Five days after the most powerful storm ever recorded struck the eastern Philippines and cut a swathe of devastation across the archipelago, there is not yet any certainty about how many people have died. With communications cut off and roads either impassable or washed away, huge areas of the country are still unreachable. The reports that have made it to the outside world are of towns reduced to matchsticks, of law and order breaking down, and of the stench of unburied corpses in the streets.
According to current estimates, as many as 10,000 people may have lost their lives to typhoon Haiyan and the six-metre waves that it unleashed. Some nine million people are thought to have been affected and more than half a million displaced. Nor is the ordeal anything like over. Even in the few places where help is getting through, with basic infrastructure wrecked and thousands of traumatised survivors in need of food, water and medicine – as well as shelter – the catastrophe is on a scale that is difficult to conceive of let alone address. With the risk of disease only increasing, and more bad weather to come, time is of the essence.
In the midst of what President Benigno Aquino has declared a state of “national calamity”, the authorities face criticism for their apparent failure to put in place effective contingency plans for a storm both the timing and force of which were well predicted by meteorologists. In fairness, all the usual procedures were followed, in a region with considerable experience of being battered by nature.
So far, all that can be said for sure is that in Tacloban, a coastal city of 220,000 that has been all but entirely destroyed, the evacuation plan moved people into concrete safe-houses inland and failed to foresee the storm surge that washed even the most robust buildings away.
The outbreak of finger-pointing that was threatening over the weekend does now appear to have given way to a concerted focus on the task in hand. Rightly so; this is no time for politics. But there is a broader question about preparedness for natural disasters that will, in time, need to be addressed. And not just by Manila. Climate change scientists have long warned us to expect more extreme weather. If Haiyan is to be the first of many, effective defensive measures will be needed both in the Philippines and far beyond.
The immediate priority, of course, is to get help to where it is so desperately needed. Britain has committed £10m and is sending HMS Daring. The US navy is also en route. Meanwhile, the UN hopes to raise $30m and the Disasters Emergency Committee has launched an appeal of the kind that raised £400m in six months after the Asian tsunami. All that remains is to make sure such resources are put to good use. A degree of confusion is unavoidable in so chaotic a situation. Neither can speed be sacrificed. But the lessons from the Haitian earthquake – about the need for co-ordination between agencies, about the dangers of sexual violence, about ensuring aid is appropriate rather than simply plentiful – must be put into practice.
The scenes of desolation in the Philippines are nothing short of heart-breaking. The international community must dig deep and give the survivors all the help that we possibly can.