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Hope with no home

Public health aid worker, Kym Blechynden assisted with the Red Cross response in areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. She sent this diary story.

It is great to see that Red Cross is making a huge difference. This week, patients are streaming into a new Red Cross 70 bed hospital, complete with units for child-birth and women's health, surgery and children. It was no mean feat to see the construction completed in 30 plus degrees heat and 90 per cent humidity! Our teams have been assisting around the clock with food and non food item distributions.

I arrived in the Philippines as an emergency Public Health aid worker less than a week after Typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc across the Philippines. Our team arrived by cargo plane. We flew in to Tacloban, one of the worst affected towns. The ride from the airport revealed the full scale of the destruction. We rode in silence for more than 26 kilometres observing flattened buildings and a destroyed city. The destruction reminded me of the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the 2004 tsunami which so badly affected many countries including Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Our accommodation in Tacloban was a small tent on the lawns of a destroyed hotel, amongst the flattened trees and rubble. It is really hot and humid. There is no electricity. It is not easy to access water and sanitation facilities. The silence at sunrise is broken by chainsaws clearing debris, and helicopters and planes delivering relief goods and evacuating community members to nearby Cebu Island.

Heading off to visit communities in the area, rubble and destroyed power lines clutter the road making our truck convoy slow and dangerous. It takes eight hours to cover 106 kilometres. We pass block after block of destroyed homes and people who have lost everything, their possessions, their jobs and in many cases someone they love. It is clear to see that what is not destroyed is community spirit and the ability to cope and get on with life.

Along the road, banners and signs decorate the towns and trucks such as: 'Bangon stand strong', 'Ormoc City - Roofless, homeless but not helpless'.

We arrive at some remote barangays - groups of villages - where families have received food parcels, a hygiene kit, a plastic jerry can and tarpaulin from Red Cross. We have started training for local Philippine Red Cross youth volunteers in hygiene promotion, aiming to avoid disease outbreaks, including diarrhoea by washing hands and other simple steps. Importantly, the Red Cross volunteers are also being trained in providing personal support, assisting people to talk about their experiences and cope with the trauma after this terrible disaster.

The Philippine Red Cross volunteers have been doing a fantastic job in often really tough conditions. Many of the volunteers have lost family members, houses and livelihoods from the typhoon. One volunteer, Don, tells of the night the storm hit: "We were at Philippine Red Cross preparing relief goods ready for the emergency response, and we stayed the night at the office."

"During the storm the roof was torn and walls collapsed, we had to cling to the remaining roof for four hours until there was a gap in the storm and we could take cover in another building close by." Incredibly, Don searched for his family for two days and moved them to safety on Cebu Island. He did not think twice about volunteering with Philippine Red Cross full time to assist with the relief activities.

The stories of survival and strength from the community members I encounter are incredible. Tessa, a local teacher, has painted her hat with a positive slogan: "tough times don't last, tough people do". During the storm Tessa sheltered in her church with community members, taking cover when the roof was torn off by the 300 kilometre per hour winds. Tessa proudly tells me that she was able to use her first aid skills to treat cuts and wounds of community members who were sheltering in the evacuated building with her. While recounting her experience, Tessa's eyes cloud over with tears as she explains she is worried about how community members would cope in a few months if the aid stops.

In many villages, community members are keen to share their experiences of the devastating typhoon. Michelle, a mother of three young children says: "We ran to the school to hide. Children were crying and we were so worried. Now all my memories are full of Haiyan, all of them."

Everywhere we go people thank us for coming and caring about the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. It is incredibly humbling when people are standing amongst the rubble of what used to be their homes, thanking the Australian public for their support.


Photo: Health aid worker Kym Blechynden worked to improve the health of people across many areas affected by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. (Australian Red Cross)