In early November, 2013, Pacific winds started to circle in an all-too-familiar pattern. These winds quickly intensified into a typhoon (a typhoon, hurricane, and cyclone are the same thing- just in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, respectively). The world would shortly learn the name Haiyan, the international name given to the storm. When typhoons enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility, they are renamed for reference inside the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan was known to most Filipinos as Typhoon Yolanda. In this story, I will use the name Haiyan. Typhoon Haiyan would make landfall in the Central Visayas as the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall.
We have all probably been notified of big events through text message. Haiyan, for me, was no different. My close friend, Jenn, sent me a text message asking “are you going to the Philippines?” I immediately knew some disaster had occurred or was threatening the country because Jenn always asks if, and when, I’m going to deploy somewhere, as well as what I will be doing once I hit the ground. She’s like my forward observer: always knowing what I’ll be doing before I go and do it.
I got on the computer and did a quick search and saw that there was an inbound typhoon. On average, six to nine Typhoons make landfall in the Philippines each year and around 19 enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility. When I looked up the stats of this storm, I realized this one was the real deal. The strongest storm recorded up until Haiyan was Hurricane Camille in 1969 with a wind speed of 190 mph. Hurricane Katrina made landfall (actually its second landfall) with wind speeds of 125 mph. Haiyan had wind speeds of 195 mph.
The views expressed in this story are solely my own, and are, by definition, one-sided, but I have tried to be fair, thorough, and balanced. I have tried to represent what happened as accurately and fairly as possible. In my account, you will often read of frustration. I have tried to capture what I was thinking and feeling in the moment. Naturally, with time and distance from the response, I can better understand and rationalize some of the things that made me frustrated. Now, even with time and separation, there are many things that still give me great frustration. At the time of the Typhoon, I was employed by the American Red Cross working at the National Manager of Situational Awareness. My service was requested by the Manila Observatory, on behalf of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Once on the ground, I reported to General (formerly Colonel) Rodolfo (Boy) Santiago. Because of the national and international mission of the American Red Cross and due to the fact that there were American Red Cross teams deployed to the Philippines to respond to the typhoon, in order to not confuse anyone, I officially stated that I was deployed as just Luke, the civilian, with no affiliation to the Red Cross. If I had an official title while on the ground (which I do not believe I did), it would have been as the Operations and Logistics Lead for the Multi-National Coordination Center, working under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This was confirmed only by the name tag given to me by a lead from the Philippines National Disaster Risk Reduction and Mitigation Committee (NDRRMC) that I wore for the duration of my time in the Philippines.
I can’t thank enough my Red Cross leadership team who allowed me to serve; initially for one week- then an extension for another week. These include Wendy Harman, Clayton Kolb, Trevor Riggen, Richard Reed, and Harold Brooks. I also am very thankful to the Manila Observatory, specifically Toni Loyzaga, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for putting trust in me to lead. Without Toni and the backing of the Manila Observatory, none of this would have been possible. The Observatory also covered my travel, lodging, and meal costs.
What follows is the story of my experience on the ground in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. I have written this story excerpt-by-excerpt. I feel that these little vignettes better-encapsulate what happened as opposed to writing everything in chronological order. Due to my lack of sleep and the fact that everything happened so fast in such a blur while I was deployed, including specific dates for many vignettes would be difficult or impossible.
I have written this story primarily for my own records and memory. I never want to forget what I experienced, what I learned, and how I grew. Secondarily, I wrote this to share my story with my family and friends- many of whom have asked me “what was the Philippines like?” Over the past year, when asked, I have tried to tell each person what I went through, but it gets tiring and I feel that I don’t do each of them justice telling them about little snippets here and there. The last reason for my writing of this account is that I hope that other disaster relief decision-makers read it and that disaster relief in the future may improve as a result.
To see video of logistics operations taking place at Mactan and downrange airfields, click here http://youtu.be/uCZ-xNHAPAA
To see a speech that details, in 15 minutes, some of what I describe below as well as lessons learned and strategies for improving humanitarian operations, click here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWVvW1ZDjGk
And now for my story.
Preparation and Staging
After being notified of the storm, I immediately sent an email to an old friend of mine, Toni Loyzaga, the Executive Director of the Manila Observatory. I asked Toni if she needed any help with the storm, wondering if there was a way I could support remotely. The Manila Observatory is a nonprofit research institution focused on studying and addressing global environmental concerns. Toni is, by far, one of the most well-connected people I have ever met. I first met Toni almost three years earlier, in 2010, when I was in Manila responding to Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana in the Philippines) as part of a two-man element from InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases, and Disasters), the nonprofit I worked for during and after college. Toni comes across as very unassuming. She is short, brilliant, and has a very bubbly personality. When she walks into a room, everyone- from generals, to politicians, to strangers greet her warmly. It appears that she has grown up, and gone to school with nearly everyone in a leadership position in the Philippines. Within hours after emailing Toni, I heard back from her asking if I could come to the Philippines to help with “situational awareness.” The Philippine government response, largely being conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) (under the authority of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)), desperately needed a situational awareness capability and they thought I could help, as my day job was serving as the Manager for Situational Awareness at the American Red Cross out of national headquarters in Washington, D.C. I was emailed a briefing book explaining the storm, its path, and the geopolitics of the regions most likely to be affected. I studied the topography as well as cultural, social, economic, and political demographics, trying to understand things like the structure of a barangay (the smallest administrative division in the Philippines). I was asked to support with the damage assessment and storm surge mapping to support the search and rescue and recovery missions. Working for the American Red Cross in domestic operations, a foreign deployment was something not in my job description. Toni’s request, coming from the Philippine government through the Observatory, had to be passed up my chain of command. 36 hours after forwarding the deployment request up my chain for approval, I was on a Delta flight to Manila trying to get as much sleep as possible. I had packed for high level government meetings as well as for the field. Between a carry-on bag and a backpack, I had my laptop, a power strip, extension cord, satellite phone, a suit and tie, dress shoes, cargo pants, tactical boots, my water purification and cooking kit, and a mosquito net and bivvy sack. I tried to prep for anything. Having deployed to crises around the world before, I knew sleep would be a rare treat once I hit the ground. As I tried to wedge my head in between my seat and the window to get some shut-eye, my mind was moving at a thousand miles per hour thinking about the scene I would soon enter. I never could have imagined that the next two weeks would be the most exhilarating, exhausting, rewarding, and empowering time of my life.
I arrived in Manila on Nov 10, 48 hours post landfall. As I looked at my passport to go through customs, I saw that I left Manila exactly three years prior to the day after concluding my Typhoon Ondoy deployment. I went straight to my hotel, exchanged emails with Toni, and planned to meet her in the hotel lobby the next morning to head directly to the island of Cebu by commercial plane to check in at the main humanitarian logistics hub with the AFP and Colonel Rodolfo “Boy” Santiago, the AFP lead in Cebu for the response. On the plane with Toni that next morning, she gave me the low down on the situation.
The first place to bear the full front of the storm was a place called Guiuan (pronounced Gee- Wahn), a town built around the coconut industry. Haiyan also devastated other coastal areas as it ripped across the Philippines. Most people who would come in to respond would focused on Tacloban. Many other foreign names that Toni mentioned would would quickly become all-too-familiar to me: Ormoc, Roxas, Ilo Ilo, and Catbalogan. The storm had such force that it looked more like a tsunami than a typhoon in many areas. Actually, the terrain immediately looked like it was hit by napalm and then by a tsunami. Over and over again, for as far as the eye could see, trees were knocked over or ripped out of the ground. Boats smashed into houses and then those houses smashed into other houses. In many areas, the primary cause of human devastation was either the lack of evacuation or a poorly executed evacuation. Multiple evacuation centers flooded, killing most or all of everyone inside. By final count, the storm would kill over 6,300 people. Many people took shelter from the wind and water behind cement walls only to have the walls crush them. Many people were being rescued from the water floating miles away from where they were washed away.
The geographic layout of the Philippines made the response all the more complicated. Since the country is made up of islands, it meant that all inbound response and relief personnel and supplies had to come by air or water. Most would originate from Manila, staging on Cebu, and then spread outwards from there. Aside from the majority of U.S. military and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) relief supplies, almost all humanitarian supplies made their way through Cebu.
Toni and I arrived midday to the Cebu International Airport. I quickly saw that this area of Cebu was untouched by the storm so I understood and realized that this would quickly become the major relief hub due to its close proximity to the most heavily impacted areas. We immediately took a quick cab ride to enter the Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base (Mactan air base for short). The ride took 15 minutes, but as I would later learn, the runways for Mactan and Cebu are shared, so that as the crow flies, our commercial plane landed about a quarter-mile from the military aircraft. We met immediately with Col. Santiago, who was expecting us. My role became increasingly clear in that 15-minute conversation. In short, my role was to run the logistics, coordination, and situational awareness activities for the humanitarian hub of the Haiyan response. This meant coordinating the offloading, sorting and loading of supplies onto coalition military and civilian aircraft. This also meant coordinating flight operations, schedules, and determining, which supplies needed to go where, and when. I was also responsible for coordinating evacuees moving out of the affected regions, evacuees returning back to their homes, and inserting and extracting humanitarian aid teams. I also had to make sure that both supplies and people went to the right locations, that they arrived as quickly as possible, and that aircraft always had full loads. I was constantly balancing the competing needs of food, water, and medical supplies as well as the decisions to be made between inserting teams versus delivering cargo via aircraft. Col Santiago was accountable and I was responsible. He delegated the work down to me and made sure I was empowered to act effectively.
There were others present from both the AFP and DSWD who were tasked with managing logistics, but they were not able to effectively coordinate movement of the massive volume and variety of international personnel and supplies at the speed they needed to be moved. Additionally, the most critical and needed asset, that I was able to bring to the table, was the logistical civil-military coordination aspect. Many of the AFP and DSWD leadership worked most-effectively in their specific areas of responsibility, for example, making sure that food sacks were supplied, loaded, and ready for transport and ensuring that flights were cleared to land and take off.
Col Santiago introduced me to the civilian and military leadership at Mactan. He introduced me as “Luke from the Red Cross who has brought a situational awareness system that will help us manage this response.” As I stood in that air-conditioned room, surrounded by Colonels, Philippine National Police (PNP) chiefs, DSWD directors, and humanitarian logisticians, a little powwow started happening in my head. I rolled my eyes up so that to everyone in the room I would look very thoughtful and pensive. Meanwhile, upstairs, I was running through a fast-paced thought process: “what system? I don’t have a system! Did I forget something? Not a chance! I even asked that question before I left. Ok, well then, what DO I have? A laptop. My brain. Lots of energy. Lots of experience. Oh! And I was born to do logistics. This will be a blast. Perfect.” Right at that moment, Col Santiago looked me straight in the eyes and asked “so you think you can help us, Luke?” Without skipping a beat, I replied “yes, sir!” He then said to the group “very good, just let us know what you need.” The meeting ended and I was left there standing next to Toni with my head spinning in a thousand directions. Toni looked at me, patted me on the shoulder, smiled, and said “you’ll do great.” She had to catch a flight back to Manila in the next few hours but assured me that she’d support me however possible. She slipped off through the throng of officers, aid workers, and reporters to attend to some business.
A little smile broke from my lips because I fully realized what I just signed myself up for. The first lesson I even learned in disaster response six years earlier during Hurricane Katrina, was that if you raise your hand and you are able to deliver, people will let you go as far as you can go. In some ways, it doesn’t matter if you have zero experience. You just need to be able to collaborate like a banshee, learn to work with anyone, be able to process overwhelming amounts of information, and know when to throttle your energy level up and down so you don’t burn out. If you fail, or begin slacking, you’ll be replaced very quickly.
Learning my way around:
When I was first introduced to Col Santiago, he quickly introduced me to other senior Philippine officers telling them that I was here with my system that would help them run everything. I hadn’t brought a system and had no idea what “run everything” meant. My education in “running everything” was swift and began immediately. It turned out that over a dozen nations had promised relief supplies and aircraft. Evacuees were starting to show up at the base and all international humanitarian organizations were being directed to move through Mactan. There was no tracking system. Nothing on paper. No whiteboards. No laptops. Not even a daily meeting schedule, or what we would later call our battle rhythm. My first objective was to learn what WAS in use and to map out the flow of information at the base so I could understand what kind of system was even possible. This task would take me three days. In addition to trying to figure out a situational awareness system, there were immediate needs; cargo was arriving, it needed to get to affected areas, and it had to go by air as ports were non-operational, naval assets were scarce, and roads were not an option to any place besides Northern Cebu.
The first questions I started asking were: how are flight plans determined, who is in charge of cargo, how are we determining needs on the ground, how do we track air movements, and how much control do we have of flight schedules? I realized there weren’t many answers to these questions, and if there were, they existed only in the heads of a few people. I learned to introduce myself to people standing with Col Santiago. He could make things happen and I was just the random tall blonde guy running around with a laptop. Col Santiago wanted the two of us to build trust with people over time so as not to overstep our invitation (he was an Army officer and we were on an Air Force base). While understanding this desire, I realized that every flight that didn’t take off meant thousands of pounds of life-saving supplies remained stationary on the tarmac. I realized that for planes to be loaded with the right cargo in a timely fashion, I would have to oversee their loading myself. There was also the civil-military dynamic to worry about. Due to my upbringing in a military family, previous jobs and disaster deployments, I have spent a lot of time working as a civil military coordinator. I understand the humanitarian sector and that has been my primary role in disaster operations. I grew up in a military family and speak the language, understand chains of command, and work very well with both officers and enlisted personnel. Many of the NGOs present at Mactan had never (or rarely) worked with the military. Since all of our air assets were military, this was the only option for humanitarian transport.
At its most basic level, logistics is simple. You move something from point A to point B in the most effective manner possible. Effective can mean many things, depending on your objectives, but it usually means getting the thing there in one piece, cheaply, and quickly. What makes it complicated (and for me- fun and exhilarating) is that there are a million things that can screw up your movement plan and they can be tiny little things or big massive ones. You may require many people and transportation mechanisms to get something from A to B and humanitarian situations just add to the unpredictability. For this operation, running logistics operations meant coordinating the offloading, sorting and loading of supplies onto coalition military and civilian aircraft. This also meant coordinating flight operations, schedules, and actual movement logistics. I was also responsible for coordinating evacuees moving out of the affected cities and islands, evacuees returning back to their homes, and inserting and extracting humanitarian aid teams. I also had to make sure that both supplies and people went to the right locations, that they arrived as quickly as possible, and that aircraft always had full loads. I was constantly balancing the competing needs of food, water, and medical supplies as well as balancing the competing needs of delivering people or cargo via aircraft.
Daily Life at Mactan
In the months after the Typhoon, people regularly asked me “how was it?” This is a complicated and loaded question. It is asked as if you were on a vacation, and the canned response would be something like “great!” In the case of massive natural disasters, great doesn’t really jump to mind. My response is generally something like: intense, crazy, rewarding, insane, tiring, unimaginable, inspiring, draining, sad, emotional, devastating, or even complex. When someone who really knows me, or has been in this kind of an environment before, asks me the question, my response is all of the above, but it also is fun. If you don’t like working in this environment, it will crush you and tear you apart faster than you could imagine. To me, responding to, and coordinating a hugely complex humanitarian crisis is fun. I feel more alive than I do anywhere else. You see tremendous human feats of selflessness, courage, bravery, compassion, and love. Over the past eight years working in humanitarian environments, I have come to learn that this world is where I operate best. Things just make sense to me. I often think of a humanitarian event in musical terms, or as if I am playing a massive board game. The complexity is unmatched, but you have to be able to think strategically and tactically at the same time, while trying to establish order and procedure while constantly improvising. If you are a musical person, think of a 100-piece orchestra coming together to play a concert. The curtains have gone up and the audience is ready. You are the conductor and the baton is about to drop. When you look out at your musicians, three of them have sheet music. The trumpets and clarinets are switching instruments last minute. You’re not sure if some of the percussion section will show up. 10 of your flutes haven’t even sat down and the trombone players forgot their bow ties. The tuba players are drunk. You have to conduct a song that only 20 people have practiced and the alto saxophones really just want to get on to the next piece. It turns out the piano player is sick and you’re going to have to fill in for the solo but you only just learned about that as you were walking on stage. The audience thinks and expects everything to sound brilliant. That is what the Philippines was like for me. If you think of a response as a board game, you have hundreds of pieces, but you don’t even know how you can use all of them until you are well into the game. You learn the rules as you’re playing (assuming there are rules, and if there are, you probably only have half the rule-book). Sometimes your pieces just disappear on you, and other pieces are moving without your knowledge. I constantly find myself picturing things as a board game or as an orchestra, because it is the only way to manage the complexity and think at that very high, strategic level.
What did this specific operation look like? Mactan Air Base (located on the Southern part of the island of Cebu) was tapped as the central hub for all humanitarian operations immediately after the typhoon. All humanitarian cargo that arrived by air and personnel were supposed to move through Mactan. I served as the head of operations and logistics for the Multi-National Coordination Center (MNCC). For almost two weeks, the MNCC consisted of me working at a bar countertop. I had a terrific team to work with that was comprised of people from many nations and many more organizations. We worked 20 hour days and we moved approximately one million pounds of cargo and close to 2,000 people (evacuees and humanitarians) every day on close to 30 flights with a total of 14 countries at the table flying to up to six airstrips.
We started with no system. This eventually turned into a Google Spreadsheet (that was in use until the end of the response operation, several months after I left) that was shared across the entire operation (you can see the spreadsheet here at https://tinyurl.com/lfc9sno. I created a short, or “tiny,” URL so that it was easy to write down, copy, speak over the radio, and memorize. We had to establish a battle rhythm and daily standard operating procedure. It took us about 11 days to get that full meeting schedule in place. The purpose of a meeting schedule was so that operations could be planned 24 hours in advance and that we could have some level of predictability. Once we had the meeting schedule in place, Murphy was always at the table. Anything that could go wrong, went wrong.
Getting flights approved was a dance I still don’t fully understand even though I lived it day-in and day-out. It felt like the process changed daily, but more or less, it was like bidding on a horse race. By 1100 (11:00 AM) we had to have a list of all proposed flights for the next day. The easiest way to plan this was to say, what cargo do we think we will have and where does it need to go? The answer to that question was paired with another the question of “what priorities does each landing site have (do they need more shelter, food, water, or specific medical supplies)?” The answer to the latter question was almost always “yes” to everything. We were always short of all essential supplies. Once we had a general idea of the needs on the ground, we had to look at available aircraft. Planes would break down, crews had to rest certain days, certain crews could only fly in certain conditions, certain planes could only carry certain types of equipment, and sometimes planes would be offline for reasons like “an American Marine drove the forklift tongues through the back of the Australian plane” or “the newly-arrived Japanese C-130 clipped the tail of the other Australian plane while they were taxiing.” Every day was a new day. Once we knew what planes were available, we had to write down our bid. For example, we had two Australian planes to use the next day, and we needed to move a lot of palletized cargo, so we had to rig them for pallets. We wanted to go heavy with cargo and not passengers and we were going to multiple destinations in close proximity to one another, so we estimated three flights per aircraft. The maximum number of flights a plane could fly each day was three, so we wrote down that we wanted Australia A to fly at 0700, 1100, and 1400. Australia B would fly at 0730, 1130, and 1430. Again, these bids were due by 1100, so that Philippine Air Force (PAF) Major Santiago and his team could review to make sure we didn’t conflict with any civilian takeoffs or VIPs visiting the airbase. Once they de-conflicted, they would pass up the bids to Manila via radio. Manila would take our bids and measure them against American military aircraft flying out of Clark airbase. We never knew what was happening at Clark nor did we know how many aircraft were flying or where they were flying. It was a black hole, but believe me, we tried dozens of times to find out but no luck. We would find out by about 1500 (3:00 PM) which flights were confirmed. We found out by watching Major Santigo write the flights down on the whiteboard in the briefing room. We learned a trick; anytime we put in a flight to take off before 0800, it was automatically approved (I guess the American military didn’t start taking off until 0800 so there was no landing space competition until 0830). Each day, about two of our 30 requested flights would be rejected and we would find out that Australia A is actually flying at 1530 and not 1430 and that it would be going to Guiuan and not Ormoc. This was normal. Once we had the flights locked in, we could start loading. The issue here was that since we didn’t find out until late afternoon, our loading crews didn’t have enough time to load pallets with the proper cargo for the proper aircraft. This forced us to pre-stage cargo. Approximately five days after I landed at Mactan, we were able to get Major Santiago to sit in on our 1100 briefing so he could approve or disapprove requests in real time. We then pushed Manila to respond to our requests by 1300, giving us an extra two hours to load. Once all that happened, we actually had a repeatable pattern and it was common to see pilots jockeying for new routes and cargo each day to keep their crews engaged and on their toes rather than slacking into monotonous routines. The changeups kept morale high.
Usually between 40 and 80 pounds (averaging 60), these white rice bags were used to hold food for three days for a family of four and were tied shut at the top. The loading of these sacks was overseen by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). The food came from all over, often donated by locals, or purchased by the government. The loading, at least at Mactan, was carried out by police officers and police academy cadets. They were like bees in a constant swarm in the gym filling these sacks and piling them up to the 30-foot ceiling. Old army trucks were used to move the sacks on the five-minute drive from the gym to the airbase. They were stacked in a hangar just to the right (facing the runway) of the bar. From 0600 to 2000, Philippine Air Force (PAF) personnel would oversee the movement of sacks on to the airfield. The primary logistics chain for the sacks went from the gym, to the hangar, to hand carts and small trucks, to the tarmac at the rear ramp of an aircraft, and usually up into PAF C-130s. These sacks were loaded onto non-palletized planes. The sacks were loaded best by carrying them by hand up into the aircraft and stacking them and strapping them to the floor. We commonly loaded them onto the Swedish aircraft because the Swedes did not have a loading crew. The default loading crew for the sacks were the police officers. They could load a plane in about 20 minutes. We were never really sure how fast a plane could be loaded with 30,000 pounds of sack weight. At an average weight of 60 pounds, we could put a max of 500 sacks on a plane. Usually, due to volume restrictions, we could get about 300 sacks on a plane with very little math. If we had a plane that needed to be loaded in a pinch, we often used the 300 sack number. For every planned flight, we loaded every single sack possible, often sitting passengers on top of a sack, serving as a makeshift first-class seat.
Loading the planes
Let me paint a picture of a very routine occurrence that can be extrapolated to just about every organization that was working on the ground…The lesson here is that no matter how much we planned, the plan always changed, and quite often fell apart entirely. We had to be ready for anything and laughing it off and moving on was never an option because it would usually mean that someone’s life was at stake.
Doctors Without Borders (Medicines Sans Frontieres- MSF) operates through national organizations. At Mactan, we had the French, Dutch, and Belgians. The French contingent was run by a Brit, the Dutch was run by, I think, a Frechman, and the Belgian contingent was run by an Argentine. All three were moving largely the same kinds of cargo: medical supplies, inflatable hospitals (that could be setup in a matter of hours just with an air pump and give you a sterile surgical ward), and generators, to name a few big categories. All cargo looked the same and cargo was dropped off in the same location. Many people would just treat all of this as “medical supplies” and send it to different locations. The problem with this strategy was that each contingent had very specific needs from their medical teams on the ground and all supplies were very-specifically ordered. I used to think of MSF as one big, well-coordinated organization. You may think the same of other international organizations, like the UN or the Red Cross. The reality is that each national subgroup has their own styles, cultures, and in most cases, their own standard operating procedures. MSF is the same. The French section was working in Tacloban, the Dutch section was working in Ormoc, and the Belgian section was working in Guiuan. A pallet of medicine bound for Tacloban had to get to Tacloban and not to Guiuan. To avoid massive confusion and mission failure for MSF, I had them all label their cargo with big duct-tape letters (T for Tacloban, O for Ormoc, and G for Guiuan) so that our logistics crews could better check their loading work.
We had been waiting for the Tacloban-bound French MSF cargo for some time. We had promised MSF France that when the cargo arrived, they would be given top priority (although everything was top priority, we made it top, top priority). It showed up one afternoon and we labeled each side of each supply bundle with a T. We had the Korean loading crew (Crew A since Crew B had their day off) load up the MSF cargo onto the Swedish C-130. We had to prep the loads later in the day because the Koreans needed to borrow straps, pallets, and a forklift. The beautiful thing about the Korean team was that they had two loading crews, but since they arrived light on gear, to load any type of palletized cargo, they had to borrow from others. We timed the prep for later in the day so that we could borrow Australian pallets that were loaded back onto a New Zealand C-130 by American Marines in Tacloban, New Zealand straps that came back on that same flight, and the Australian 10-ton forklift. We were prepared to load the plane to its maximum weight, carrying six pallets of medical supplies. The plane to load was the Swedish C-130 but it had gotten stuck on the runway in Guiuan so it was late in arriving for the evening and the loading crews had to stop for the day to avoid going over their daily number of work hours. We agreed that this plane would be loaded first the following morning at 0600 (6:00 AM) and ready for takeoff at 0700. While all of this was going on, all other MSF cargo (and all other NGO cargo) was being prepared onto flight pallets in a similar way. The next morning, the loadies (loading crews) got to work at 0600 getting the first round of flights ready to go. I was prepping for morning logistics briefings when Rolfe, the Swedish air commander, burst into the ops room. He asked me where the Swedish flight was headed. I looked up to the white board, confirmed on the Google Spreadsheet, and triple-checked in my notebook that the plane was headed to Guiuan with 30,000 pounds of MSF cargo aboard. He nodded his head indicating that he had the same, but told me that I needed to get out to the plane right away. He told me that the plane had the wrong cargo. I looked down at my watch and realized we had 15 minutes to sort this problem out.
It was a one-minute sprint out to the airplane but I ran through all our backup options in my head. Clearly, something had gone wrong with the loading process and our options were threefold; reload the proper cargo (which could mean losing the flight since we would lose our takeoff and landing times and we would have to retask a loading crew to do this, throwing off the entire planned loading process pushing most cargos back 24 hours), take off and deliver whatever cargo was on board (at this point the cargo could have been anything), or try to get a new flight plan. As I mentioned earlier, getting a new flight plan was not easy. The time taken to do this could mean losing the flight entirely, meaning that someone in Manila would decide that they didn’t want to deal with a change and just scrap the flight off the daily roster. If this happened, we would have to unload the plane some point during the day, potentially losing the mid-day and evening flights we had planned for the Swedish aircraft.
As I ran, I put my earplugs in, knowing that the plane’s engines would be on with all four propellers turning given that it was less than 15 minutes to takeoff. I arrived at the aircraft in full sweat (it was 110 degrees outside, plus I sweat more than most people on this planet anyways) and was met at the side door by the crew chief. He motioned me back to the cargo bay. The first thing I saw was a pallet loaded with cargo marked with the letter T. Rolfe was right- there was Tacloban cargo on the Guiuan flight. I climbed up on the pallet so that I could see the loadmaster in the rear of the aircraft. He had just finished checking every pallet and waved to get my attention. He started pointing at each pallet using his arms to make a T or using his hand to make a G. There was one Guiuan pallet in the middle of the plane. The rest were all Tacloban pallets. I climbed down from the pallet and ran up into the cockpit to talk with the pilot. I got on the radio and called to Rolfe confirming that we had six pallets for Tacloban and one for Guiuan. I asked to be patched through (connected) to Colonel Santiago. I made a top priority request up to Manila for a flight plan change. Col Santiago asked where we needed the plane to go. I asked the pilot how much fuel we had and after some quick math he and the loadmaster (who was now up in the cockpit with us) confirmed that we didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Guiuan, Tacloban, and back. I asked if we could take on the extra fuel and they responded with a thumbs up. I radioed for an extra landing slot in Tacloban (which almost were never granted due to constant crowding of the runway). Col Santigo said to give him five minutes. We waited the five minutes with the engines at full throttle in case the request was denied. Col Santigo came back on the radio five minutes later, as promised, and said we had a green light to Tacloban and discussed the landing time with the pilots, who immediately throttled down the engines so they could take on more fuel. We called the other AFP Major on duty for fuel and he radioed the fuel truck to retask it off another aircraft. We worked out a plan for the C-130 to take off from Mactan 20 minutes late (to finish refueling), fly to Guiuan and offload the first two Tacloban pallets with the Guiuan pallet, use the US Marine Corps forklift (that had just arrived to the Guiuan airstrip) to reload the two Tacloban pallets, take off from Guiuan, and land at Tacloban 30 minutes later. I gave everyone the thumbs up and sprinted back inside to deal with the next issue of the day. That entire changeup had taken 20 minutes. Every day was full, 20 hours, nonstop, of those 20 minute fixes, but that’s what happens when you have cargo from one of three identical nonprofits being loaded onto a Swedish plan by two Korean loading crews using Australian, New Zealand, and British equipment. Despite the chaos we experienced every day, the level of teamwork and cooperation was unparalleled, and it was all done to help people they had never met from a completely different country. It was beautiful.
I’d like to share two historic moments (one smaller and one much more significant globally) that I witnessed while at Mactan. First, on the topic of MSF, I want to share a potentially historic moment of MSF-military collaboration I witnessed take place. I say potentially because I imagine there has been some collaboration between MSF and foreign militaries in the past. I was told by each of our three MSF leads on the ground that this response was the first time MSF had ever moved cargo via military transport. When I first heard this, I was shocked, but quickly realized that this wasn’t all-too-impossible because of MSF’s fierce independence and neutrality. When MSF first arrived, they immediately turned away from military resources, instead looking for their own means of transport. I knew that this civilian avenue would be impossible for at least the first week because all logistics movement was performed by the AFP, whether by sea or air because of the degraded conditions of the runways and docks. I remember having many long conversations with Mario, my main partner with MSF, about how difficult it would be to move things via military transport. My background in humanitarian operations stems from public health and in another life wanted to be an emergency medicine physician. I also cut my teeth in this field working under, and learning from, an emergency physician with decades of military disaster response experience. Mario and I spoke the same language from the beginning and I understood his needs. We worked to find a comfort level of risk and build relationships between Mario, his team, and military personnel at Mactan. In some ways, we peeled the masks off each group of people in helping military personnel fully understand the medical needs and requirements and in helping the medical personnel understand the military mission and culture. Facilitating and building this relationship was probably my proudest accomplishment. There were times when I was not present that I caught MSF personnel and military air crews in full argument of movement and loading of cargo. I stepped in well over a dozen times to sort through and clear up the issue. At the end of the day, it came down to helping those who needed help, and not about organizational policies, personalities, and egos. The military crews and MSF were all dedicated to providing humanitarian relief and, at the end of the day, the military crews were the best at moving supplies quickly and efficiently. It was a wonderful, fascinating partnership to watch.
One of the most mind-blowing things I have ever seen was the inflatable MSF field hospital that we flew in to Guiuan. It came completely palletized on aircraft pallets and took three full aircraft flights to move. It was also completely sterile. Getting the hospital to Mactan was also a challenge because of its size. It had to be stored off-base because of its size and inability to fit on the cargo ramp, and coordinating the drivers, trucks, forklifts, and airplanes to all be ready at the exact moment they were needed was near-impossible. The first time we came close, the truck drivers hadn’t shown up to work because they had gotten drunk the night before. From that point on, Mario made sure they were paid and ready-to-go 24/7.
The second historical moment I witnessed was the arrival of the Japanese Self-Defense Force to Mactan. They brought a very large contingent. World War II is still very much alive for many Filipinos. I swear that Douglas MacArthur is still, today, the most popular person in the country. According to many of the Filipino political and military leaders at Mactan, the arrival of the Japanese contingent (encompassing ground, sea, and air forces) to Mactan culminated the largest deployment of Japanese military assets since World War II.
Focusing on building relationships between the civilian leads and military points of contact was critical. Normally, in disaster relief, the World Food Program (WFP) serves as the United Nations lead for logistics as the head of the Logistics Cluster. It took a while for WFP to arrive on scene, and once they did, they were focused almost entirely on moving their own foodstuffs. A little over a week after I arrived, Sean, the WFP logistics coordinator and “systems guy” arrived. Sean is an American who grew up as the son of a diplomat. I thought he was my age but I think he was about 15 years older…must have been his energy, enthusiasm, and that pep in his step. He and I hit it off right away and began mapping the information and supply landscapes. We both spoke the language of process mapping and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to find a kindred spirit who hated inefficiency, understood resource optimization, lean six sigma, and kaizen (lookup the Toyota Production System if what I just said lost you. It is fascinating and will change how you look at the world. If it doesn’t, maybe I’m just a crazy person). Our goal was to understand every movement that a relief item made once it arrived in the Philippines. We wanted to create a standard operating procedure for every process, every moving piece, and every variable in the operation. The good news was that I had been mapping the landscape for a week before Sean’s arrival, so I had many of the steps mapped out and the relationships built.
While trying to learn the strategic objectives and map the processes, my role became tactical almost immediately. I started to coordinate ground movements of supplies. 747, C-17, C-130, and Antonov aircraft began arriving full of supplies. In many cases, there was nobody at the base to receive the cargo. We had to clear space for additional aircraft to land and needed to sort and organize supplies. We were constantly short of forklifts, forklift drivers, or both. I taught myself how to drive forklifts at world-record speed and I was often moving supplies around at 0500 (5:00 AM) to prep for the day’s flights. We had 5-ton and 10-ton forklifts. Thank the good lord that safety inspectors weren’t anywhere to be seen. I probably violated just about every rule in the book and then some more beyond that. Depending on the load, we needed one of the big guys (20-ton) and they were in high demand. Supplies arriving by air were packed on wooden pallets that were then placed on 747 aircraft pallets. We had to unpack the 747 pallets and build loads for the C-130 pallets. Once a 747 pallet load was broken down (meaning everything was just sitting on wooden pallets), the C-130 ground crews would build their loads. DHL’s disaster response team arrived a few days after I did and their support and leadership was vital to the success of the entire operation. They made everything tick and I let them do what they did best: move stuff. Chris (an efficient Aussie) and Fionn (the happiest and most energetic Irishman you’ve ever seen- which says a lot, I know) were the glue that held it all together. With their logistics expertise, they immediately started to organize the “ramp” (part of the tarmac closest to the operations center that was reserved for cargo). Slow moving supplies were kept furthest from the aircraft and the “fast lane” allowed us space to break down pallets that needed to go on aircraft in the next 24 hours. DHL helped to coordinate forklift movement and prioritization. By being a neutral agent that was focused entirely on effective movement of cargo, they treated all NGOs and military priorities equally, helping to keep competition for forklifts at a minimum. DHL’s professionalism, efficiency, and skill quickly earned them respect with the military crews and their neutrality and equitable distribution of assistance earned them respect with the NGOs. Working with the DHL team was almost too much fun. Anytime I had a problem or some last-minute chaos, they’d look at me, smile, and say “is that it?” to which I would respond “for now!” with an even bigger smile back as I ran off to go break something else.
Haiyan displaced millions of people and those most seriously impacted were those from Tacloban, Guiuan, and Ormoc. As soon as planes carrying relief supplies arrived, people were trying to get onboard. The AFP had to setup a security perimeter at each airstrip to ensure the safety of relief personnel as well as to make sure evacuees didn’t themselves get injured trying to board aircraft or helicopters. The mass of people was enormous. Often, there were 5,000 people piled up trying to get on planes. Some nations were originally not permitted to bring evacuees out on their aircraft. Once the policy folks were made aware of this gross oversight, these policies were quickly reversed so that each country’s aircraft could carry people out. An empty C-130 could carry anywhere from approximately 10-200 people, depending on how it was rigged, how much fuel it was carrying, and the aggressiveness of the load master. Everyone had to have a seat, meaning that something could strap them down. One could be strapped into a fold-down bench along the side of the aircraft. These benches were used when the plane was outfitted to carry aircraft pallets. We couldn’t strap people onto an aircraft pallet and thus on these flights when a plane was loaded for pallets. On these flights, we could bring back about 40 people, depending on the number of benches. If a plane delivered loose cargo such as food sacks, the entire floor space could be used to strap in people on the return trip. This was when we could really move large numbers of people out. For every four or five palletized loads that we sent to a destination, we would try to send a loose load in order to keep evacuations moving smoothly. This also created some form of reliability in the humanitarian air service. Given our volume of flights, we would usually have a morning, afternoon, and evening flight dedicated to carrying out evacuees and responders.
Getting evacuees out from the impacted areas quickly became an easy process. Once we got them to Mactan, many wanted to go elsewhere to stay with family or friends and that became a much more problematic issue. There were also a lot of people who evacuated to Clark airbase and they usually wanted to go elsewhere. At any point in time, there were at least 500 people waiting and holding in a fenced-in area at Mactan. We would regularly use U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) V-22 Ospreys to move people to or from Clark airbase.
We also learned quickly that many young people who had evacuated wanted to return home. This proved to be a much more problematic issue than evacuating them or moving them around outside of the affected areas. There was a group of about 200 evacuees who had been in a holding facility on Mactan for 72 hours. They were the first people we had evacuated from Tacloban. It turns out that they had evacuated to purchase food, water, and essential medical supplies for sick and homebound relatives. They all wanted to return home to get these life-saving supplies to their family members. The evacuees had been sitting for 72 hours because the perspective of the responders was that while noble, the intentions of the evacuees were misguided because none of them were carrying more than a few days-worth of food and water. This would mean that the evacuees would again become victims and need to be rescued another time. I heard about these evacuees from Commander Enriquez of the Philippine Navy. He told me there was an issue with some of the evacuees that I might be able to help with. I brought along Heath (the U.S. Army Chief) to see what we could make happen. The evacuees were sitting in a courtyard inside a barbed-wire-lined metal fence. I was let in to the courtyard by the armed guard who was posted at the gate. As soon as I entered, I was swarmed by about 30 teenagers who wanted to tell me their story. Every one of them had a similar story; they evacuated and had a mother, father, uncle, aunt, or grandparent who desperately needed some special medicine (most often insulin). Most medical personnel who deployed in to the affected areas were most concerned with trauma rather than chronic, pre-existing medical issues. In almost every family’s case, medical responders hadn’t even reached the areas where the diabetic patients lived. These kids had evacuated to Cebu, gone into town to buy whatever they needed, and wanted to go back home. I thought to myself that I would have done exactly the same as these kids, and I would have done everything in my power to get back home. Being a responder, I also saw the other side of the coin.
As I thought, I also realized that we were on the clock. The Philippines has the highest social media penetration (percent of population) in the world. All of these kids were on their phones trying to reach their family members. Some kids had sporadic contact with relatives, but by this point in time, the relative’s phones had died due to lack of power for charging. The last words many of these kids heard were that they needed to hurry back home before that family member had died. I was quickly convinced of the need to get these kids home. I also realized that we could map out where these kids lived so that we could direct future relief teams and items to follow up on these families. In a way, we could use these kids as information gatherers and responders themselves. The reality was that while response leadership was concerned about these kids becoming victims again, many responders would arrive with only several days-worth of supplies, and at most, a week. All of these groups would expect resupply from either their organization or from the general relief operation. In this light, the evacuees were no differently prepared than the responders.
I left the compound with a promise that I would return as quickly as possible. I left Heath behind so that he could start writing down names of people who needed to go back, what they needed to bring with them, and where they needed to go. I found General Santiago and told him the plan I had and he agreed and gave me the green light. I now needed to find a flight crew that would take people. As I mentioned before, there was a lot more red tape putting foreign nationals on outbound military flights, especially since these flight logs were recorded much more closely and a lot of foreign ministry officials were present at Mactan overseeing the types of cargo that moved on their planes. Bringing people back was easy for the primary reason that as soon as the plane landed, they could be offloaded quickly from out on the airstrip and herded, single-file, off the tarmac.
I found Chuck, the irritable but clearly-in-charge Australian Navy Chief who was in charge of the Australian relief effort for the first few days of the response. Every time I went up to Chuck, I had to get ready to plead my case. He owned his aircraft but he was very restrictive and not a disaster responder by trade. Per usual, as soon as I asked my question, he took a deep breath, leaned back, looked his clipboard, and starting pointing as me while he talked. When I asked if we could start moving evacuees back home, you would have thought that I was asking him for money a day after robbing him. He started with the usual “now let me tell you” and went on about how this would be impossible and broke this rule and that law and that other policy. I asked him if we could ask the Australian AID (Agency for International Development and now a defunct agency) representatives. Fortunately, they were standing right next to us. Before he answered, I threw the question at them, and they said it could be possible as long as we documented who was on the plane. I told them that we were already getting names. Chuck then asked me how many needed to go. I realized 200 would be a big number for him to deal with right now so I asked “how many can you take?” He repeated the question “how many need to go?” I responded “I think 50?” He said “now let me tell you…that is way too many!” I responded with “how about 30?” He said “Ok, but how much stuff do they have?” I thought back to the courtyard. The reality was that each person had about 5 large bags or cardboard boxes. I asked again “how much can they bring?” He said, “no more than one bag, and that is pushing it.” I told him I’d make that work and get him a list of names ASAP.
I ran back to the courtyard and told Heath the news. He confirmed that we had about 200 people who wanted to go back to Tacloban and I let him know that we could only start with 30. He said “you’re going to have a riot on your hands.” I realized we would need the Commander to keep some order and explain this to everyone. I ran back to the bar (my desk) and found Commander Enriquez. I pulled him out of a meeting and headed back to the courtyard explaining the situation. Commander Enriquez and I realized that we would need the group of evacuees to prioritize among themselves. We had no way to know who had family members in most need of medical assistance so they’d have to vote on it themselves. Commander Enriquez explained the situation to the group saying that we could only take 30 and they could each only bring one bag/box. The news wasn’t received well but we figured we would give them 10 minutes to figure it out. We left the courtyard and came back in. Two leaders had emerged and they said they could get a list of 30 and that each person would bring one box. An Australian came over and told me that we had 10 minutes to get everyone ready to go because the plane that had been cleared to take everyone was leaving in 10. If we missed this plane, there wouldn’t be another shot for another 24 hours. Now we had to rush. The way everyone started moving and repacking made me think of wartime evacuations. Things started flying out of bags with people comparing what was in their left hand to the item in their right. People started giving medicines to the group of 30, writing down addresses and names. Someone asked me for my full name and I handed him my business card which I carried in my left breast pocket in a plastic bag to keep from sweating through it.
We formed a line and marched everyone double time to the edge of the tarmac. Heath handed the list of names to the Australian and we got a thumbs up to walk everyone to the plane. Chuck walked out from the bar and looked angrier than usual. He yelled “this is NOT one bag per person.” A few folks had snuck in a second bag or had a backpack and a box. I looked at Chuck square in the eyes and said, “we need to make this work or you can explain to the General why these kids didn’t get on the plane.” I quickly followed that up with “Oh, and then explain to the kid that their parent died because they had two bags instead of one. The plane has space.” Chuck glared back at me and we kept walking the line to the plane. Once we reached the plane, the loadmaster came out and I leaned in and yelled in his ear over the engine noise “they have a few more bags than expected, can we take them?” He replied with a big thumbs up. I ran back inside to deal with the next problem. As I ran, I heard Chuck saying, “next time, one bag means one bag.” Some fights in life aren’t worth it, especially when you’re both on the same team trying to help save lives. Egos and pissing matches are just dumb. Leave your ego and agenda at home.
This flight began the re-entry process and almost every flight from that point onwards had returnees onboard. Heath managed the whole process brilliantly and worked like a day trader getting people five people on a flight here, and two people on a helicopter there, and then five more on an Osprey with two-minute’s notice. A few days later, when I checked Facebook, I had about 60 friend requests. They were all from kids in the courtyard who saw my business card who had been able to get back home and make it to their relatives in time. I’m pretty sure I accepted all of them and most wrote notes thanking us for saving the life of their family member. Even while evacuating from Haiyan, everyone was on their cell phone: texting, updating statues, and uploading pictures. I didn’t fully comprehend the level of social media use until I got caught in the middle of it.
The little things
As I wrote in the beginning of this story, telling the story of Haiyan in a chronological order won’t work. The main reason is that I don’t remember which day most things happened, but I also think that vignettes do more justice to the story. Here are a few:
On the days that I was able to sleep, I had a hotel room that was about 10 minutes away from the airbase. The way I got to work was that I walked outside and got into the police car that was waiting outside. As best I can tell, every hour that I was in the hotel, there was a car waiting for me. I never had to call and they were always waiting for me. The car usually had three police officers and me. They all looked to be about 18 and each carried an M-16 assault rifle. One morning, they were in an unusually chipper mood and had the radio on. Cher came on, and the guy riding shotgun immediately tuned the radio up to full blast. They all started singing and put all the windows down. It may have been my massive sleep deprivation, but I just started laughing and started singing along. I don’t even remember the song and I didn’t know the words, but nobody cared. There we were, the four amigos flying down Cebu streets and right past the guard at the gate who gave us a giant wave. I think Cher blasting out of the windows doubles as lights and sirens in Cebu because that morning we made our ten-minute drive in five.
The Barf Bag
On one flight back from Tacloban, there were about 80 people belt-strapped (think seatbelts that go directly into the floor) in an Australian C-130. Most of these people had been waiting to evacuate for about three days. They had been standing in the sun and sleeping in place outside waiting for a ride out. It was a stormy day with low cloud cover and very poor visibility so the airplanes had a tough time landing and a few actually had to abort their landings. The flight crew loaded everyone up onto the plane. They handed all the kids earplugs (for the first week of the operation, there were not enough earplugs for everyone so we prioritized kids because of the sound of the plane engines). The plane sat on the runway for about 30 minutes waiting to get clearance for takeoff from the U.S. Air Force Combat Controllers. Once taking off, the turbulence was terrible and people started throwing up left and right. There were only a few airsick bags so the crew didn’t want to distribute them unequally. One person asked the loadmaster for an airsick bag and a pen. Confused, he went and grabbed one and thought it odd that all the passengers were passing it around not using it. When the plane landed, everyone sat quietly until unstrapped by the crew. The flight crew was lined up outside the plane to see everyone off safely. As the passengers exited, every single person (most covered in vomit) thanked every single crew member with a handshake. The last person off the plane handed the airsick bag (not used) to the pilot. The top of the bag said “Thank you for saving our lives.” Every single person on the flight had signed it. Once everyone had cleared the tarmac, the pilot passed the bag around to each crew member. The loadmaster, normally a very tough and playful guy, sat down and cried. When I talked to him later that afternoon, he told me that he’d never before in his life felt so good. He also said something that will stick with me forever “Filipinos are unbelievable. They’ve been through hell and back, they’ve lost everything, including family members, they’ve thrown up all over themselves, and they still are smiling and thanking us. We have a lot to learn.”
The Search and Rescue Sack Race
Sacks on sacks on sacks. I’ve described these 60-pound beauties before, but when you move thousands in a day, and often by hand, over your shoulder, you gain a new appreciation for them. After your first thousand, carrying one becomes second-nature. A slow bend of the legs, a tight core, a hand around the twine-tied neck, one hand grasping the bottom, and a twisting motion much like the reverse of swinging an ax, and the sack is over your shoulder. You might be a left shoulder type of person or a right. You might even be ambidextrous! A crew of a dozen could load and secure a plane with sacks in about 20 minutes. The fastest record I clocked was 17 minutes, and it was set by the PNP loading team one morning. I had previously bet Rofle, our Swedish team commander, that it could be done in under 20 minutes and he didn’t think it possible. The bet was one cold beer, and I celebrated this small victory by splitting the bottle with him.
Loading a plane in 17 minutes wasn’t enough for the PNP teams. They wanted challenges wherever they could find them. Challenges were easy to come by with so many international relief personnel sitting around waiting for mission taskings and assignments. Search and Rescue (SAR) teams were always milling about. One thing I’ll never understand is how national governments think that Search and Rescue continues ten or more days after a disaster. We must have had a dozen SAR teams show up well after a week after the typhoon made landfall. The teams do give governments great press, and are a wonderful way to show good will and solidarity. Very few, if any, rescues occur more than a week after a disaster strikes. The best SAR teams are kitted, outfitted, and deployed within hours post-impact. They arrive on the ground one or two days after impact and do have some rescues. I use the word some intentionally, because most rescues are due to local teams and neighbors digging people out of rubble. The most cost-effective (currency in this case being lives saved instead of cash) use of foreign personnel is almost always with well-equipped medical teams. Medical teams often travel much-lighter and with a lower profile than search and rescue teams, they are more easily-able to sustain themselves, and they can reach more people and impact more lives.
Despite this disconnect, SAR teams still show up. When they show up to a staging area like Mactan, they take up a lot of space and then the wait for their assignment. Like most responders, they want to go downrange immediately and help. The problem is, they usually arrive unannounced, and because of their space requirements, they take up several aircraft with their people and gear. When aircraft are preassigned a day in advance, this can mean that a SAR team will be hanging around for a few days. Most SAR personnel that I have ever worked with are firefighters. They’re funny, energetic, strong-willed, kind, and always willing to lend a hand.
What pairs well in the middle of a disaster? SAR teams and sacks. When you have thousands of heavy bags and a bunch of bored strong men and women milling about, put them to work. Very quickly, you’ll see that you have a bunch of free labor at your fingertips. In fact, you’ll actually find that they’re loading sacks before you can even turn around.
One afternoon, a South African SAR team showed up. As they waited, several of them paired up with some Filipino National Police officers and started loading a C-130. What started out as a relaxed loading process quickly turned into a heated strength and speed competition. By the time I heard the cheers and made it over to the aircraft, there were about 150 people going crazy. It felt like the Olympics as I counted representation from about a dozen countries. All eyes quickly turned to one South African, who was trying to clock a world record for sack loading time. A female SAR team member joined him and starting picking up the pace. A tiny Filipino police officer joined them and kept pace. They each picked up two sacks a piece and kept up the breakneck rhythm. Between the aircraft engines and the cheers of the group, I felt like I was in a stadium packed to the brim. The group erupted when an even-tinier female PNP officer picked up two sacks and ran them into the aircraft. With no officials to call the race, the flight crew picked the clear winner and the policewoman was hoisted up by the multinational team and everyone broke down in laughter and hugs. She was awarded grand prize, which was, I believe, a sun-baked bottle of water an airman found lying in the cockpit of the plane.
The Dream Team
The most amazing thing about my time at Mactan was the team of people with which I had the pleasure and honor of working. I served under General Santiago, working within his scope and vision. He allowed me to be innovative and his authority provided me great flexibility and decision-making power. I would never have been able to accomplish my mission without a strong and tight-knit core team. Keno (pronounced Ken-O, short for his last name, Kennedy), the lead Royal Australian Air Force loadmaster, became a close friend and partner. His leadership was invaluable and he could load, unload and balance an aircraft in his sleep. He is the most light-hearted guy you’ve ever met, and even in the face of great pressure or stress, he is all smiles. There were countless times I’d coming running in from the flight line complaining about some terrible problem or breakdown. Keno would look at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and say, “it’s all good mate. We’ll get ‘er straightened out.” Keno replaced the irratble Chuck and it was a night-to-day attitude transition. With a nod of his head and a quick explanation, he could get anybody to snap to work: it didn’t matter what country they were from. My favorite Keno moment was when the Japanese C-130 arrived. During its taxi on the tarmac, the Japanese plane clipped the tail of one of the two Australian C-130s. Keno and I both got the news at the same time. We both screamed “WHAT?!” I immediately started re-planning the flights for the next three days. After he put his eyes back into their sockets, Keno headed outside to inspect the damage. He walked back inside with the two Australian pilots and, slapping them each on the back, said “look at that, you get the day off!” When I asked him how bad the damage was, he said “well we just need a new tail. You packed one with you in your carry-on right?” Later that day, while working on flight plans, he looked up, with his pencil tucked into his cap, and said “somebody needs to teach those blokes how to drive!” and then looked right back down at his pad of paper. Keno’s ability to stay calm in the face of extreme stress, and more importantly (to me at least), was his ability to find humor in just about any situation. I’m sure some famous person once said that laugher cures all. They were right.
Aiding in the comedy were two American service members with whom I was locked at the hip. Jimmy, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations major, and Heath, a Chief Warrant Officer (CW4) with the U.S. Army, were serving in the role of coordinating U.S. assets at Mactan. While not technically assigned as civil affairs personnel (we never could find civ-mil teams to support operations at Mactan), they were both sharp, wicked-funny, and very good at their jobs. Jimmy could be found running around with an aircraft headset around his neck and his iPhone in his hand. He was constantly texting U.S. military air crews to get estimated times for arrival (ETAs), cargo loads, cargo capacities, fuel loads, and destinations.
Heath always had a clipboard in hand. He was always calm, smiling, and cracking jokes with a clipboard in-hand. If you changed the scenery, he could have been the most successful bookie the world has ever known. He moved slowly- always scheming (I was always yelling at him to keep up, and he never once joined me on a sprint across the base). His scheme was how many passengers he could move and on which aircraft they could be moved. Heath excelled at filling every conceivable space with either an evacuee, a returnee, an aid worker, a camera crew, a medical team, or cargo. Next time I move my apartment, he’s in charge of packing the loading van. Heath got people onto flights that were overflowing.
In addition to Keno, Heath, Jimmy, and Sean, there were numerous other core team members; Butch (Col Guevara, Philippine Air Force), Mark (Commander, Philippine Navy), Mario from MSF, Henrik (lead on the ground for WFP), Joel (UNHCR), Cam from the Royal Australian Air Force, Sylvie and Matt from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Rolfe from Sweden, Sean from the WFP, and Chris and Fionn from DHL. . The beautiful thing about this team of world-class human beings was that I never once saw someone’s ego get in the way. You notice that I call everyone by their first names. I knew and respected their rank (I grew up in a military family and currently have a brother who is active-duty Air Force), but I actually noticed that most military personnel were referring to each other on a first-name basis. Despite widely different life paths, careers, specialties, and ranks, I saw this group of people come together in a way rarely seen in this world; actually and truly dedicated to helping people and working together with a singular focus to make that happen. I think that most people spend their lives looking for and hoping to be a part of that kind of a selfless and effective team. Some days it just looked like magic. I was blessed to be a part of it all.
I have so many lessons learned that I’m not exactly sure where to start so I’ll just start and see where it goes. I will try to organize these thoughts categorically in bullet-point fashion. Some of these may seem small and obvious, but they are often forgotten, and when they are, they can break a response.
- Establish your battle rhythm early. In the U.S., and in many parts of the world, teams leverage the Incident Command System (ICS). It is worth training your teams on ICS, which teaches you to organize around a term called the operational period.
- Define your priorities (highest level goals- like medical, food, sanitation, and water), then objectives (What, Where, and When), then strategies (adds in How you will accomplish your objectives), then tactics (adds in Who will accomplish those objectives and strategies). This is another principle within ICS. We do this every day in the Red Cross. It works.
- Establish a clear chain of command and organizational chart that define roles and responsibilities, post those in an easy-to-view area, and share them.
- Power. Lift. Focus first on establishing solid, two-way communications with your teams. Second, focus on establishing power and reliable energy. Third, focus on lift. Lift is movement- by land, air, or sea- and getting things and people from Point A, to Point B, to Point C.
- Realize that in most international responses, civilians will be in charge, but the military will have the resources to get the job done- especially when it comes to logistics. Respect this duality, and integrate civil-military liaisons early and anywhere and in any critical coordination point.
- Figure out who your fixers are. There will always be some people who just seem to be able to make anything happen. Leverage their talents to the full potential but make sure they feel appreciated/rewarded.
- If you don’t understand a subject area (such as medicine, water sanitation, aircraft operations, etc.), find someone who does, keep them close, and make them your best friend. Learn everything you can from them and be a sponge.
- Share information. Share it early and share it often. People are always hesitant to share. If you are the first to do it, you’ll set a healthy precedent and others will be much more likely to share back with you
- Leverage a common platform. Every team will come to the response with their own system. Pick the one that is most-common and/or works best for leadership.
- Back up your data
- Leverage the internet where you can, but plan for offline.
- Building relationships ahead of time is golden. Training and planning around common systems is mission critical, but it isn’t always possible. If everyone comes in with different systems, pick a platform early, and stick to it, driving everyone onto that platform. The pain you experience early will pay off many times over in a short period of time.
- One of the quickest ways to go downhill and fade when things get tough is to not drink enough water. I can’t emphasize this enough.
- Keep food with you at all times. Meals may be few and far between, but without calories, your brain doesn’t work as well and you will make poor decisions. If you don’t have time to focus on food, delegate it and have people bring you food and make you eat it.
- There is always more to do that can get in the way of your sleep, but if you don’t sleep, your energy levels drop, your reaction time decreases, and your ability to make decisions degrades rapidly.
- Take time to think. There will always be things happening, and chaos will be swirling around you constantly. You need time with your own thoughts. You may need to yell, scream, shout, laugh, or cry. Taking your own time to think will help you to reset, maintain a calm balance, keep your spirit and energy levels up, and function more effectively.
- Exercise resets your body, cleanses toxins, moves lactic acid throughout your body, helps make you more alert, and release tension, among many other things. Don’t feel like you have to run a marathon. Even 15 minutes a day of small things like pushups, pullups, squats, jumping jacks, or situps can make you feel like new.
- Remember that everything is a trade-off. Realize that you will never be simultaneously hydrated enough, full on meals, adequately rested, in top shape, or at peace internally. Despite this reality, keep trying for balance.
Supplies (I could go on for hours about supplies, but here are a few quick, easy, and common things)
- Order a whiteboard and many colors of markers
- Get a printer up and running quickly
- Make the local internet service provider technician an early best friend
- Carry a set of at least four radios and headsets
- Have someone get a generator in place with plenty of spare fuel
- You can never have too many power strips and extension cords
- Map the ideal process
- Map the current, or initial process
- Identify gaps, shortfalls, and inefficiencies in the process
- Bring decision-makers to the table and work to get buy-in and agreement around inefficiencies.
- Fix one problem at a time
- Identify a critical supply flow path so that supplies do not get clogged, backlogged, or slowed-down
- Have people label cargo- giant permanent markers and duct tape are great for labeling
- Become best friends with forklift drivers. Find the person who owns the forklifts and get them to agree to let you drive the forklifts
- If anyone asks “do you need any more forklifts,” your answer should always be yes!
- Leave the keys in the forklifts and make sure they are always fueled up
- Establish a “ramp” that is reserved for the fastest moving cargo
- Establish an area with “fluff” cargo- meaning supplies that can go anywhere at any time and that has no restrictions. You can always use this cargo to fill loads
- If you are moving people- keep them in a staging area so you always know how to find them at the last minute
- Build a map of your logistics and cargo space. If you can make this dynamic- perhaps on a whiteboard, you can move vehicles, cargo, and teams around in real-time. Dedicate someone to this map/whiteboard who is tasked with keeping everything up-to-date
- Define your battle-rhythm/operational period early
- Establish priorities, objectives, strategies, and tactics that fit within each operational period and that may change between operational periods (take Incident Command System, Incident Action Plan training to better understand what these mean)
- Create an Incident Action Plan that includes your priorities, objectives, strategies, tactics, maps, contact rosters, and meeting schedule at a bare minimum
- Plan at least one day out.
- An ideal schedule looks like this:
- In the early morning, review your priorities and objectives only with senior operations, logistics, and planning leadership (Operational Planning Meeting)
- Following this meeting, let each team work on their strategies and tactics for the next day
- After that, hold another meeting (Tactics Meeting), still in the morning, that finalize the operations strategies and tactics for the next operational period
- Following this meeting, give your planning team time to finalize the action plan for the next operational period
- In the early afternoon, review and approve your incident action plan in a Planning Meeting with senior operations, logistics, and planning staff
- In the late afternoon or early evening, brief the following operational period’s plan to the full team in an Operations Briefing
UN, Government of the Philippines (AFP and NDRRMC), and U.S.
(Note: I fully realize that writing about potential lessons learned for the AFP, NDRRMC, UN, and U.S. is a touchy, highly political subject. I am writing this based on my own observations under no influence of outside actors. I would be neglecting my humanitarian duty if I did not include these lessons learned. My intention here is not to cast blame, but to affect change. I also realize that I do not have the full picture and that decisions were made above my head, but at the same time, I was serving at the tip of the spear, as one of the forward decision makers. If I didn’t know of something, it means it was not communicated up or down effectively. Many people suffered and died as a result of imperfect operations and poor or delayed decision-making and my hope is that through these observations and lessons learned we, as a team, can prevent further death and suffering in the future during the next disaster)
- The absolute biggest problem we encountered was the lack of communications up to Manila and to downrange air fields. This should be a top priority for resolution
- Manila: Some group of AFP personnel called the shots on flights, times, and landing slots. Our base of operations at Mactan was the largest hub of flights outside of Clark airbase (as far as we know). We believe that we flew more flights than Clark but I have still not been able to confirm this. I even managed to connect with several U.S. Air Force Colonels who ended up being based out of Clark. It seemed that once anyone got to Clark, they went radio silent and we couldn’t get any information from them by either email or phone. This, by itself, is a huge issue. At Cebu, we were tasked to run the international response operations yet the majority of U.S. assets (aside from the V-22s and the occasional C-130) were operating independently of the coordinated, global effort. Additionally, it appeared that rather than listening to our requirements, the AFP operations in Manila were making decisions in a vacuum.
- Downrange: The way that we learned of field requirements was to specifically task an air crew to ask several questions when they landed downrange at any one of our six airfields. They would ask questions of AFP, PNP, international NGO, and U.S. military personnel. The air crews would then bring this information back several hours later on pieces of paper and in their heads. We did our best to piece everything together but we never had solid, real-time communications with information collection teams on the ground who could have fed us endless, useful intel about the status of infrastructure and targeted needs on the ground. This could have been established through satellite phones or internet connected to a laptop. This could have been done by any number of teams.
- Imagery and Analysis/Planning Unit
- To say that we were flying blind in terms of our tactical supply distribution decision-making capabilities wouldn’t be too far from the truth. We had hoped, from the beginning, to have useful satellite imagery to help determine the hardest-impacted areas by wind and storm surge. The Manila Observatory tried flying a small aircraft over the impacted area with limited success. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) contingent handed me a hard drive full of raw imagery that I was able to access for about one hour before they scooped it up and left Mactan in their 747. As I tried to look through the imagery, I realized that their imagery was 64-bit and my computer was 32-bit and I couldn’t do anything with the imagery. I also had about 30 other things to do during this hour. I know that the UN Charter for Space and International Disasters was activated during Haiyan and this made imagery available from a large number of sources.
- The International Crisis Mappers network, established shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, was not tied into our operations at Mactan. It is possible that this intel was used elsewhere on small scales by individual organizations or the UN, but I couldn’t find a single person (UN or otherwise) on the ground who was working with this group or leveraging crowd-sourced information. The information provided by this group was never operationalized. I am affiliated with this group but I had neither the time nor the bandwidth to coordinate with them. Going back post-Haiyan, I didn’t see all that much information that I could have readily made actionable had I spare cycles.
- Despite these numerous efforts, we had little bandwidth available for analysis at Mactan. The only time I had available to do any kind of planning or analysis was between the hours of 11 PM and 4 AM.
- We desperately needed a team of effective and intelligent planners and analysts, and we could have used them in our operations center at Mactan. This type of a team is a capability that should be planned, budgeted, and resourced for.
- Disaster Collaboration Center
- The Philippines desperately needs a national disaster collaboration center that has full participation from the private sector, the government, the AFP, nonprofits, and the international community. The Manila Observatory, because of its vast connections and high-level of trust throughout the country and around the world, is best positioned to lead this center. The biggest level of buy-in should come from the private sector because of its ability to move quickly, decisively, and because of its ability to support this level of collaboration financially.
- Unified Command
- One of the core tenets of the Incident Command System (ICS) is Unified Command. In almost every complex humanitarian emergency, having a single person in charge (Incident Commander) will be near-impossible to achieve. When multiple agencies have lead, these agencies should form a Unified Command structure where each organization’s lead is equally in charge, joined at the hip, and makes decisions only in concert with the other co-Incident Commanders.
- When I first arrived, the NDRRMC stated that they were in charge, that they had a plan, and that they were acting on that plan. After 24 hours, it was crystal clear to me that there were no decisions being made and that if there was a plan, it was not being shared with everyone. The political situation for General Santiago was a delicate one. At the time, we was serving as the deputy Civil Military lead for the AFP. He had been sent in to advise and lead if necessary, but hadn’t been given a green light to take charge. He knew full-well that the NDRRMC was supposed to be in charge and he wanted to respect that. After three days of nonstop briefings to senior Filipino civilian and military leadership describing the inaction, hesitancy, and lack of control exhibited at Mactan, he was finally given the green light to take charge. From that point forward, he was the commanding officer in charge of the humanitarian relief effort at Mactan. All civilian and military decisions flowed through him. As his deputy, my responsibility was to make things happen. Despite this authority, he still was not able to serve in a coordinated command and control structure with few clear orders, priorities, and objectives coming down from General Headquarters (GHQ) in Manila. In the future, and as General Santiago fully realized and acknowledges, this Incident Command responsibility should fall with the Office of Civil Defense (of which the NDRRMC is a component). The AFP has the logistical manpower and capability to make things happen, so perhaps a Unified Command structure makes the most sense. The OCD is now currently run by a competent leader who has vast experience serving with the Filipino Navy. This is a step in the right direction, but clear authorities, and designation of responsibilities needs to be presented and enacted.
- Civil Military Liaisons
- The U.S. has well-trained civil affairs teams that are available to respond to natural disasters globally. These teams are often, but not always, comprised of U.S. Army Special Forces personnel. During my entire time at Mactan, we did not have a civil affairs team. I routinely asked Jimmy, Heath, and anyone in a U.S. uniform I could find to locate any civil affairs personnel and get them to Mactan immediately. I was never able to find any or get any assigned to Mactan. It was only six months after Haiyan made landfall while at a civil-military conference speaking to cadets at West Point that I met civil affairs personnel who were assigned to the operation. I met two Army Special Forces captains who led teams on the ground in Tacloban. Why no one was ever assigned to Mactan remains a mystery to me.
- The UN also has civil-military liaisons to deploy to these types of disasters. There was an individual, Mark (former British Special Forces), who was assigned to Mactan, but he arrived approximately a week after me. Speeding up the deployment of these personnel should be escalated, and there should be one assigned to every major operations, planning, or logistics location where civilian and military personnel work together directly. In this case, these locations should have been, at a minimum, in Clark, Mactan, and each of the six downrange airfields.
- Holding Relief Supplies
- Both the WFP and UNHCR withheld aid to various locations. The leads on the ground at Mactan did everything in their power to move cargo to all areas, but evidently, in each organization, there were individuals (I believe at headquarters) who decided, for one reason or another, not to place program managers on the ground in certain sites (such as Guiuan and Ormoc). I also heard, through the grapevine, that these influential individuals were actually quite junior and not experienced logisticians or operators. The failure to place these program managers caused headquarters to hold aid for fear that it might “disappear” or be “misued.” This aid included food from WFP and shelters. The food was a paste that came as a hard block that needed water to be added. The shelters were individual family tents. For well over a week, we were not able to send aid to certain locations. The only way that we broke this was by me “accidentally” placing aid onto planes and informing the WFP and UNHCR personnel that I had made a mistake. This accident caused them to urge their chain of command to get a person on the ground immediately. Headquarters responded and program managers were on the ground rapidly. Knowing that this cause and effect would play out, I had planes already loaded and waiting for takeoff with food and shelter. Once these program managers were on the ground, we immediately hammered the neglected areas with this aid. Note that WFP was allowing the movement of high energy biscuits to all affected areas, but just restricting the movement of the paste. UNHCR was withholding the movement of all tents to certain areas. This inaction was the most frustrating part of my entire experience. If anyone reading this has more information or can enlighten me as to why these decisions were made, I am all ears.
- When people ask me “what did you learn?” from this experience, I always smile and laugh. My default answer would be “everything” but that never satisfies them. Appropriately answering this question forces me to dig down deep inside my psyche- to the core of who I am. When I think about what excites me the most in life, it is helping people and fixing big, complex problems in crisis environments. I value deep, meaningful relationships. My role in this response maxed me out in all those areas. This was, by far, the most I have ever been stretched personally or professionally. Prior to Haiyan, I had significant roles responding to large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Hurricane Sandy, but this response tested me in so many new ways.
- For two weeks, I was maxed out physically, mentally, and emotionally. I usually worked 20 hours daily. Even when I was supposed to be sleeping, I was planning, building, innovating, and strategizing. Due to our lack of unified communications, I resorted to running everywhere. Because of the urgency of each little task or problem, those runs usually turned into sprints. I think that I ran and sprinted seven miles daily in a humid, 110 degree F, sun-scorched heat. My brain was in overdrive; at any point in time I was storing, calculating, and role-playing cargo loads, logistics flows, and supply counts. There were times I was caught having four simultaneous conversations while holding a laptop in one hand and typing or placing a phone call in the other. To have a meeting with me, someone had to move with me. I’d often have three or four people walking alongside me while we all went to fix a problem somewhere. Did I get everything right? No way. Did I mess up? Absolutely. Did I give my all? Unquestionably.
- Not too long before the typhoon hit, I had gone through a very rough breakup with someone whom I loved very much. Ever since, I had been looking to rebuild that kind of deep, meaningful connection. This experience distracted me from the breakup and put my mind to rest. I fell in love with the Filipino people- with their kindness, their generosity, their smiles, their laughter, their humility, their resilience, and their way of life. I refocused on my internal dive and mission in life. As weird as it may sound, I broke through my shell and saw my full potential. I regained confidence and strength and realized that I could tackle a crisis of any size or complexity. I felt like I could accomplish anything, and based on what people told me, I realized that I could take on any challenge and conquer it.
- I’ve had numerous conversations with many of my closest friends about figuring out what we’re meant to do in this world, about finding our true passions, and maximizing our full potential. There was a point during my time in Cebu, probably about day ten, where I had that out-of-body “this is what I’m supposed to do with my life” moment. I remember exactly where I was standing. We had just finished loading an aircraft and I had a few spare minutes to breathe and think. You know those scenes in movies where inspirational music comes on, the character looks up at the sky, and the camera circles around them in their moment of triumph? That’s exactly what happened to me only there was no music and no camera. All of a sudden, it hit me. I was struck by the fact that I was world-class at what I was doing. I realized that I was doing the work of a dozen-person team. People had been telling me these things for almost two weeks but I had blocked it out. I try to stay humble and keep up the armor to brush off compliments, but at that moment, the words broke through the armor. Equally as important, as I looked around and did my own personal slow-motion movie circle looking at forklifts moving, trucks cruising by, aircraft engines starting up, planes taking off, and people running, I realized that there was no other place on Earth I’d rather be. This was the one exact spot in which I wanted to be standing, and this was the only work I wanted to be doing. The high I had during those five minutes of internal peace was something of which I had only dreamed. It hit me so hard I had to sit down and soak it in. I had found my calling and it floored me. I’ve been going off that high ever since.
- I returned to the Philippines for the first time post-Haiyan in late February, 2015 to speak at a conference on global resilience that was sponsored by Shell. I used this opportunity to work on some of the after action items mentioned throughout this piece. Having drinks with General Santiago (now a one-star General and the Commandant of the Command and General Staff College of the AFP- the equivalent of National Defense University) and his aides one night, he paused the conversation to ask me a question that had been on his mind for the past year and a half. He was under the impression that I had been visiting the Philippines on other business as Typhoon Haiyan struck and that I had agreed to help out. I told him that I came out specifically at the request of the Manila Observatory to support him. He looked me straight in the eyes and asked me “why did you come to help us.” After taking a second to realize he was dead serious, I answered “because there were people suffering, they needed help, and I knew I could help them.” He asked the question several more times, in different ways, yet I responded identically. After the fourth round of interrogation, I read him a quote that sits inscribed on a memorial outside of Red Cross headquarters. It reads “wherever disaster calls there I shall go. I ask not for whom, but only where I am needed.” He smiled, crossed his arms, leaned back, and said “do you know that there’s a hospital named after you in Manila?” “Oh really?” I respond. He cast a knowing glance over at his deputy, Commander Manual (a playful and hilarious enlisted Filipino Marine-turned Navy officer who has both Navy SEAL and Marine Recon certifications), and the Commander took the lead from his boss, looked at me, and said, “Saint Luke’s.”Even though there is a hospital named Saint Luke’s in Manila, I knew that the naming of a hospital after me was a joke. Nonetheless, the way in which Commander Manuel brought the subject up, and the course of the entire conversation up to this point, made me lean back and take in the enormity of what they both had just said. While I would never claim to be a saint, or ever come close, I took the General’s and Commander’s comments to be directed to humanitarians across the globe. Like firefighters who walk calmly into burning buildings as everyone is running out, police officers who move towards gunfire, not away from it, medics, doctors, nurses, and public health professionals who run to the aid of people in death’s grasp, sometimes at great risk to their own lives, and military personnel who put themselves in harm’s way to defend a nation, disaster responders fly, drive, and ship into the most-devastated places in the world to keep alive, and alleviate the suffering of, people they don’t even know- regardless of race, class, or creed. I can’t explain what brings each of these people to their own respective calling, but I’m proud to call myself one of them.