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Aid reaches remote parts of Philippines, but hardest challenge remains ahead

November 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
As an island nation, the Philippines presents a geographical challenge to typhoon relief efforts, but aid has finally started to arrive in some of the most remote regions. Gwen Ifill talks to Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development about the challenge ahead in helping survivors rebuild their lives.
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GWEN IFILL: It’s been nearly two weeks since Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines, leaving thousands dead and millions in need of aid.

Tonight, we look at the challenge of helping those most affected by the deadly storm.

The familiar sounds of the market meant signs of life were returning today to devastated Tacloban. The coastal city of 220,000 lay squarely in the typhoon’s path when it blasted through the Central Philippines nearly three weeks ago.

Some of the vendors returning to the streets freely admit their wares were stolen goods, lifted from other stores and establishments during the time residents were cut off from aid and supplies.

LORENA CAHEDIOS, typhoon victim (through translator): What we did was loot, because we were worried that we would have nothing to sell. But when we started selling what we looted, canned goods, groceries, anything, we were very happy that it all sold. Then, we had hope.

GWEN IFILL: Others, equally resourceful, have begun using discarded refrigerators as makeshift fishing vessels.

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Elsewhere, thousands of people of all ages continue combing the debris, trying to salvage what they can, even as bodies are being counted, identified and hauled away. The official death count now stands at just over 4,000, with 1,600 missing.

Meanwhile, aid by the truckload is starting to arrive in remote areas like eastern Samar Province.

ALBERT MADRAZO, International Committee of the Red Cross: Slowly, slowly we are reaching the different affected population in the different areas.

GWEN IFILL: The aid comes from the United States, Thailand, Japan, and Australia, as well as France and Britain. China announced today it’s sending an emergency medical team and a naval hospital ship. The Chinese had been criticized for doing little until now.

Foreign governments have now pledged about $320 billion in aid. But the sheer scope of the devastation remains a huge obstacle.

ERTHARIN COUSIN, World Food Program: We are identifying areas of need on a daily basis.

GWEN IFILL: In Manila yesterday, the head of the U.N.’s World Food Program outlined the problems confronting the relief effort.

ERTHARIN COUSIN: The challenges of the Philippines are primarily the geographical challenges, this being an island nation, and the logistics challenges of reaching all the different pockets of small communities here.

GWEN IFILL: So far, the U.N. says it has reached 1.9 million people out of the estimated 2.5 million still in need of food.

Nancy Lindborg, the assistant administrator for humanitarian assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, is just back from the epicenter of the disaster. And she joins us now.

Welcome.

NANCY LINDBORG, U.S. Agency for International Development: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So, give me a sense. In the two weeks since the typhoon hit, what has been done and what remains to be done?

NANCY LINDBORG: So, we were tracking the storm for about a week before it hit, and had teams pre-positioned in Manila.

It took a couple of days, but we were able, working closely with the U.S. military, to be one of the first governments getting in there with airlifted supplies. When I arrived on Saturday, we had a full up-tempo relief operation under way with an air bridge by the U.S. military. We have got supplies coming in on a steady stream from our regional warehouses.

We have focused, the U.S. government, on setting up logistics systems that can get to some of these more remote areas, bringing in shelter, emergency shelter, lifesaving food, setting up clean water systems, working with UNICEF. We focused on getting the municipal water system back up and running in Tacloban, which is now 100 — which is reaching 100 percent of the city residents.

GWEN IFILL: What is the biggest challenge? You mentioned water, transportation, sanitation, logistics. What is the biggest barrier to getting things done?

 

NANCY LINDBORG: The biggest barrier has been the logistical challenges.

The airports, the roads initially were all inaccessible. And so what has happened now is most of the major arteries are cleared away. The airports and the seaports are working, not perfectly, but we’re able to get that supply chain operating and we’re focused on moving lifesaving supplies through those logistical systems.

GWEN IFILL: You have been on the ground for many of these types of disasters in the past.

As you watch this one and compare to other ones you have seen, what is the most effective kind of aid that comes in these early days?

NANCY LINDBORG: Well, first of all, we had extraordinary coordination across the U.S. government, U.S. aid working closely with our military and closely with the government of the Philippines.

Unfortunately, that’s a government that has a lot of experience with responding to disasters. They have had 26 named storms this year alone.

GWEN IFILL: This year.

NANCY LINDBORG: They have run through the alphabet, A through Z. That’s the level of battering weather they experienced.

GWEN IFILL: That makes this year the worst on record?

NANCY LINDBORG: The worst since 1993.

And the month ahead is the worst storm season typically. So, we worked very closely with the government of the Philippines to increase their preparedness and ability to respond, which is some of what you saw with the level of evacuation in advance of the storm and the coordination that has emerged on the ground to get distribution out to remote areas.

GWEN IFILL: We see all — we saw all of the aid that is coming from countries around the world. Which is most useful, direct cash or food aid?

NANCY LINDBORG: You know, it’s always looking at, what is the context?

This was a vast-swathe storm. Plus, the surge of water affected 13 million people. In the epicenter of Tacloban, where we’re focused, it’s too early for cash to be given out. So we’re focusing on urgent lifesaving shelter, food, clean water, hygiene kits, so people have soap. People have lost everything. They are dealing with a life-changing set of losses. We will move as quickly as possible to more early recovery and helping people get back up on their feet.

GWEN IFILL: You know, in other disasters, in prior recovery efforts, like in Haiti, comes to mind, a lot of effort put in, a lot of money, a lot of logistical help from around the world, and then it emerges later that it didn’t have its desired effect.

How do you guard against that happening here?

NANCY LINDBORG: You know, the most important business is that, in the Philippines, you have a much more capable government that is used to dealing with storms. And…

GWEN IFILL: There is an infrastructure, a governmental infrastructure that still exists?

NANCY LINDBORG: At every level.

I visited a command center that the local government has set up in the middle of Tacloban City, Tacloban, which is humming with hundreds of Philippine volunteers assembling family packs. We were able, using our flexible food assistance money, to locally procure rice to go into those packs.

They have already got that system up and running. There’s been a remarkable resilience at the community level, the local government, and at the national government.

GWEN IFILL: Does that resilience also extend to rebuilding, or is it too soon to start talking about looking forward in that way?

NANCY LINDBORG: You know, rebuilding is always the hardest. That’s when people stop paying attention and the cameras go away.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

NANCY LINDBORG: I invite you, Gwen, to ask that question, re-look at how this is going six months from now.

That’s the long, hard work of rebuilding and helping people really rekindle hope and get a future again.

GWEN IFILL: Is it also part of the rebuilding or the future-oriented process to try to figure out ways to prepare for this kind of attack, onslaught again?

NANCY LINDBORG: Absolutely.

We have — USAID has focused globally on rebuilding resilience, as we have look this increased tempo of extreme weather. So, it’s everything from rice seeds that are resistant to saltwater. It’s — when you walk around Tacloban, you see the structures that are still standing were of better materials and better built. We can do — we can help those communities build more storm-resistant structures.

GWEN IFILL: And what — and what does happen? You just alluded to this. What does happen when, inevitably, we all look away?

NANCY LINDBORG: Well, we won’t look away.

The U.S. government is committed to staying in a supportive role and to help with that reconstruction process. We’re already focused on what are the ways to move into early recovery and to take what is our AID program and help adjust it. It’s — that’s the longest, hardest part of this journey, and it’s critical that people stay engaged.

GWEN IFILL: Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development, I hope you get some rest. Thanks for going, and thanks for coming back.

NANCY LINDBORG: Thanks for having me, Gwen.