Marines depart Philippine town devastated by typhoon

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From Stripes.com

Marines depart Philippine town devastated by typhoon

by: Ashley Rowland | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: November 25, 2013

TACLOBAN, The Philippines — The U.S. Marines begin pulling out of typhoon-ravaged Tacloban over the weekend as the emergency needs decrease and aid organizations capable of providing long-term care move in.

“We’re working ourselves out of a job, which is our goal,” said Col. Ed Bligh, commander of the Okinawa-based Combat Logistics Regiment 3. He predicted Friday that most Marines could leave Tacloban in time to be home by Thanksgiving.

The Marines arrived within days of Typhoon Haiyan, which leveled parts of the city earlier this month, leaving thousands dead in the wake of massive storm surges. The U.S. military’s aid operation included flying relief supplies to the region, turning seawater into potable water, distributing relief supplies, and flying thousands of evacuees out of the region.

Bligh said an initial group of 15 to 20 Marines is expected to leave Saturday for Clark Air Base to prepare for the outflow of equipment, and water-purification teams will finish up this weekend.

“We’ve made more water than they can distribute,” he said, adding that the Marines had moved quickly and with relatively little equipment into the city because their mission was not intended for a long term. The Marines, themselves, have been living on Meals, Ready to Eat and have had only makeshift amenities, like showers with very limited privacy.

Bligh said that living conditions for urban-area residents were beginning to improve, but that delivering relief supplies to outlying areas remained problematic.

He cited a Filipino military official who likened the country’s state to that of a hospital patient with a long road of recovery ahead: “He put it, ‘we’re coming out of surgery, and we’re in critical care.’ ”

The improvements in the past week at the Tacloban airport, where the Marines’ first task upon arriving was moving washed-up cars and debris from the runway, have been dramatic.

The crush of panicked Filipinos, who rushed at aircraft in hopes of catching a flight out of the city, has disappeared. Instead, those waiting for flights are kept within a gated area, and the flight line is bordered by tents housing aid and government and military operations instead of passengers.

Outside the airport, a semi-permanent encampment has been set up by international and local groups. Twenty-four air-conditioned tents, each capable of housing 20 or more people, were donated by the head of the company that supplies many of the tents used by the U.S. military in the Middle East. The U.S. Marines will use those tents temporarily, with some moving from the rain-soaked, two-man tents they have been sleeping in. After they leave, aid personnel and the Philippines and other militaries will take them over, said Richard Hotes, head of Alaska Structures and the RWH Foundation, which flew in the tents, worth about $2 million.

“If we’re going to help people, we need healthy responders,” he said.

The city’s port also has reopened, reducing the amount of relief goods that need to be transported by air. Bligh said that the number of flights already had dropped 20 percent on Friday, and would continue to decrease.

In the waning days of Operation Damayan, the Marines assisted in water-distribution runs into the city, giving them a chance to meet the people they had come to help.

While most inhabitants of Tacloban appeared to have access to relief supplies, the city remained a hellish landscape of destroyed homes, smashed cars and broken trees. The misery is compounded by frequent rains that leave the ground slick with mud and make conditions difficult for those living in roofless houses or makeshift shelters of tarps and corrugated metal.

In the heart of the city, the first signs of commerce have begun to appear. The first ATMs reopened in the past week, and small, roadside stands selling everything from fruit to beer to fresh meat are popping up. There are still long lines at centers handing out relief supplies, including water and bags of rice.

The city’s hotels, still without electricity and running water, are packed with aid workers and foreign journalists. An overnight 8 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew remains in place.

The horrific task of recovering bodies continues daily. Recently, the remains of a man believed to be a U.S. Army veteran were found near the airport.

Navy chaplain Lt. John Potter said Friday that the Marines were holding up well, and morale remained high despite initial concerns that they would be traumatized by the number of bodies they saw during the early days of Operation Damayan.

“They wanted to go (to the Philippines),” he said. “Everybody here realizes that this is a unique opportunity to help.”

rowland.ashley@stripes.com