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What we've learnt from Haiyan to Hagupit

Did being prepared save thousands of lives over the weekend?

Thursday December 11, 2014

Volunteers serve hot meals to people who were evacuated from Typhoon Hagupit's path. Photo: Cheryl Gagalac

While we grieve with the families of those who died in Typhoon Hagupit, and help those who lost homes, there's a collective sigh of relief as the typhoon leaves the Philippines.

Just over a year ago Typhoon Haiyan passed through these same locations, killing 7,000 people and leaving a million homeless.

So did the humanitarian community do anything that potentially saved lives between those two typhoons?

It's not a straightforward comparison: unlike Haiyan, much of Hagupit's destructive power had diminished by the time it made landfall. And we're still building a comprehensive picture of damage across the country. But several lessons from last year were put into practice.

Getting ready means more than stockpiling relief goods.
Being prepared for a disaster involves systems, processes, people and cash. It's no use filling a warehouse with rations if you don't have trucks to get them to people. Or fuel and drivers for the trucks. Or back-up transport if the roads are inaccessible. Or local volunteers to unpack and distribute the goods. Or a way of keeping track of stock. Or an information management system that alerts everyone involved of an approaching disaster and what they need to do.

Gradually, more donors are starting to invest in disaster preparedness and all the building blocks involved.

Evacuate early using pre-determined plans and locations.
Last weekend saw one of the largest peacetime evacuations in history. Local authorities evacuated close to a million people from the typhoon's path. It's clear that this step, which began long before Hagupit entered the Philippines, contributed to the reduced loss of life.

It can be hard to convince people to develop a household evacuation plan or practise a drill. Yet since Haiyan, these activities have been ramped up right across the country. Much work was done to ensure evacuation centres were structurally sound, weather-resistant and adequately stocked and staffed.

It's critical that we keep trying to make an evacuation centre a safe place for everyone. When emotions run high, people are crowded and facilities are limited, it's vital to help women, children and vulnerable groups stay safe from abuse and neglect.

Local responders need to work together.
There is no way such a mass evacuation could have occurred without collaboration between local authorities and local relief agencies. Over the last 12 months, local Red Cross volunteers have been working with local barangay officials to run evacuation drills and test warning systems. They collaborated again over the weekend, with volunteers serving hot meals and handing out blankets and relief kits in evacuation points.

Help people build back better and stronger.
Filipino people are famously tough: after all, they stare down the barrel of 20 typhoons a year. But we can help them protect what they have. Since Haiyan, a major focus for Red Cross has been 'building back better' using weather-resistant materials and housing frames designed to withstand high winds. An early assessment in Samar and San Isidro indicates that houses built to these specifications sustained minimal or no damage from Typhoon Hagupit.

Manage and share information effectively.
From tweets and photos as Typhoon Hagupit approached, to rapid assessments of the humanitarian impact after it passed through, more information was available to more people than in last year's typhoon. Again, this is the result of local people collecting and sharing information with the tools they had.

Which leads to the most important thing we learnt from Haiyan: no international aid agency 'rushing in' can replace trained local first responders. And the best contribution the humanitarian sector can make is to facilitate effective collaboration between local authorities, agencies and communities. We need to continue to get people together to identify what needs to be done in their homes and communities, work out how best to do it, and broker the resources to make it happen.

Typhoon Haiyan showed us that nature can be immensely, terrifyingly destructive. Typhoon Hagupit showed us that we need not wait helplessly in its path.

Peter Walton, Head of International Programs, Australian Red Cross

This article was published on Pro Bono on 10 December 2014.

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