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Disaster & Conflict

Postcards from the Philippines: The Criminal Sea

By Dr. Tessie San Martin

This is part one in a two-part series covering Tessie's recent trip to the Philippines where she and other members of Plan International staff witness the rebuilding of the Philippines.


Tessie San Martin is the CEO of Plan International USA

The newscasts had been warning everyone in the path of Typhoon Haiyan (or Yolanda as it is known locally) that it was going to be a big one: a giant storm with heavy rains and winds of over about 180 miles/hour. The weather forecasts also warned of a big storm surge. Not too many people knew what "storm surge" meant.

The aftermath of Haiyan was much worse than anyone anticipated. The signal 4 storm (equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane) wreaked havoc on the Visayas region for over 4 hours on the morning of November 8, 2013.

But what really terrified and literally ripped apart many communities in this part of the Philippines was the massive storm surge: the sea rushed inland, about 2.4 miles in some places - tearing apart and washing away buildings, houses, schools, people, animals...everything. People described it as a tsunami in force and devastation. And today people still refer to the "criminal sea." You don't see children playing by the sea much anymore here.

The aftermath of the disaster is well-documented. Nationwide:

  • More than 14 million people affected
  • 4 million people displaced and
  • 1 million dwellings partially or completely damaged.

In Eastern Visayas, where I was last week, almost 4 million were affected and 1.4 million displaced; more than 400,000 houses and almost 1,400 schools were destroyed. The storm also destroyed an estimated 35 million coconut trees, and with that took away the main livelihood of millions of tenant farmers and their families. 

Plan has responded to this disaster with a 5-year response structured in 3 phasesthe first two of which I will cover in this post:

  • 0-6 months - Relief (finishing now)
  • 3-18 months - Recovery
  • 12-60 months - Rehabilitation

Our relief efforts have been focused on 75,000 families in 4 provinces in the Visayas region: Eastern Samar, Western Samar, Leyte, and Camotes Island in Cebu. 

To date, Plan has reached almost 700,000 beneficiaries in 41 municipalities; 795 barangays (villages) have received some sort of assistance from us. This has exceeded our initial target by 50%.

We estimate 85% of the primary-school aged children are back in school, even if this is in temporary learning spaces; 50-55% of secondary schools are back in some form of operation. I visited Plan disaster recovery initiatives in Eastern Samar and Leyte and came away impressed both by the enormity of the task at hand and the progress made in this initial recovery phase.

Relief and Recovery

The recovery phase has of course focused on meeting basic needs: shelter, food, water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as temporary provision of health and education services and psychosocial support. For example, in December then again in April, Plan invited Clowns Without Borders to perform for the children and families of those affected by the storm.

What has been most impressive about Plan's response is the care taken to integrate all aspects of support. Response efforts in the chaos that follows these types of disasters can, at times, be chaotic and disjointed themselves, creating further stresses in the communities. Plan has endeavored to avoid this.

This means that shelter projects also deliver sanitation and hygiene assistance and that cash for work programs, meant to get money into the hands of those who have lost everything, are also providing skills training to ensure a means of livelihood. This sort of skills development means that community members are able to apply their new skills to rebuild clinics, schools, and dwellings in the affected communities.

The response has been targeted carefully and with the close participation of all members of the community to help ensure the most affected are served first and the most vulnerable are heard. This means that the children themselves play a key role in the post-disaster assessments and planning. 

Finally, the recovery effort has been carefully designed with an exit strategy and resiliency objectives in mind. The last thing we want is to create dependency. Ultimately, we will be successful only if these communities are able assume the leadership and the financing for the longer term rehabilitation.

I will cover the topic of resiliency and share with you some specific examples in my next post, "Postcards from the Philippines: From Vulnerability to Resiliency". 

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