Interview with Ionut Homeag, member of the 1st EU Civil Protection Team deployed for Typhoon Haiyan emergency in the Philippines, seconded National Expert from Romania to the Emergency Response Coordination Centre of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department ECHO.
Tacloban, capital of Leyte province, was one of most severely devastated areas by Typhoon Haiyan when it struck the Philippines last November killing thousands of people and affecting millions. No electricity, no water and no food, dead bodies all over the place, hundreds of injured, homes and livelihoods completely wiped out… The European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism was immediately activated to support the delivery of assistance. Ionut Homeag, from Romania, was part of the first EU Civil Protection Team deployed on the ground. He was dispatched on 10 November, embedded in a Belgian team, and stayed onsite for a week facilitating the Commission’s and Member States’ relief efforts as well as contributing to the overall coordination and needs assessment.
Ionut, you arrived in Tacloban only 3 days after the disaster. Could you please describe your first impressions of a city literally washed away by the cyclone?
One could see, hear and smell death: massive destruction, people screaming for help, corpses everywhere. From the plane that brought us there we could already sense the catastrophe, but once landed the view was apocaliptic. Not a single inch was in order. The airport’s facade had been blown away, the roof heavily damaged and all windows broken. It was an overwhelming mess of plastic and metals. Desperate survivors were queuing to get a seat in the military aircrafts evacuating locals to other places, trying to escape the chaos.
How did you start operating in that hectic environment?
Public transport was non-existent, so individuals had generously taken it over. The Belgian team and I we were brought to the actual town by a lady who had lost her husband, house and business. Completing an 11-kilometre distance took us more than one and a half hours and it was a shocking journey through a narrow road clogged with debris, fallen trees and electricity poles, rubbish, cars and trucks upside down… In Tacloban there was no power, no water, and no commercial activity: nothing to buy nor sell. We met with the local authorities and colleagues at the onsite operations coordination centre (OSOCC), to see where our expertise would be most valuable.
Which were your main objectives as part of the first EU Civil Protection Team?
To facilitate the arrival of the incoming EU assistance such as medical posts, water purification units, emergency shelter, blankets, kitchens utensils and hygiene kits, as well as to conduct a joint needs assessment together with our humanitarian colleagues and to strengthen the coordination of the international response led by the United Nations. We liaised closely with both local authorities and the international community, in permanent contact with our headquarters at the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department ECHO.
And your specific tasks?
I joined the Reception Departure Centre (RDC) in the airport, run in collaboration with the Government and the United Nations. I was in charge of briefing the European teams upon arrival, for them to know what the situation was, the available resources, useful contact persons and preferable locations for different sectors. I looked after logistics aspects and took care of reporting ongoing developments to the field network and HQ. The Tacloban airport was being jointly operated with the United States marines. It has a very small apron, which got impressively congested by C130s and other aircrafts bringing in-kind assistance and personnel. Planes were landing and taking off straight away, often just leaving the engines on to be able to let others quickly come in. Many women and children were sitting in the dust hoping to be evacuated at some point. I sometimes wondered: “Am I doing enough to help them? Can I do more?”.
Initial challenges sound discouraging, but substantial progress has been made. What would you cite as main achievement of the EU Civil Protection team?
Our greatest success may have been the fact that we managed to bring all relevant stakeholders together including the Philippine and US military, so that everyone would speak to each other to analyse existing problems and look for optimal solutions. We boosted up communication and coordination among national and international organizations. In addition, we ensured a solid presence in all strategic points: Cebu, Tacloban OSOCC and RDC as well as Guiuan and Ormoc cities’ sub-OSOCCs. It was a complicated and emotionally deep mission, but when I left things seemed rather different from when I arrived. Cooperation was stepping up, warehouses were getting full of aid, the distribution chain was operational… Local authorities were working all night long to remove the debris and clean the roads and turn the city into a more liveable place. Haiyan triggered a large scale emergency, similar to the Indian Ocean tsunami or the Haitian earthquake, but recovery is now under way.
It’s been the first major intervention of ECHO’s newly set up Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). What’s being its added value?
First and foremost, the ERCC is the operational heart of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, coordinating the emergency response of its 32 Participating States. It’s active on a 24/7 basis and makes sure that all contributions are properly handled to reach the most vulnerable. It allowed us to jump in the crisis without any delay: Belgium offered in-kind assistance and a civil protection expert just after the typhoon made landfall in the archipelago, and in a few hours a military aircraft was carrying an advanced medical post, a water purification unit and several experts including myself from ECHO side. The ERCC is also supporting the transport of civil protection assets, providing early warning and analytical capacity as well as a robust situational and satellite mapping system. Last but not least, the ERCC is enabling the European Union to get an overview of key gaps in the response and the best ways forward.
Information and Communication Officer
European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO)