Humanitarian efforts continue following Typhoon Haiyan / Getty Images

Every year humanitarian aid workers from around the world make it their task to help people whose lives have been devastated by typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis

A year ago one of the strongest typhoons on record made landfall in the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan created a series of storm surges that dragged people out to sea and left cargo ships stranded on the shore. It was strong enough to severely damage many brick and concrete buildings, so the flimsy timber framed huts clad with corrugated iron that are the typical home for millions of poorer Filipinos stood no chance. Within just a few hours of the typhoon, several thousands of people were dead and around four million people were homeless.

Lasse Petersen was one of thousands of aid workers who flew to the Philippines in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon with other volunteers from the UK based charity Byond Disaster Relief.

“When we arrived in the Philippines, we decided to focus our efforts on repairing schools”, Lasse tells me. “In the poor neighbourhoods where we were working, schools were usually the most solidly constructed buildings. As the recovery process began, the classrooms we repaired went through various phases - in the early stages they were used as emergency accommodation for refugees, as secure storage facilities for aid consignments and as a soup kitchen. Finally they were used as classrooms once again as refugees either repaired their own houses or were provided with temporary accommodation.” 

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“It’s now a year after the typhoon, and people have worked hard to rebuild but there is a lot still to do. Essential services such as hospitals, power and water have been restored, and most local businesses are back up and running, but many public buildings such as health centres and childcare facilities are still waiting to be repaired as are many hundreds of classrooms.”

Lasse’s own time at school was notable for one particular event – born in Denmark, Lasse’s family moved to Australia when Lasse was six. Lasse found himself in an unfamiliar country where he spoke hardly a word of the language. Despite being dropped in at the deep end, Lasse worked hard and did well – it's something that has parallels in his experiences as an aid worker.

 

Lasse’s first deployment was to Papua New Guinea, helping people whose village was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Since then he has worked in dozens of disaster zones, from earthquakes and floods to hurricanes and tsunamis. Lasse tells me about his experiences after the Japanese tsunami – one of the first disasters to be shown live on television.

“Like most people, I remember watching the waves coming over the coastline in the TV reports, and seeing cars with people in being swept away. Within 36 hours I was with other aid workers in Japan driving towards Sendai. The country had been hit by the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded, but most buildings had survived almost unscathed as a result of some of the strictest building codes in the world. Yet as we entered the areas near the coast where the tsunami had struck, it was the exact opposite – there were great swathes where almost every building had been completely destroyed. Cars had been picked up and deposited on the roofs of four storey buildings. Entire towns that had once been home to tens of thousands had been turned to matchsticks. Even when we were standing right there among the wreckage, it was hard to comprehend the sheer physical devastation. It was like being on the set of a movie.”

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“A year before, I had been working in Haiti. While the thing that stays in my mind about Japan was the damage to buildings, in Haiti the destruction was human as much as it was physical. When our plane landed at Port-au-Prince, there were troops from at least six different nations trying to maintain order while thousands of people clamoured for food and water. People were desperate. Search and rescue teams were searching piles of rubble for survivors. Thousands of slum dwellings built up the hillsides had collapsed. Most of the buildings were poorly constructed and made of concrete.”

“There was no warning and many people had no chance to escape, so people were crushed by the walls when they fell. The hospital had collapsed, medics were trying to get some degree of health service running and the airport was rapidly choking up with aid supplies. We ended up flying aid into the Dominican Republic and moving the supplies by truck convoy into Haiti.”

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You might imagine that years spent in some extremely challenging circumstances would take its toll, but when talking about natural disasters Lasse invariably focuses on the positive – on what can be achieved.

“I read a children’s story once”, Lasse tells me. “A child walks along the beach one day and sees that a lot of starfish have washed up on the beach and are drying out in the sun where they will no doubt die, and the child picks up a starfish and throws it into the ocean. A man walks along and sees the child and says ‘what are you doing’ and the child says, ‘well, I’m saving the starfish that are dying here in the sun’ and the man laughs and says ‘what difference will that make? You can’t possibly save all these starfish – there are hundreds of thousands washed up on the beach – there’s no way you can make a difference’. And the child picks one up and says ‘but I can make a difference to this one’ and throws the starfish back in the sea, ‘and to this one’ as he picks up another, ‘and to this one’. To my mind humanitarian aid is often similar – you just have to make a start, and help one person at a time.

“What you need in an aid worker is the drive and ability to get things done. Having good intentions just isn’t enough. You have to try to work out what’s needed and how you can make best use of the resources you have available right now. You need to try and quickly work out what you can do and get on with it.

“Often in natural disasters so many people are affected that no one can fix all the problems or respond quickly enough, but most of us do have the capacity to make a difference, no matter how small. If there are many people doing that, you can achieve remarkable things. When you have a task that’s so daunting that you don’t know where to start, sometimes the answer is to just begin.”

Since 2013 Lasse Petersen has volunteered for Byond Disaster Relief working to help communities affected by Typhoon Haiyan. You can find out more about Byond Disaster Relief at www.byond.org

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