Typhoon Haiyan: Four Questions About This Super Storm and Major Humanitarian Disaster

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Ferris wrote a follow-up to this post on Typhoon Haiyan and the failure of the Filipino government and the international community to respond immediately to the humanitarian crisis.

The images of coming out of the Philippines are shocking – the scope of the devastation and the depth of the humanitarian crisis left in Typhoon Haiyan’s wake is seemingly immeasurable. As I wait in airport lounges between flights, I am glued to television reports and Twitter posts coming from cities like Tacloban, which was largely flattened by the super storm. While the horrific first images bring tears to my eyes, my Twitter feed mostly reassures me — Oxfam, PACOM, World Vision, UNHCR, USAID and many aid groups are on their way. I receive regular bulletins from the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This is a disaster of enormous proportions, but OCHA is doing what it is supposed to do — coordinating donor contributions, sending regular updates, reporting on the establishment of humanitarian hubs, etc.

As I talk with reporters and try to put this tragedy into perspective, I’m struck by how some in the media see this disaster as a totally new phenomenon. So far, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan — and after years of working on human displacement caused by major natural disasters — I don’t see anything new, although this disaster is certainly much larger than others resulting from the 20 or so cyclones the Philippines experiences every year.

I don’t know how things will turn out in this particular disaster — maybe it will be like the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan where the initial response was exemplary, but then the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor demonstrated that the scope of a disaster and the limitations of disaster response can reveal itself over a number of days. Things can always go terribly wrong.

Given that cautionary note, here are four questions to keep in mind as you watch news of the Typhoon Haiyan disaster unfold in the days and weeks ahead:

1. Why do initial government responses appear lacking?

Be wary of initial news reports, especially those of inadequate response by the government of the Philippines. While I’m sure valid reports of government missteps will emerge over time, the Philippine government has invested heavily in disaster preparedness and response. The Philippines has strong civil society organizations, including the Filipino Red Cross, and has practiced, drilled and prepared for disasters for years. I’ve always thought that the Philippines should be given the opportunity to be a leader in teaching other countries about disaster preparedness. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated before the cyclone hit. However, there weren’t enough safe areas to accommodate all of the evacuees (remember that the Philippines is made up of thousands of islands). The government should be credited for doing the right thing and evacuating as many people as it could.

2. In some Philippine cities and towns, the images of looting by desperate people look terrible. How widespread is the looting?

Beware of stories about looting in this and other disasters. Looting is always a familiar disaster narrative in news reports. The extent of looting often turns out to be magnified by news coverage and greatly exaggerated after the disaster passes. Hurricane Katrina is a perfect case in point. A few stores sadly were extensively looted — the vast majority of businesses and homes were not.

3. Why does it seem that the poorest are always hit hardest by disasters?

Sadly, poor and marginalized populations always bear the brunt of natural hazards. Even in more stable times, the social safety net supporting these people is often minimal at best. This was true with Hurricane Katrina, true in the 2004 tsunami, true in the hundreds of natural disasters that go unreported or unnoticed each year. It is also true that local groups and communities carry out the bulk of initial response. As you watch the news, look for signs of local Filipino groups — neighbors, churches, local charities — responding quickly to the crisis.

4. Why do responses to disasters always seem late in coming and uncoordinated?

When you don’t know what’s happening, it’s easy to blame the lack of coordination. The truth is that coordination is always difficult when national and local governments are still assessing and communicating need. Lack of coordination is also often difficult for the best of reasons: lots of people and countries want to help but national disaster response capabilities (sometimes due to closed ports and airfields) and international capacities can be limited. Yes, let’s continue to work to improve coordination mechanisms, but let’s not be too quick to point the finger at coordination failures when other factors may be to blame.

Hoping that people appreciate the cautionary notes above, I am heartened as by the outpouring of compassion in response to Typhoon Haiyan. I am proud that USAID, the U.S. military and other branches of the U.S. government are mobilizing a robust response, and I am proud that the United Nations is responding quickly and effectively. I am glad that the media are covering this disaster and hope that Americans and others will respond quickly and generously to the desperate human need. This is a terrible tragedy and the humanitarian needs are great.

We should also keep in mind that, given the reality of climate change, we are likely to see more of these super-disasters in the future. They will be massive and more unpredictable. Disasters like Haiyan are likely to be the new norm. We need to get ready — all of us, Japan, the U.S., the Philippines and hundreds of other countries — as more of these super-disasters are coming our way.