Assess first, then help

It was a long weekend Monday, so Canadians had time to pause, and honour our military services and remember their sacrifices in battle. But the day also allowed us time to try to comprehend the magnitude of superstorm Yolanda, which devastated the Philippines over the weekend.

It was a long weekend Monday, so Canadians had time to pause, and honour our military services and remember their sacrifices in battle. But the day also allowed us time to try to comprehend the magnitude of superstorm Yolanda, which devastated the Philippines over the weekend.

And, as always happens in these events, to examine Canada’s response to an international crisis.

There has been a lot of pressure, both internally and externally, for Canada to do more, faster, to aid the millions of people suddenly placed in horrific conditions in the wake of the storm.

Yolanda, known as Haiyan in the rest of Asia, was the strongest storm ever recorded to make landfall. Winds reaching 275 km/h pushed a storm surge or seawater more than four metres high far inland, while torrential rains simply washed entire forests and the land holding them down toward the sea.

Almost 10 million people are directly affected.

In some places, there is no longer a town or city, much less the expectation of road access, communications or even electricity. It is reported that, days after the fierce winds and rains struck, bodies are hanging from trees or floating in brackish water.

There is no way yet to even begin counting the dead, although a figure of 10,000 killed has been the most often-quoted so far. But that could be just from one major city, Tacloban, a provincial capital that was described by military spokesmen as now resembling a garbage dump, with people crawling through it.

Guiuan, a city of 40,000, is reported to be essentially destroyed. Cebu and Baco are reported as 80 per cent under water.

Since the Philippines is not a contiguous country, but a string of 7,000 islands holding about 97 million people, it is extremely difficult just to assess damage, much less mount a military-style aid campaign.

So let’s not be too hard on our federal government for not rushing to be first on the scene. When you’re talking about thousands of islands, where is the scene, anyway?

First off, Canada has pledged $5 million in direct aid to the Philippine government. In addition, the government had promised to match the donations Canadians make, dollar for dollar, to registered charities working on disaster relief there.

As of Monday (situations can change quickly in events like this) Canada is also ramping up its first response team, the Interdepartmental Strategic Support Team. They are the first on the ground, ahead of Canada’s better-known DART, or Disaster Assistance Response Team.

Even though news crews can instantly bring us video of people pleading for food, water and shelter (who wouldn’t, in such a situation?) the Canadian response is more likely to do lasting good.

In a lot of places, there is no functional society remaining. Looters have stripped the stores, and local military attempting to bring a first wave of aid to some regions are worried about attacks by mobs. The country is under martial law, but that only applies when the martial is present.

Richard Gordon, the head of the Philippine Red Cross, said the situation in the country is “absolute bedlam.”

So in order to not make the relief program more complicated than it already is, a first wave of cash for local authorities to be able to get themselves back up and running is a good step.

Sending in an professional assessment team, while DART gets packed up and ready, will help ensure that Canadian aid arrives in a place where it can be made quickly effective. There’s no point in landing a fleet of heavy aircraft on one island and then asking “What do we do now?”

Meanwhile, Canada’s substantial Filipino population — make that all Canadians — do not need to wait.

Probably the easiest and most effective way for the rest of us to “do something” is to simply go to www.redcross.ca/typhoon. You can donate to the relief effort, knowing that every $1 you give is turned into $2 by the federal Philippine Crisis Matching Fund.

And that the Red Cross will efficiently turn your donations into real aid.

Canada’s experience helping in the humanitarian efforts following Haiti’s massive earthquake in 2010 informs us that this new effort will carry some extra tactical complications.

So, good marks to the federal government for what it has done so far. The world is watching to see how the situation develops, and we will try to do this right.

The rest is up to us.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.