U.S. officials cautiously optimistic about aid progress in Philippines

15 Nov 2013 | Cheryl Pellerin

After days of logistical challenges that kept thousands of Tacloban City's desperate storm survivors cut off from food, water and medical supplies, air and overland routes are starting to open, senior administration officials familiar with the relief effort said Nov. 13.

Since it made landfall in the Philippines Nov. 7, Super Typhoon Haiyan has affected more than 1.7 million families and 8 million people across nine regions of the Southeast Asian archipelago, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

"In brief what we've done is to respond quite quickly in a very coordinated way, bringing people to the disaster zone to assess the extent of the damage so we know what's needed and coordinating with our Philippine colleagues," a senior administration official told reporters today, as part of a background briefing on recovery efforts arranged for the media.

Then supplies, equipment and assets would be brought in to help deal with casualties and losses and to try to get logistics going, the official added, "so the assistance that comes in from now on can be distributed effectively. It's a pretty major effort on the part of the U.S. government."

The U.S. Embassy in Manila has been active, the official said, in touch with Philippine officials and with other U.S. agencies involved in disaster relief.

President Barack Obama called President Benigno Aquino on Monday to express condolences and support, the official said, and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario earlier this week.

"We've been taking very much an organized, coordinated whole-of-government approach to try to respond as best we can to meet the humanitarian needs," the official said.

In anticipation of the super storm and its landfall in the Philippines, the U.S. Agency for International Development deployed an advance disaster assistance response team to Manila, another senior administration official told reporters.

"We had that team on the ground in the affected zones within 24 hours of the storm hitting, and that was the first international governmental response team to reach the area," he added.

That team has been assessing and determining priorities over the past few days, the official said, which has helped the U.S. government prioritize and structure the response.

USAID has worked hand in glove with the U.S. military to coordinate the response, this official added, by providing and funding the assistance and working closely with the military on coordinating delivery and prioritizing what goes where.

The U.S. government to date has provided an initial $20 million in humanitarian assistance, half through the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. The aid is being used for emergency shelter, water purification and hygiene to prevent water-borne and other diseases.  The rest is spent on food aid in partnership with the World Food Program.

"I would say we are cautiously optimistic that we are starting to turn a corner on some of the logistics challenges," the official said.

"In the last 24 hours we have seen some improvements in the coordination at the airport ... but also very critically, an overland route to Tacloban City has now been opened," he said, describing the original conditions as being like trying to squeeze an orange through a straw, and now having more and bigger straws.

"Through some of the military assets we are able now to get aid into some of the coastal villages that were destroyed," the official added.

In the past 24 hours USAID and its U.S. Pacific Command counterparts have been delivering emergency shelter, hygiene and water-purification supplies to villages in some affected coastal areas. The aid is starting to push and that will accelerate in the coming days, he said.

Another administration official told reporters the Department of Defense is doing all it can to urgently provide support in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Manila, USAID, and international partners to the government of the Philippines and their lead in the relief operations.

"Right now our 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade Headquarters, with over 307 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, are on deck in the Philippines and have begun initial relief operations as of Nov. 10," he said, adding that over 1,000 Marines could be deployed to the affected area by the end of the week.

U.S. forces are supporting the armed forces of the Philippines and moving them into the area so they can help alleviate security concerns in Tacloban and the surrounding area.

"Our assessment [of the security situation] on the ground from the DOD side is predominantly that the threat would be armed looters and second would be vector-borne diseases," one U.S. official said.

"At this time there are medical supplies that are being routed inbound. We have contingencies to take care of our forces and cover for the convoys as well, so the security situation is felt to be well in hand at this point," he added.

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