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When the Wind Blows

By Dr Heather Koldewey |

It’s been a tough year. On November 8th 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) tore through a number of the communities where ZSL have worked for over 15 years, destroying homes, lives and livelihoods. We’ve worked incredibly hard this year to respond to this massive disaster, step by step helping to recover and restore the communities and the environment. We’ve focused on building resilience in communities through securing nature’s protection mechanisms – coral reefs and mangrove forests – and associated livelihoods. The community banks that underpin the Net-Works programme have increased financial security through basic saving schemes, with the nets collected and sold providing valuable supplemental income. We’ve built new collaborations with humanitarian agencies like IIRR and Oxfam GB to integrate environmental protection and restoration with disaster relief and recovery. We’ve trained communities and our teams in disaster risk reduction and incident management. We’re making headway and our interventions are working. Mangroves flourish, fish wardens watch over protected areas and we’re in the process of implementing our third Net-Works collection hub.

And then Ruby appears on the horizon.

The initial forecasts for Typhoon Ruby (Typhoon Hagupit internationally) are as big as Typhoon Haiyan, meeting the unenviable criteria of a super-typhoon. I look at the forecasts with horror. I want to shout that it’s not fair. I want to make it stop and I want to rant at climate change deniers. Instead, I take a deep breath and get stuck in to a flurry of emails, calls and texts.

As always, the ZSL-Philippines team are on the case and organised. We’ve 50 staff now in various parts of the country, a wide range of activities underway and unusually we also have 5 UK staff visiting (ranging from one of our finance team there to train in new systems to a PhD student deep in the mangrove forests collecting soil cores). It moves to a systematic operation: Glenn Labrado, ZSL Philippines Country Manager, leads the process of getting each team member to a safe place with sufficient food, water and torches and briefing on evacuation plans. In most cases we get people home to look after their homes and families. Flights are in chaos, and the Net-Works project manager Nick Hill is fortunate to get the last flight from Cebu to Manila and leave the country on a planned trip to Australia. I’m tracking several of the team’s movements on Facebook as some of them are trying to get from Cebu to Iloilo and Aparri. Hours later, it’s such a relief to see a picture posted of a happy family, knowing they are back together.

I am obsessed with the social media feeds following the path of the typhoon. Will it go to Japan? Will it avoid landfall altogether (please) and where will it hit the Philippines? As the hours pass, it becomes clear that the trajectory is likely to be close to that of Haiyan. Having seen the destruction it wrought and heard the terrifying experience so many people went through, my heart goes out to those communities. I know the people are strong, capable and incredibly resilient. I also know they must be scared.

Our team is working closely with the village captains and community leaders to run through evacuation plans and get updates. The country is on the move in what turns out to be the largest peacetime evacuation of almost one million people.

We’ve done what we can. Waiting is hard for me and I am safe in the UK. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the team. Finally it hits. The extraordinary nature of social media means you can follow the path of a typhoon live through online reports. Power starts going down in areas and communication channels reduce. I post on Facebook, tagging team members, and start to see reassuring comments that people are safe. Smith, one of the Net-Works team is home in Balaring, a village decimated by Haiyan. The community have moved to higher ground, they escape the substantial storm surge, the food packs are ready and evacuees looked after. The training has worked – people know what to do and are safe.

It seems to take forever for the typhoon to pass through the Visayas region en route to Manila, where we have many friends and partner organisations. No-one is getting much sleep. There is an enormous sense of relief when I finally get the ‘all clear’ text from Glenn early on Monday morning. The massive national response to the typhoon warning and the training and support of national government have minimised the loss of life, but at least 30 people have perished in the storm. Still there are families without a home just a few months after rebuilding their last one. The team start compiling reports of damage and meet to assess our response.

After Haiyan, we mobilised funds from generous supporters that enabled us to engage in the relief effort. This time, the local government is ready and able to respond without our help. The team immediately start heading back to our field sites and work begins again. As always, I am humbled by their commitment, tenacity and optimism in the face of such adversity. I hope they feel empowered by the efficient and effective response and encouraged by the results of our training. We know the importance of every patch of mangrove and reef protected and restored and that our work is making a difference, but we have so much more to do.

There is no time to waste. This weekend, Typhoon Senyang is due.

Dr Heather Koldewey, the Head of Global Conservation Programmes at the Zoological Society of London

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