On November 12, 2013, four days after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) struck several areas in the Visayas region, two doctors from UP Manila set out for Tacloban City to investigate the extent of damage in the city, particularly in UP Visayas’ Tacloban College campus and the School of Health Sciences in Palo, Leyte.
Aside from investigation, the two-man team also assessed the challenges to medical professionals and volunteers from the Ugnayan ng Pahinungod Manila in assisting the victims of the super typhoon and the affected members of the university community.
Yolanda was not the first time the Ugnayan ng Pahinungod provided medical assistance. A few weeks before the storm ravaged Samar and Leyte, the organization had sent a team to conduct relief efforts in Bohol after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake devastated much of the island.
All-volunteer, service-oriented organization
Formed in 1994, the Ugnayan ng Pahinungod Manila is an all-volunteer, service-oriented organization providing knowledge and skills from the university’s health and sciences center to underserved areas in the country. In the aftermath of several natural disasters in the early 90’s, a Disaster Management Program was created by a committee of the Pahinungod and integrated into the organization’s activities in 1994.
The program provides for the formation of medical relief operations teams which will respond to disasters in any part of the country in the soonest possible time. These operations require cooperation with national government agencies, local government units, non-government organizations and international relief agencies.
Volunteers to the relief operations teams are trained in all aspects of disaster response. Other members of the UP Manila community also get involved in the collection of goods and materials which may be needed by the disaster-affected areas.
By October 1995, the Pahinungod was already conducting disasters management activities in San Fernando, Pampanga. Among the services they provided were:
• direct medical services to the community.
• psychosocial processing of the care givers and community members
• education and training
• sanitation programs in the community
• assistance in livelihood projects
• sorting of medicines
• assistance in relief operations
The program has continued over the years, becoming more of a training course on campus. In 2011, the program was reorganized and was officially re-launched in September 2013.
Since then, the Pahinungod’s Disaster Management Program has performed the following functions in the communities where they conduct their operations:
• Educate the local community based on the Community Program on Disaster Preparedness.
• Create awareness in the local community on coordinating with various agencies/LGU’s in times of crisis/need.
• Perform risk assessments for the community and make the appropriate recommendations to mitigate these risks.
• Act as observers in specific drills and trainings related to disaster management.
• Monitor the degree of learning thru drills, simulations, and exercises.
• Apply the knowledge and skills gained in disaster management to their respective community and other community immersion programs.
• Teach and train the local communities on proper disaster management.
The re-organized program also included additional training and activities encompassing the various phases of disaster management.
Post-Sendong relief operations in Iligan City
In December 2011, the Pahinungod sent a team to Iligan City in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Sendong (Washi). The team was joined by experts in geology, psychosocial therapy, local governance and other fields from UP Diliman. The composite team, spearheaded by officials of the UP System administration, is known today as the UP Padayon Disaster Response Team.
Along with the team members from Diliman, the Pahinungod’s experience in disaster response and the knowledge of its experts in public health, forensic pathology, health care and medicine proved to be invaluable in providing post-disaster services in the affected areas in Iligan City.
Since then, the Pahinungod has conducted relief operations in several areas in the country struck by natural disasters. These include the post-Typhoon Pablo relief operations in Davao Oriental; floods in Cavite; and the 7.2-magnitude earthquake which struck Bohol.
The ‘Pahinungod’ way of relief operations
With years of experience in disaster relief operations in several parts of the country, the Pahinungod conducts its missions in a coordinated approach which considers all the necessities for its actions in the field.
A disaster response team of the Pahinungod is organized as soon as instructions from the UP President, the UP Manila Chancellor or the Philippine General Hospital Director are given. These instructions carry the objectives which the team will do their best to achieve in the area affected by the recent calamity.
Among the factors considered by the team members in organizing an operation is information from the affected area regarding the local population, lay of the land, security, availability of public infrastructure and accessibility. Reports from locals in the devastated area are vital.
As no operation can be conducted without proper supplies and goods distributed to the locals affected by the disaster, the Pahinungod mobilizes volunteer members of the UP Manila community and calls on UP System offices for support in the form of goods, security, financial assistance and transportation.
The Pahinungod does not have its own warehouse for relief goods and donations only pour into its offices after a call is raised. Once the donations start coming, they come in quantities enough for distribution in the areas to be served by the relief operations team.
While the relief goods and assistance extended to the Pahinungod in its relief operations are similar to those given to other relief organizations in the country, what makes its Disaster Management Program unique is the expertise of its volunteers in the various fields of health care. This gives the Pahinungod its own brand of disaster response.
The relief mission to Tacloban and Palo
The disaster response team faced many challenges. Among these were: difficulties in access to transportation and food; total collapse of telecommunications infrastructure (cellular, radio, satellite); lack of electricity; and security concerns.
Aside from identifying difficulties, the two-man initial team was also tasked to: 1) determine where the students and staff of UPSHS in Palo, Leyte were, and possibly extract them if needed; 2) and determine the distribution area.
On November 18, 2013, the relief team composed of security personnel; mountaineering experts; and medical and healthcare professionals arrived in Tacloban City in a relief column of several vehicles, including a bus and a 10-wheeler truck carrying relief good from the other constituent units of the UP System. This was after the convoy made the journey from Manila to the city via land and the “roll-on, roll-off” (RORO) ferry.
The relief team arrived at the UPVisayas Tacloban College campus and found it devastated. Strewn on the campus grounds were debris from the buildings, fallen branches from trees and other materials swept by the storm surge. Surprisingly, the Oblation was intact and proudly standing amid the devastation.
In Palo, the UPSHS campus was a total wreck with only debris brought by the storm scattered on the ground. Only a semblance of the buildings remained. Similar to that which happened in the UPV Tacloban College campus, the Oblation also survived Yolanda’s onslaught and remained standing near a bent flag pole.
In the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, students from the UPSHS helped the local population with the training they had as health and medical sciences students. Miraculously, there was no casualty among the faculty, staff and students of the school.
Aside from trying to locate the other members of the UP community in Tacloban and Palo, the Pahinungod team conducted medical and relief goods distribution missions in these areas in as orderly a manner as possible.
In Palo, the recipients were chosen from a list of evacuation centers in the municipality. The local government provided a list with four evacuation centers where the services of the Pahinungod team were needed. The team chose the center which had the most number of evacuees.
The team’s doctors later found out that many of the survivors visited the relief operations areas to avail of free medicine. Many were not seriously injured or suffering from illnesses resulting from the calamity.
The conduct of the operations was not without its challenges. Among the difficulties encountered was the need for a system that would distribute relief goods in an orderly manner. In one instance, there was a local teenager who encouraged the people to start a new line other than that formed by the relief team members. The teenager had to be reprimanded to maintain the smooth distribution of relief goods for those who were already in line.
There were also locals who caused confusion by advising the relief team to conduct its operations in a location other than that which was designated by Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez. When confronted by the team members, one individual argued that the team should listen to him since the Mayor did not know what the survivors needed and where they were most needed.
Another challenge confronted by the team was the difficulty in communications. The lack of landline, mobile and even satellite phone facilities limited the coordination and movement of the relief operations in Tacloban City and Palo. Internet access was also very difficult days after the disaster.
Despite all these difficulties, the Pahinungod relief team and those who accompanied them conducted the operations in the best way possible. Given the limited resources they brought with them from Manila, they made the most out of a very difficult situation using their knowledge on disaster management, health sciences and the medical profession.
In this age of climate change, the Ugnayan ng Pahinungod Manila is expected to deploy its teams in more parts of the country as storms get stronger and floods occur more frequently. With its dedication to disaster response and its expertise and skills, the Pahinungod embodies UP’s commitment to serve and to heal.
Dr. Carlos Primero Gundran is the Disaster Drill coordinator for UP Manila. He is also the Disaster Management and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) coordinator for the UP-Philippine General Hospital.
Dr. Salvador Isidro Destura is the dean of the UP School of Health Sciences campus in Palo, Leyte.
Email the authors at [email protected]