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Disaster in the Philippines [Editorial]

The magnitude of the catastrophe wrought by Typhoon Haiyan on the central Philippines Friday began to emerge over the weekend in the grisly images of buildings reduced to matchsticks and bodies lying in the streets. The Philippines were still reeling from a major earthquake that struck the region a few months ago, and the country has had long experience of coping with natural emergencies that comes from living in one of the most disaster-prone regions on the planet. Still, the scale of last week's devastation was unprecedented.

The storm that slammed through the region with reported maximum winds of 190 mph and a wall of water 10 to 20 feet high in places destroyed everything in its path in the worst-hit areas, on the islands of Leyte, Cebu and Panay south of Manilla. Millions of survivors there have been left homeless and without food, clean water and electricity. Telecommunications have been knocked out entirely in some areas, and roads are blocked by fallen trees, buildings and debris, preventing aid supplies from reaching people there. It will take years for the country to recover from this disaster, and the U.S. should stand ready to render assistance wherever it is needed.

Philippine officials and aid organizations fear the death toll in the city of Tacloban alone could reach 10,000. Tacloban, the capital of Leyte Province some 300 miles southeast of Manilla, lay along the path of the storm's center, and aid workers say it's impossible to estimate how many casualties were sustained in more remote areas. That number, when confirmed, is likely to be just as shocking. Moreover, the devastation wrought by the weather is being compounded by a breakdown in public order. Widespread looting has been reported in Tacloban and other places, where starving people have broken into stores and attacked convoys of emergency aid shipments out of desperation.

Over the weekend U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dispatched a contingent of 80 Marines based in Japan to the Philippines to assess the damage and determine what assistance the U.S. can render. That team is calling for C-130 cargo planes and other aircraft to carry out search and recovery operations at sea. The Navy is also sending Orion P-3 surveillance planes to look for survivors stranded in ships and boats. But the brunt of the work involved in caring for the storm's victims and seeing to their needs for food, shelter and medical care will fall on private aid groups like the International Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services, whose activities will be coordinated through the United Nations.

The Catholic Relief Services headquarters in Baltimore, for example, already has dozens of people on the ground in the Philippines sent there in response to the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that rocked the region last month. Nationally, the agency has committed to raise $20 million for emergency aid to storm victims, with its efforts concentrated along a 13-mile-wide swath of the storm's path running miles from Letye to Panay provinces where the typhoon did the greatest damage. The agency estimates about 3 million people live along the path of the storm and that as many as 9.5 million people may have been affected by it.

The biggest obstacle facing aid workers, at least initially, will be that there is no food, water or electricity in the damaged areas. The Philippine government's first response was to get the airport at Tacloban open again so search and recovery operations by air can begin. But that airport may be restricted to military aircraft for at least a week; aid shipments by private groups will have to land at the airport in Cebu City, nearly 200 miles southwest of Tacloban, then be transported by boat and truck to the disaster area.

The CRS workers' first priority will be to distribute temporary tarp shelters and hygiene kits outfitted with soap, toothpaste, towels, cooking pots and basic utensils. The agency had to go as far away as Dubai to get some of these items, especially plastic tarps, because it had already depleted its supplies of temporary shelter materials in the country after last month's earthquake. Even after the new shipments arrive from Cebu City sometime this week, distributing the aid will be difficult because most of the roads leading to Tacloban are so badly damaged as to make them nearly impassable. A spokesman for the agency says the sheer scale of the devastation has knocked everyone off their heels.

Well-established organizations like CRS and the Red Cross are best-suited to respond quickly and efficiently to overwhelming natural disasters in far-flung parts of the world. But they rely on the generosity of donors back home for the funds needed to support their efforts. Cash donations are better than gifts of clothing or household goods. A strong response by the U.S. government and military engineers will help speed the clearing of debris and repair of damaged infrastructure. But for ordinary citizens who simply want to lend a hand, a contribution to a charitable group like the Red Cross or CRS is the most effective option.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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