Canadian military advance team reaches Philippines

A Canadian reconnaissance team landed Tuesday in the Philippines for talks with local officials on how best to provide military help to the Southeast Asian country in the wake of last week’s vicious typhoon.

OTTAWA — A Canadian reconnaissance team landed Tuesday in the Philippines for talks with local officials on how best to provide military help to the Southeast Asian country in the wake of last week’s vicious typhoon.

But Canada’s larger, military Disaster Assistance Response Team, which deployed for the Philippines on Monday, is currently in Hawaii, waiting for specifics on how and where it can help.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said the DART will be available “at a moment’s notice” once the Canadian advance team has provided its assessment.

“We’ve deployed individuals who are on the ground right now as part of our advance team,” Nicholson said in Toronto.

“They are discussing, as we speak, with governmental and non-governmental sources in the Philippines as to how we can be most effective in the assistance that we are prepared to provide.”

The advance team includes 17 Canadian Forces personnel and about a dozen civilians, mainly from Foreign Affairs, the minister added. They arrived Tuesday morning in the capital, Manila.

On Monday, a Canadian Forces C-17 departed CFB Trenton, Ont., before stopping over in Hawaii. The massive military cargo plane is carrying 43 members of the DART, along with their equipment.

Nicholson said the equipment included ambulances, a forklift, a communications truck, as well as a fully-supplied medical team.

On Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird emphasized the speed at which the government had taken action.

Senior aid agency officials in Canada said their organizations and others were scrambling to overcome massive logistical hurdles to reach severely affected areas well away from Manila.

They also said it was necessary for the Canadian government to do exactly what it was doing Tuesday — consulting carefully with the civilian actors on the ground in the Philippines — before sending in the DART.

“There’s no doubt in my mind they can make an important contribution. The critical thing will be that they co-ordinate that contribution with others,” said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada.

“The DART will be able to get to where it has to get to.”

Fox said Oxfam used rented helicopters to insert three different assessment teams to remote parts of the country to conduct damage assessments.

The team members are equipped with food and water, and satellite radios for their 48- to 72-hour assignments on the ground.

Stephen Cornish, executive director of the Canadian branch of Doctors Without Borders, said his advance teams on the ground were describing a “logistical nightmare,” one he said might require military assistance to overcome.

So far, the organization has managed to get 23 doctors, nurses and logisticians on the ground to key areas, and hopes to augment them with 80 more — including psychologists — in the days to come, he said.

Cornish said his organization, which has rented boats and is also trying to borrow helicopters, has 238 tonnes of gear in country at the ready, including an inflatable hospital, tents, water purification equipment and medical items.

Military help could be invaluable in helping open roads, bridges and other clogged land arteries, he said.

“We don’t have the full scale of the impact and devastation on the ground. It’s impossible for us to say where other actors would be best placed. That’s up to Filipino authorities.”

A grim task awaits Canada’s DART in the Philippines where typhoon Haiyan left a massive trail of destruction that has affected 11 million people.

The official death toll from the disaster rose to 1,774 on Tuesday, though authorities have said they expect that to rise markedly.

They fear estimates of 10,000 dead are accurate and might be low.

The DART has 200 Canadian Forces personnel and was last deployed following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010.

— with files from Diana Mehta in Toronto and The Associated Press

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