by Lynn Lomibao
On Thursday, November 7th, I waited with dread to find out if typhoon Yolanda, the “storm of the century,” would hit Cebu – the province where my family lives, and where I’d visited just months prior. Although the eye of the storm was expected to hit a neighboring province, Leyte, the proximity of islands in the Philippines is closer than a map reveals; one can travel from island to island via ferries in a matter of hours, sometimes less.
My cousin, Siegfred, a public nurse in Cebu City, confirmed my worries immediately after I got news of the coming storm: Cebu was expected to be a direct hit, he wrote. With winds estimated between 195-230 mph, the only certainty was destruction; to what degree was the question.
The Philippines, a spectacular and sprawling archipelago comprised of more than 7,000 islands, experiences natural disasters every year. This is a nation that is hit by more storms (an average of 20 typhoons per year) than any other area in the world, and where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common.
But as the “storm of the century” moniker implies, the Philippines — and the world — has never seen a storm of this size or force. And climate change is the reason, said Yeb Sano, the Philippines’ lead negotiator at the UN climate summit in Warsaw. “We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now, right here,” Sano told delegates in Warsaw today.
Although some scientists assert that a single extreme climate event cannot be directly linked to global warming, a 2012 World Risk Report ranked Philippines the 3rd most vulnerable nation in the world to catastrophic risks caused by climate change. As climate change causes global waters to warm, tropical storms are expected to increase in frequency and intensity in at-risk areas like the Philippines. Yolanda is the third deadly storm to hit the Philippines in the last three years.
The day after Yolanda hit, I got word from my cousin that my family was ok; no serious damage was done in Cebu City and power was out for just 24-48 hours. But my heart is heavy for the estimated 10,000+ Filipinos who lost their lives, the 300,000+ who have been displaced, and the millions who are affected.
Reports from Doctors Without Borders call the scale of devastation unprecedented. In Tacloban City, Leyte, medical facilities have been destroyed, and the dangers of tetanus and outbreaks of other infectious diseases is imminent. The smell of death is filling the air, and the desperation for food, water and other supplies is at a fever pitch.
Estimated to have caused $14 billion in damage, international relief efforts have begun. The U.S. has deployed 80 U.S. Marines to assist and pledged $100,000 for relief supplies; the UK has pledged £6 million to provide aid for 500,000 people; the EU has committed €3 million for the worst-hit areas; and Germany has pledged €500,000 in initial emergency aid. Numerous organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, are also providing financial aid, medical care and basic supplies. And reputable local groups, such as the Filipino American Community of Los Angeles and People’s CORE, have started relief funds.
Yolanda has now hit land in Vietnam, where it has been downgraded in classification from a Category 5 storm to a severe tropical storm. Wind and intense rainfall remain serious hazards, and at least 13 people have died and 81 have been injured.
In the coming weeks, months and years, it will be important to watch with a critical eye how international aid pans out for the Philippines. Will “aid” truly be aid, or will nations use the devastation left behind by Yolanda as opportunities for foreign investment or economic shock therapy? Time will tell.