ROXAS, Philippines – Canada’s quick dispatch of the Disaster Assistance Response Team, otherwise known as the DART, to the severely battered north end of Panay Island was the right call.
So was how transport aircraft with troops and kit were sent forward to Hawaii and Guam before the location of the Canadian mission was even decided upon.
This strategy saved a crucial few days in getting Canada’s Philippine relief operation up and running in a region where, except for parts of the city of Roxas, there is no power anywhere, almost no food or drinking water, hundreds of thousands of homeless and more than one million mostly impoverished people whose lives have been turned upside down by a superstorm that caused mayhem across hundreds of kilometres of this archipelago.
Questions have been asked about why Canada did not join the crush of countries jamming Tacloban’s tiny airstrip. After all, Tacloban was nearly obliterated by typhoon Haiyan, with thousands of deaths.
But Tacloban was never a place where Canada might set up its DART. Canada was told from the outset by the Philippine government that the U.S. and Philippine militaries were running the show there. Everyone else needed to apply to receive a prized window to land an aircraft there. Countries with a limited capability or ambition to provide humanitarian relief got slots for a few cargo flights that brought in badly needed food, water and medicine.
But Canada’s DART is by design a much more formidable presence than that. To have waited for all the required landing slots to have been granted and then to have forced what they brought with them through the bottleneck at Tacloban would have meant weeks before the DART would have been able to start providing assistance.
So it is no surprise that the government in Manila “invited” Canada to help elsewhere. With the U.S. Navy sending an aircraft carrier, assault ships, landing craft, destroyers, frigates and 50 or 60 helicopters to Leyte and Samar, it made no sense whatsoever for Canada to try to duplicate that. As always in this world, Canada had to find its own niche.
The level of destruction and despair on northern Panay was clearly less than it is on Tacloban, as everyone here has acknowledged. Nevertheless, much of this impoverished island is in a terrible mess. Trees on multiple hillsides were snapped or entirely denuded of foliage by Haiyan’s winds on Panay, where the force of the gale exceeded that which caused havoc in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. Many isolated inland communities on this island still have not had contact with the outside world.
Smaller islands such as one I visited on Monday, a few kilometres from Roxas, were entirely shattered by the cyclone. When Canada’s helicopters start flying on Wednesday, it will make an immediate difference for those living on these outer islands. Most of them have not until now received a scrap of help from any country including their own.
A clear sign that Canada got it right by heading to Panay was that British and Australian military scouts searching for a place to put down similar roots expressed envy after visiting DART headquarters at Roxas. The Canadians were complimented on finding a meaningful role that got them away from the massive U.S. presence in Tacloban.
Among the other signs that Canada is on the right track, the UN’s co-ordination office for Panay has been quite literally giddy over the fact that the Canadians have brought so much with them to help. Moreover, since the DART hung out its shingle at Roxas on Friday, the number of international aid agencies has mushroomed from a handful to nearly 25. The thinking of these outfits, which is usually contagious, has been that the Canadians will make logistics easier for everyone.
As Canada now has close to 300 officials in the Philippines, including DART, delivering aid in the form of medical services, water purification and logistical and engineering assistance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on Monday an additional $15 million for humanitarian relief in the country, bringing the total Canadian government contribution to $20 million.
There were missteps. True to its instincts, the Harper government at first micro-managed news about the deployment of DART. The idea of having a parade of ministers including the prime minister hog the limelight while soldiers and diplomats on the scene were temporarily gagged was, I guess, meant to try to push aside memories of the Senate debacle by underscoring the government’s commitment to helping the Philippines. The gag order, which lasted until last Friday – after the first Canadians had been on the ground three days – was a pity because it delayed reporting of positive context from the field.
Canada had seriously considered placing the DART at other locales including northern Leyte, Eastern Samar and Cebu. As in other locations, there was a strong demand for the medical teams, engineers, communications specialists and water-making equipment that the DART carries with it. However, there was one crucial difference that brought them to where they are now: There was a relatively easy way to reach the troubled areas through a fine, untouched airport at Iloilo at the south end of Panay and a passable road from there north.
While perhaps not as thrilling as an operation at Ground Zero in Tacloban would have been, the DART has been established in a spot that has been begging for attention.
(By Matthew Fisher)