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Natural Disasters

Germany helps typhoon victims

The first German planeload of supplies for the Philippines included 5,400 blankets, 3,000 tents, and medical equipment. But no one knows what exactly is needed, or where it should go.

"Everywhere you look there is debris," says Sandra Bulling, describing her first impression on arriving at the disaster zone. "Rooftops are hanging from power lines as if they were towels." Bulling, who works for CARE Deutschland, was on the way to the town of Tacloban in the province of Leyte, which has been completely destroyed by the typhoon. At least 10,000 people have been killed in the area, and now, hundreds of thousands are waiting in desperation for help.

Among those sending aid is Germany. But at the headquarters of the emergency aid organizations, nobody is quite certain exactly what is needed 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) away, and where exactly it should be sent.

Sandra Bulling,

Bulling had to make her way as best she could to reach the affected areas

But German aid organizations have begun their work in spite of the many questions. On Sunday (10.11.2013), an A340 Airbus took off from Frankfurt Airport for Manila with a first load of 25 tons of supplies: fleece blankets against the cold, plastic sheeting for provisional housing, medical equipment for fractures. The supplies were sent by World Vision and the "Action Germany Helps" - an alliance of German aid organizations coordinating their work.

The first aid staff are also arriving in Manila from Germany. The Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) has sent five experts. THW is well-known for helping to provide clean drinking water after a catastrophe. But THW spokesman Nicolas Hefner told DW that they would first have to send out reconnaissance teams to assess what is needed. "This is our special expertise," said Hefner. The THW staff may also help clean wells and water piping.

Communications down

Other aid organizations also find it difficult to work out where their aid is really needed. Airports and roads are blocked with debris, whole areas are cut off from the outside world. The German organizations all agree that transport and logistics are their biggest problem: "The debris has to be cleared away before the help can get to the people," said Maria Rühter of Action Germany Helps.

Information from the worst-affected areas is only getting to the capital slowly, and thus to the helpers. According to Ulrich Füsser, head of the Asia division of the Catholic charity Misereor, communications networks are sometimes completely down. He has managed to speak to his partner organizations in the region, but he can only form a picture of the situation "bit by bit."

A resident carries his bicycle past houses damaged by typhoon Haiyan, in Tacloban city, Leyte province central Philippines on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms on record, slammed into six central Philippine provinces Friday leaving a wide swath of destruction and hundreds of people dead. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Hundreds of thousands have been affected, especially in Tacloban

Logistical help comes from the German Post Office, which has its own natural disaster aid program and its own disaster response team. "They're staff who are experts in logistics and go out to the airports after a natural disaster to help to get the aid supplies moving," spokeswoman Christina Müschen said.

No solo performances

What is important is that all the organizations are pulling in the same direction. "We coordinate our activities with the other organizations, so that there's no overlap," says Cordula Wasser of the Malteser Aid Service.

Each organization has its own crisis plan for sudden disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, but they don't work without agreements with the others, including those from other countries.

"That's why we work so closely with these structures, which are set up usually within a few hours of a catastrophe," says Wasser.

The THW agrees: "There are no solo performances." The main contact point for all the German organizations is the German Foreign Ministry and the German embassy in Manila, as well as the Philippine authorities. They draw up a plan together with the UN Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Millions needed in donations

After a while, the media coverage abates, but the needs of the people remain. The organizations need donations if they are to help after the headlines have stopped appearing. No one knows exactly yet how bad the damage is and how much money will be needed, but Rüther estimates, "It will certainly be in the millions, if we compare it to other disasters."

The organizations are hoping that they will be able to rely on the German willingness to donate money once again. Füsser at least does not believe that people are suffering from donation fatigue, despite the many natural disasters of recent years. On the contrary, he believes the pictures showing how destructive nature can be will create some solidarity.

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