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James Burke’s Assembly About the Philippines Disaster

Posted: 22nd November 2013

Hello everyone. My name is James Burke and I am here today to tell you a little bit about a rather an eventful trip to Asia I have just had. I was on a large island called Cebu, in a country called the Philippines which you might have seen has been in the news rather a lot over the last few days. The reason the Philippines has been in the news so much this week is that last Friday morning – so a week ago today - they were hit by a storm, which apparently was the strongest ever storm to make landfall since people started recording the strength of storms. 

When we arrived in Cebu, exactly a week before the storm hit, no one had any idea of what was coming. We were there to organise a business conference for 280 people who were coming from all over the world. Those people all arrived at the hotel we were staying in last Wednesday, the same day that the General Manager of the hotel (he’s a bit like a head master, in charge of looking after everyone and making sure the hotel runs smoothly!) asked to meet my colleagues and I – the conference organisers - for an urgent meeting. 

The manager and one or two of his team came into the meeting looking pale and little nervous to inform us that they had received reports that a very strong storm was coming our way. They could not be 100% sure how close we would be to the eye of the storm – which is the middle of the storm where typically the strongest winds and heaviest rain are found – but he told us that it was currently on a course close enough to us for him to be worried. 

This was lunchtime on Wednesday and for the next 36 hours the hotel made preparations for the worst. All the glass windows in the hotel were taped up (to try and prevent glass from shattering in the event of strong winds breaking through the windows), all the outside furniture was either removed or tied down with heavy rope to stop it blowing around and smashing into things, chandeliers were tied down, dead wood was chopped down from all the trees and everything was readied as much as possible in preparation, should the storm come straight over us. 

As well as planning as best he could to ensure the hotel staff and guests would be safe should the storm hit us, on Thursday evening the hotel manager also brought 500 people from the surrounding villages into the hotel for their safety. Most of the villagers live in very simple houses made of not much more than bamboo walls with simple corrugated steel roofs. Not much defence in a big storm!

Similar preparations were in place across the large area of the Philippines where the storm was expected to hit. 800,000 people were evacuated from their homes and gathered together in makeshift evacuation centres up and down the country. Fishermen brought their boats in, town disaster planning committees got together try and ensure everyone would be safe.

At 6 o’clock on Friday morning we were woken up by a phone call from the General Manager’s team to let us know that the storm was indeed imminent and headed directly at us - they were expecting it to make landfall in Cebu at 11 o’clock that morning. We were asked to tell the 280 people who had come to attend our conference to return to their rooms, to lock their doors and windows, to close the curtains, best of all to hide in their bathrooms, to expect the worst and to sit tight and wait for further instructions from the hotel, who would let us know when it was safe to come out.

At this stage although we were all as prepared as possible, no-one really knew how strong the storm would be or how long it would last and I don’t admitting, I was a little nervous. It didn’t help that when I went back to my room to hunker down I had a quick look at the telly where the international news stations were already reporting on what they were calling, “the biggest storm anyone had ever seen to make landfall, anywhere, ever, with the potential for winds of up to 200mph and waves of anything of up to 5 to ten meters tall’.

As it happened, we were extremely and extraordinarily lucky. The hotel called us all out of our rooms at about 1 o’clock, letting us know that the worst had missed us and we were safe. At the very last moment, the centre of the storm shifted just north of us, meaning we only experienced it’s very outer edges. There was a little damage around the hotel – mostly fallen trees – but nothing major at all. Our very first reaction was one of relief that everyone with us and in the immediate surrounding areas was safe.

However, as soon as we realised that the storm had missed US, we also realised this meant it had hit somewhere else, that other areas would not have been so lucky. It took a day or two for the stories to start to emerge from some of the places which were worst hit and that is really why I am here today, to tell you what has happened in those places and to tell you also what people are doing to try to help the unfortunate  people who are left there.

The images I have up on the screen show you two things. 

Firstly, I have a few images which show you the areas which were worst hit by the storm. As you can see certain areas suffered almost total destruction. It looks less like storm damage and more like bomb damage, but storm damage it is.

Imagine a town like Tunbridge Wells – one moment an ordinary functioning town with homes, schools, a hospital, buses, shops, maybe even a small airport - and a few hours later - nothing. As much as people had warning that the storm was coming and readied themselves as best they could, the storm and the high winds and massive water surges which accompanied it, was much more powerful than anyone expected. One of the worst hit places was a city called Tacloban, about 80km from where we were. In Tacloban everything was destroyed. Their homes have gone, their schools have gone, the shops where they buy food and water have gone, the hospitals have gone, the airport has gone,. Most sadly of all, large numbers of the people who lived there have gone too, mostly swept away in the floods which came with the storm.

They now have no food, they have no water, no electricity, no medicine to treat the sick and the wounded, they have very few standing buildings at all and very little shelter of any description. They have no sewage system, their crops have all been destroyed and the land they grow on has all been covered in salty sea water ruining the soil and their ability to grow more food. Even if they had any money left, that would be no use as there is no food or fresh water for them to buy. Suddenly, they have nothing. In the space of a few short hours they have been turned from people living ordinary lives going about their daily business, just like you and I, into desperate people in a very desperate situation. 

Perhaps to say that they have nothing at all isn’t strictly accurate. The one thing they do have - the only tangible hope that they have to believe in until they can get back on their feet -  is the support of their fellow human beings, not just from the Philippines but from all over the world.

And people are helping. The very first thing that the hotel we were staying at did once the storm passed over us, was to start buying large amounts of food, fresh water, generators and medicine, to send to the worst hit areas in the north of the island. The food was all delivered to the hotel from the south of  the island which missed the storm altogether. On Monday morning this week everyone in the hotel - the staff, the guests, everyone - helped in putting together enough food parcels containing simple but essential things such as bags of rice, lentils, tinned fish, salt and so on, for 2000 families to eat for five days. It was great to see everyone at the hotel that day pulling together as best they could to help out, it really was. 2000 families is not a small number of people. However, when you look at a few of the facts and figures about the storm, you realise pretty quickly just how much help they need;

From the BBC news website:

The good news is that even though they are on the other side of the world we can all do something positive to help the people of the Philippines, which I think Mr Lewis is going to tell you all about now.

Thank you all for listening.

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