Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines: Traveling by CARE-avan to Help Typhoon Survivors


Laura Sheahen is with CARE’s emergency team providing assistance to survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

Eight vans, three days, thousands of typhoon survivors. That’s the math CARE is looking at for a rapid series of food distributions on the Philippine island of Panay. Typhoon Haiyan battered the large island, wiping out livelihoods and levelling homes. Villagers lucky enough to have money—most don’t—have to choose between buying food and putting a roof over their heads, literally.

Getting people food quickly will take some of the pressure off. Outside a school gymnasium, sacks of CARE food arrive in large trucks and tiny motorcycle-sidecar taxis. Dozens of volunteers in the gym rapidly package the food into family-sized parcels in bright yellow bags. Most families get rice, sardines, canned beef, noodles, beans, sugar, and cooking oil. There’s some dried fish as well, which causes a hiccup in the schedule when, overnight, cats make their way into the gym. But by morning of Day One, eight vans are loaded and we’re ready to roll.

We’re starting out on the west coast of the island. The storm came from the east, so there’s less damage here. That doesn’t comfort Myra, a woman in the town of Laua-an who bursts into tears while showing us her flattened house. We distribute the yellow bags of food and try to console her before getting back on the road.

In the next town, we see a rice mill gutted by the typhoon; even if farmers can harvest their rice, they can’t process it. I talk to a woman named Cherry as we stand between the four sturdy walls of her house. We look up into open sky—not a shred of her roof remains. We talk to Roderick, a 32-year-old man with polio who escaped the storm despite his problems with his left leg. “We ran from tree to tree and hid,” he says. “It was difficult. I fell three times.”

Moving northward up the coast, our caravan arrives in front of the municipal hall of Culasi, where thousands of bottles of water are stacked up. The donated water is supposed to be on a remote island five hours away by boat, where villagers eke out a living by growing seaweed. The typhoon hit the island hard and they’re drinking rainwater—“if it doesn’t rain, there’s no water,” says the island’s leader. But for lack of a few hundred dollars’ worth of boat fuel, the drinking water has been sitting in port for a week. CARE pays the money and the bottled water is unloaded onto the beach, ready for the boat.

The caravan is smaller now. With each food distribution, empty vans can drop off and return to where they started. On Day Two, we see more destruction, more uprooted trees and downed power lines. We talk to a man who says his coconut harvest is lost; that’s 2000 pesos, 50 dollars. An elderly widow whose house was damaged says she’ll have to borrow the repair money against her rice crop. Since she’s a tenant farmer already, the rice trader may charge her high interest. Loan sharks come out when people are vulnerable; another reason why giving people food can prevent them from making desperate choices.

By the afternoon of Day Two, our caravan moves to the water. We take two boats to reach smaller islands off the northern coast of Panay. The villagers on the islands make their living from fish ponds, raising tilapia, shrimp and crabs. The typhoon destroyed the cultivated ponds and washed the fish away. From the wobbly boat and along muddy paths strewn with typhoon wreckage, men haul sacks of CARE food to the villages.

We speed back to land and make our way by van towards the northeast coast, the worst-affected part of Panay. Whole fields of palm trees are flattened, utility wires are draped across the roads, and ground-level thatched roofs sit on the ruins of houses.

Our day ends in double darkness: as the sun goes down, no intermittent electric lights appear across the landscape. The power is out and our phone signals grow fainter. From an earlier assessment team, we know things are bad in a place called Sara, where we’ll arrive tomorrow. The last leg of our journey could be the toughest, but we'll keep the caravan going.