OTTAWA – The Canadian Forces are considering sending a detachment of three to six Griffon helicopters to help with relief efforts in the Philippines in the wake of typhoon Haiyan.
Officials say teams on the ground on the typhoon-ravaged island of Panay are assessing the situation and the need for helicopters.
A final decision will be made by an inter-departmental task force in Ottawa, but the military is preparing helicopters for the mission if it’s decided to send them.
“We’re just waiting for that decision, but concurrently we are pre-positioning equipment such that we can get those helicopters in timely flow to the task force commander where he needs them for inter-theatre mobility,” Col. Steve Kelsey said during a briefing in Ottawa.
The Forces are lining up CH-146 Griffon helicopters, a versatile, combat-capable chopper that can perform a variety of tasks including search and rescue and reconnaissance.
The Canadian effort now is based at the airport in Iloilo, but elements of the DART are preparing to move north to the city of Roxas.
The team’s commanding officer on the ground, Lt.-Col. Walter Taylor, said the area is ringed by some smaller islands that would be easier to reach with helicopters.
The Canadian team includes medical personnel, but military officials say the initial work will fall to engineers who can open roads, repair basic infrastructure and provide clean drinking water.
Taylor, speaking by phone from Iloilo, said the DART will make its first foray into the remote, coastal areas of Panay island on Friday morning, an area that has received little, if no, outside help.
In all, the Canadians will be trying to help bring relief to an area where 300,000 families have been affected.
“Obviously with the size of the DART it is not our aim or our capability to reach all 300,000 of those families,” Taylor said. “Fortunately, we’re not the only show in town.”
He stressed the DART is working with Philippine authorities, as well as the United Nations and non-governmental agencies whose “bread and butter” is providing direct humanitarian assistance.
Taylor said the area may not be hardest-hit area of the Philippines, but the need there is dire.
He said 100,000 houses have been either destroyed or rendered roofless.
The local fishing and farming economy has been wiped out; fishing boats have been destroyed, while once fertile fields have either had their crops ripped from the ground or drenched in salt water.
“The people are living in the most squalid conditions, trying to salvage what they can out of the remains of their houses.”
Though the regional governors did an excellent job of preparing for the typhoon — they succeeded in evacuating coastal areas and stockpiling emergency supplies — their luck is starting to run out, Taylor said.
That’s because their supplies are running out and they don’t have access to clean water, which raises the possibility of a new crisis of disease outbreaks such cholera and typhoid, he said.
“They’re running out of capability, they’re running out of resources and they’re running out of some of those key capabilities that we’re bringing to bear.”
Taylor said he’s seeing the Philippine authorities in his region get back on their feet, belying the reports of past days of a government unable to cope with an insurmountable crisis.
“I was extremely impressed today with what we saw today in terms of the local and regional disaster response centres,” he said.
“We walked into the government office of Iloilo province, and we saw hundreds of volunteer packing bags of relief goods, general members of the population that came in to volunteer their time to help their fellow citizens.
“Every mechanism of the provincial government was there to co-ordinate those efforts.”
Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander reiterated Canada’s commitment to fast-track Filipino visa applicants to Canada. He also said that students and temporary workers currently in Canada will be allowed to apply to have their visas extended so they don’t have to go back to destruction in their home country.
Alexander acknowledged the possibility that some Filipinos in Canada might not have much to return to in their home country.
“Clearly those who’ve lost families or their homes will have to consider what happens next,” the minister said.
“And we’ll look at those issues with them.”