-responder teams (paramedics, nurses, incident commanders) to the Philippines just 72 hours after Haiyan made landfall. Pinneo said they were able to hit the ground and become effective right away.
“This experience has enriched us through our interactions, not only with the Filipino people in Tacloban and the surrounding regions, but the support of the Filipino community here in the United States, particularly in the Northwest, who came to us and said, ‘How can we help?’ and we were able to be a conduit for that,” he added.
International support came quickly. President Obama said the United States would provide $20 million in humanitarian assistance, including critical relief supplies and emergency food aid. The United Nations provided $25 million from its emergency relief fund for emergency food aid and emergency household items and shelter.
Australian Foreign Minister Julia Bishop and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera traveled to Tacloban last December to offer continuing aid to survivors of Typhoon Haiyan.
Today, 90 percent of the debris in Tacloban has been cleared and most of the city’s utilities are fully restored.
“We’re building a resilient city. That’s our target now,” Romualdez said.
“I’d like to let them know, first of all, thanks to all the Filipinos (in the United States) who helped us with donations and for all the help that they’ve given. Look at it not as an expenditure,” he said. “You are investing in our people.” (end)
For more information about Tacloban, Philippines, go to tacloban.gov.ph. For more information about Medical Teams International, go to www.medicalteams.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.