One year ago, one of the largest typhoons ever recorded struck the Philippines. Niamh Coleman – then a newly qualified aid worker – was among the hundreds that scrambled to help relief efforts
In July 2013, Niamh Coleman took part in a training course for humanitarian aid workers, preparing them for the challenging role of helping people in the immediate aftermath of major disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis.
“I work as a bookkeeper, but I always wanted to give a bit back. I wanted to do something that had more of a purpose,” said Niamh.
Over the next few months Niamh attended more training courses, improving her skills at first aid, learning to use handheld radios, build improvised shelters and purify drinking water. She took part in exercises simulating some of the problems that aid workers have to be ready to face when helping refugees in dangerous environments.
But simulation quickly became reality. Only a few days after she completed her third course, on 8 November 2013, one of the largest typhoons ever recorded struck the Philippines. The wind reached speeds of nearly 200 miles an hour, ripping through buildings and rendering around four million people homeless in a matter of hours.
Within three days, Niamh was on her way to the airport to catch a flight to the Philippines. Four team members from Britain met up with volunteers from Australia and the Filipino capital of Manila, and together they carried the supplies that they would need to survive for a week. When they arrived in the affected area, they found a scene of devastation.
“Seeing people starting to pick themselves up and work together in the face of such a disaster was awe inspiring.”
“I tried to prepare myself for the worst, but no matter how prepared you think you are, you experience all kinds of emotions,” said Niamh.
“I felt so sad for the people who had experienced the loss of members of their family, but I also felt a sense of determination that we were going to make a difference – that we were going to do something to really help people. The typhoon had struck in the middle of the night, so it had been pitch black and people told me that the noise of the wind had been deafening. It must have been terrifying being in a tiny single-room house with rain coming from every direction, metal roofing sheets flying around, praying that your family would survive and waiting for the dawn to arrive.”
Niamh’s team started work at a school on the island of Leyte. In the community where they were based, the school was the most substantial building – many of the houses in the immediate vicinity had been reduced to shattered timbers and crumpled sheet metal. The first task was to clear up the vast piles of debris and fallen trees. “We fixed tarpaulins over damaged roofs and started to replace the sheet metal,” Niamh explains.
“Where it was safe to do so, we included the local children in the work that we were doing, such as creating team games that involved clearing up.”
Their work soon started to show results, and classrooms that had been repaired were quickly being used as emergency accommodation, an aid storage centre, a medical centre and a soup kitchen set up by the local Rotary Club.
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“When we first arrived, many people were in shock and simply didn’t know where to begin. One of the local Rotary Club members commented that the most important thing that we achieved was not sawing up fallen trees or replacing damaged roofs – but simply being willing to travel across the world and try and help in their hour of need. We gave hope to people and showed them that they were not alone. Seeing people starting to pick themselves up and work together in the face of such a disaster was awe inspiring. We started to see big signs appear that said ‘bang on’ – that’s the local way of saying ‘take heart, don’t give up, get on with it’. After a few weeks, people taking shelter in the school started to return to their repaired houses and the schools opened for lessons again. Even though at many schools lots of classrooms had not yet been repaired, it was important for the children to get back to school and return to some sort of normality”
After four weeks of hard work, Niamh’s team flew back to the UK. “I was exhausted when I arrived home,” she said. “It was an extraordinary experience and it was great to have the opportunity to go and help. If something seems important to you, you have to go for it. With a bit of courage and determination you can achieve remarkable things.”
Niamh Coleman is a volunteer for Byond Disaster Relief – for more information about their work helping people affected by disasters, go to www.byond.org