There was little left of the school – it had been torn apart like much of the rest of the village. In the devastation left by the trail of Typhoon Haiyan, the prospects of education for hundreds of children in the area looked bleak for a long time to come.
Although the aim of the British military mission to the Philippines was to offer as much immediate aid to the stricken population as possible, there was recognition that efforts should also be directed towards the longer-term needs of the community; thus the decision was made to focus on rebuilding the school.
About 450 girls and boys are already back studying in Bitoon village. “We worked solidly for three days and were delighted with the results. It was fantastic to be able to make a difference to the people here, it’s great to know that the children are back at the school,” said Royal Navy Petty Officer Andy Conroy. “We were able to leave materials and tools for the locals so that they can carry out repairs to other affected buildings.”
He was in a team abroad HMS Illustrious, part of an international relief effort. Helicopters from the aircraft carrier had been working around the clock to deliver supplies to some of the islands that were among the remotest and worst affected by the disaster.
The ship was carrying 500 tonnes of aid, most of it bought en route in a frenetic shopping spree in Singapore. It included 10,800 cans of corned beef, 9,840 cans of sardines, 5,000 cans of pineapple and other items ranging from candles to full shelter kits.
Another set of figures shows the scale of the destruction and the task ahead to rebuild and resettle. About 6,000 people have been killed, and 3.8 million driven from their homes, and damage to infrastructure has been estimated at $700m (£427m).
Lieutenant Commander Andy Reeves said that high-impact projects managed by the Department for International Development, such as the school, were also essential in “getting a community back to work quickly. Clearly this is good for their education, but it also allows their parents to have more time to focus on rebuilding their homes and livelihoods.”
Claudio Monzon, an organiser with the local relief teams covering the island chain where Bitoon is located, said: “We have had bad storms in these areas before, but nothing as bad as this – so much has been simply wiped out, it has been commonplace to see dead bodies wash up. We are doing all we can, but obviously the help from the outside world has been received most gratefully, it has been wonderful. It is not just material losses, people have been psychologically damaged – so many children, especially, have been traumatised.”
Illustrious will continue with the relief efforts over Christmas. The destroyer HMS Daring, the first Royal Navy ship to arrive, is now heading off. Many of its crew will have vivid memories. In one of the islands, recalled Lieutenant Commander Teilo Elliot-Smith: “People survived the typhoon by hiding further up the hill. When we landed, a woman came running up to me crying and pulling on my sleeves. She was saying they hadn’t eaten for days and they had run out of all their supplies. You can’t forget something like that.”