Super-typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines on November 8. On November 24, I went to Villamor Airport in Manila with some friends who were serving as volunteers, greeting evacuees from the stricken areas and asking them about their needs. No planes arrived that night, but I did meet a Capt. Caleb Eames, a US Marine who was working there. On December 11, when he was back in Okinawa and I was in Manila, he talked over Skype about his experience with the relief effort. (Photos used with permission.)
On Monday, November 4 or Tuesday, November 5, we got notification of the approaching storm. We started by planning in case we had to respond to the Philippines. We identified which people would be sent first, what aircraft were available to go, and what parts would have to be moved quickly if indeed the storm was quite serious. And of course it was.
The storm hit, as you said, on November 8. It was so big that it brought down the communication system. All of the telephone lines and cell phone towers were gone. As a result, the news of the damage was at first slow in getting out. However, as the storm hit, our weather guys were getting wind speed readings, so we knew right away that the situation was quite serious and the Philippine government would likely request help.
The US military and the US government cannot respond until we’ve been requested to do so by the host nation. The very first thing was that the government of the Philippines had to go to the US Embassy and, via them, request assistance from the United States. That request went from the State Department—was obviously approved at probably quite high levels—down to the first responders, including the Marine Corps. We’re considered the crisis response force of choice in the region. Within 48 hours of the storm we had the first planes landing in Manila.
I was not on that first wave, which consisted of kind of an emergency assessment team. Our name for it is a Forward Command Element, or FCE, and also a HAST, which stands for Humanitarian Assessment Survey Team. Members of that group were the first on the ground in Manila. They went very quickly from Manila—with representatives from the Philippine government—down to Tacloban and the surrounding area. They immediately determined the severity of the situation, in close partnership with the government of the Philippines and also in close partnership with US AID, or US Agency for International Development. They saw that a large response would be required because there was significant damage in the area. Very quickly afterwards, the Marine Corps began sending in items that were requested. The first things that were needed were our heavy-lift and medium-lift aircraft, the cargo planes and our MV-22 Ospreys, to move aid and evacuees. A total of eight Marine Corps C-130s responded, two from the US west coast and two from Okinawa. We also sent 14 Ospreys down from Okinawa.
Now, the Ospreys are a unique aircraft. They’re actually both a helicopter and an airplane. They have rotors that tilt so they can fly both vertically and horizontally. They were important in this situation because they were able to go directly from Okinawa to the Philippines without needing to refuel. We moved our Ospreys down because we knew right away that there would be an immediate need to get into the airport in Tacloban. The airport was completely wiped out, so it wasn’t suitable for heavy aircraft to use. Our Osprey aircraft were some of the first aircraft on the scene in Tacloban. They flew in aid packages, Philippine government assessment teams and many international aid organizations. Because the Ospreys could land as helicopters, we used them to fly into remote areas in Samar and Leyte and get the Tacloban airport up and running. Within the first two days we enabled 24-hour operations in Tacloban, and as soon as the airport opened up, the heavy-lift cargo planes from around the world could begin landing.
There was a tremendous amount of assistance headed that way. You probably know that over eighteen different nations were sending help. One role the Marine Corps could play was to help manage the airflow because you can only land a certain number of planes at a time at that small airfield. Together with the Philippine air controllers, we scheduled blocks of time and helped coordinate those flights so we could get maximum effectiveness out of our flight operations. We wanted to prioritize flights bringing in the items that were absolutely needed, top-priority items: food, shelter, doctors, medical teams. Then on all of the flights headed out, we loaded as many evacuees as we possibly could to get them to Manila.
Once that airflow was open in Tacloban and some of the other places—Samar, Ormoc, Borongan and Cebu—then our Ospreys played a critical role in getting out to the areas that were very hard hit but were very far away from any kind of central hub, small villages along the coast and small villages inland that were cut off by debris or fallen trees. A regular helicopter probably would have been able to service only one or two areas before having to go back to refuel. But because the Ospreys were able to fly long-range, they could get in four, five or six stops and refuel on the George Washington aircraft carrier or even refuel mid-air.
The Ospreys were actually based out of Manila, where we were able to keep all of our maintenance staff. If we had based regular helicopters out of Tacloban, it would have required additional services and support in order to provide for our own people. But with the Ospreys we could base them back in Manila, 400 miles away. All the service and support was already in place there, we didn’t have to put an additional requirement of supporting ourselves on the Tacloban area. Instead, every flight could be used just for bringing help to the people who needed it. So having the Osprey aircraft was quite a success story.
Another interesting fact: the typhoon hit on the eighth of November, and the Marine Corps first arrived in those devastated areas on November 10, the 238th birthday of the Corps.
I came into the picture when the Marines had been on the ground for about four or five days, I arrived on Sunday, November 17, after our flight was delayed by one day. When we received word that additional people were needed to support, I was one of the people chosen. Honestly, Carol, I had hoped I would get picked. The Marine Corps trains for this type of operation all the time. We’re always ready to go help our allies. I’ve been to the Philippines many times. I love the people there, and I was glad to go help as much as I could. And every single Marine I talked to felt exactly the same way. We all wanted to be there to help. I was very blessed and humbled that I got to help out our friends.
I returned to Japan on Wednesday the 27th, right before Thanksgiving. So I was down there just a little over a week. I was absolutely honored to have been a part of that help and also really humbled by the very strong Filipino people that I met. I love the Philippines, as I mentioned before. This disaster really showed the character of the people who were affected. I met many, many people down there, and everybody seemed to have a spirit of hope and recovery and pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps. Actually, when I left one of the things I remember very vividly was walking through the Tacloban area and hearing the sounds of people rebuilding. Hammers going and plywood being put up and sheeting being put on the houses and roofs being repaired. I really got the feeling that the people were going to recover from this. I don’t know if every American has that same kind of gumption to get back up on our own feet. I remember after hurricane Katrina there was quite a bit of back-and-forth about who was responsible for what. The Filipino people are a great example to me of how to get into the spirit of recovery very quickly.
I was part of Operation Tomodachi in northern Japan in March of 2011. The damage to the infrastructure was very similar to the storm surge damage in the Philippines. With the tsunami and this typhoon, the airport and many of the coastal communities were just simply wiped out. One of the other similarities between North-eastern Japan and the Philippine disasters was the spirit of “hey, let’s get our lives back together.” I saw that demonstrated in both places.
Yeah, my home was flooded during Ondoy. The water was about maybe shoulder height inside the house—well, it wasn’t water but flood mud, so water and sewage and rat shit—but unlike Katrina, the water subsided immediately. In Katrina part of the problem, as I understand it, was that the flood stayed in parts of New Orleans for months.
During Ondoy I was also amazed at the people I saw around me. People seemed to have dealt with disaster so often that they knew things like the refrigerator was going to be okay after drying out for three weeks, something I never would have thought. The refrigerator, the stove, the microwave, all that stuff was underwater, and they’re all working now. We threw out sofas and mattresses and cushions because the bacteria got into the stuffing and could cause disease—although I’m sure someone else is using them now.
Which leads me to another question. I know people who are going down there. Actually, my friend Maria went down to Tacloban and Leyte just a few days after the storm hit. What advice do you have for people going into disaster areas in terms of immunizations or taking Vitamin C or any of that kind of stuff?
I’m not a medical expert, so I’d say you’d have to consult the people who are the experts in that area, a doctor or the aid workers who are there. Our Marines took anti-malaria medication, since malaria can be problematic in that area. Also, as you mentioned, the risk or bacterial infections is probably higher after a disaster like that. So keeping clean is important. The Filipino people are used to disasters so they know to keep very clean. With Marines, one of our general rules is to take care of our feet. In areas where you might have standing water or mud from a disaster, if your feet get wet you should dry them out and clean your socks. If you take care of your feet, they kind of take care of the rest of you.
The local government is now well in place and established. They have Filipino aid agencies working in that area as well as continuing international help. A lot of local people really know the area and the risks associated with it. People should consult with them, see what they’re doing and do the same. Anyone going there should make sure that they get clean drinking water, a good place to sleep and adequate resources to stay healthy. One of the dangers of going there without a good plan or without knowing how to take care of yourself is that you can become part of the problem instead of part of the help. So we make great efforts to make sure our Marines stay healthy because we don’t want to be burdensome in a situation where there is already a lot of need.
Do you think there’s going to be a big TB outbreak down there or don’t you know?
I’m not an expert, but I don’t think so. I’ve heard medical professionals speaking about that, and I think the situation is much more in hand than it was weeks ago. As I mentioned the efforts of the Philippine government to restore order and to provide health officials, that’s well in place. I think those concerns have been diminished.
I’ve read about outrage that foreign aid packages like ready-to-eat meals and were taken by the local officials and put on the market.
There’s an interesting point about that. I saw that news story. Those Meals Ready to Eat [MREs] were never intended to be part of the aid supply, but to feed the people who were helping, namely the military. It wasn’t part of the food that was designated for the evacuees. I don’t know the history of that story, but that much I do know.