Disaster Response: A Not-So-Sexy Kind of Job

By: LCDR Gilbert G. Villareal, Philippine Navy


When Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in early November 2013,1 I was a staff officer with the Philippine Fleet (Division category), while at the same time serving as the deputy commander of a SEAL-type unit of the Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG). It was my last week on these two assignments before I was to pursue a more traditional career path as a naval officer in the Philippine Navy. My experience dealing with the aftermath of Yolanda taught me some important lessons that I believe could be vital for commanders and any military personnel assigned to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR) in an area devastated by natural calamity or war. I am writing through the lens of my experience as a staff officer of a battle group, an assessment officer with SOF experience, and a contingent officer on the ground conducting HADR. Many SOF personnel consider HADR to be an unsexy kind of deployment: a time-consuming aspect of "soft power" projection suitable for regular soldiers and reserve forces or in the United States, the National Guard. There's supposedly no action in the HADR theater, nothing special or even significant about this kind of mission. After all, the thinking seems to go, if the Navy and other conventional forces can do this kind of trivial military operation, why should the SOF be expected to respond?

When dealing with both adversaries and crisis management, however, the SOF are very capable and can respond to any situation. As Yolanda struck the Philippines, the entire Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was on alert. As a member of the battle staff, I was assigned to monitor all events concerning naval units, especially those naval assets and personnel that were dispatched to the areas devastated by the typhoon. I was also tasked with a collateral duty, to monitor and approve the deployment of all SEALs assigned to NAVSOG units across the Philippines, whether they were in training, already deployed, or otherwise tasked. As the typhoon ravaged the country, particularly Samar province, we all monitored the effects, trying to determine what we could do and what we needed to deploy to mitigate the damage and help the survivors. In my dual role, I informed my SEAL commander that the majority of our men from each area command of the AFP—Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, including a company from our headquarters sized for quick response—were being pulled out of training and other deployments to complement the ongoing HADR mission.

Adversary from the Field

After that first day spent monitoring the situation, I tried to contact the team leader of a squad of SEALs assigned to a navy command post in the city of Tacloban, the capital of Samar province. I could not reach him by phone or military radio. After two days, we finally made contact through a team from NAVSOG that augmented the Naval Task Force. This team immediately directed a contingent of Naval Logistics Support Vessels, which were loaded with personnel and relief goods to support the victims of Yolanda, to the stricken city.

When I finally spoke to him, the team leader was in tears as he described the enduring drama he and his men had experienced. He said that the four members of his team were accounted for; they had survived the storm surge and saved all the naval personnel in the command post. But they regretted not being able to save others, especially the 56 policemen and 23 army personnel who were also stationed inside the command post compound at the time. Only 10 policemen and 12 soldiers survived the storm surge.2

How did the four SEALs manage to survive such tragedy? As the team leader talked to me, one thing he kept mentioning was the training he had received as a SEAL. Everyone at his post was shocked at how fast the water rose, he told me; all of the people in the compound were shouting, but no one was moving or initiating any action. Although his men were good swimmers, he said, they knew

that even they could not survive among all the debris being carried by the water, and seconds count in such a situation. The four SEALs punched a hole through the wooden roof of their barracks. Two men took ropes from the laundry lines, tied these lines to coconut trees, and brought them down through the hole in the roof. At this time, the team leader told me, the water was six to seven feet high, and they couldn't see anything because of the rain and the wind. They kept shouting to the others in the compound, but the only ones who responded were the navy personnel in their barracks. That's what the officer kept telling me: the navy men were the only ones the SEALs saved. The men held onto the ropes as the water level quickly increased to 10 feet, with strong wind and rain and seawater flowing everywhere. The men managed to get up onto the roof and hold on to each other until the flood subsided several hours later. The majority of the people inside the compound, including those in the police and army barracks, were drowned. According to the team leader, they were all taken by surprise and were swept away by the flood. As the water rose, he and his men thanked God that they were saved, but he was also proud and thankful that his SOF skills helped him and his men survive, and pushed them to save others who were at the threshold of death. He felt that his training automatically came back to him when he needed it.

When the water went down, the men and everything around them were left soaking. The sight of all the dead bodies in the compound—hanging from electric poles and trees, or lying in the grass and strewn about—left most of the survivors traumatized, except, as the SEAL leader asserted, his team. He was again in tears as he talked to me. The first thing he did after the waters subsided was consolidate his team and the survivors inside the compound. He then divided them into five groups: one group to search for and retrieve any survivors

Distribution of supplies to people in the coastal barangays affected by the typhoon in Samar Province, Philippines

inside the compound; the second group to gather supplies, especially food and water and any communications equipment; the third group to assist the first group in looking for survivors and also to gather the bodies of the victims; the fourth group to start fixing the compound's structures, especially the roofs and the barracks; and the fifth group to search for the nearest coordinating office or government command post that still had electricity and communications. This turned out to be over 10 kilometers away in Tacloban City and took more than a day for the team to reach.

This was the first day after Yolanda made landfall on Samar province. The government, including me, a staff officer of the Philippine Fleet, had no means of communication in the crucial first 24 hours after the devastation. I can't say whether bureaucracy and politics played any role at that time, but the management of the crisis had some shortcomings. Government officials did not anticipate how great the damage would be.

Regarding my other set of duties, all NAVSOG personnel in the impact area and in the headquarters were alerted before Yolanda hit, were accounted for once the storm subsided, and by the second day were deployed all over the Philippines, with the majority of them going to Samar province. This is an example of how quickly and easily SOF units can be deployed and delivered, and how SOF can adjust to any given mission.

Picture of LC 551 (Philippine Navy Logistic Ship)—It carried more or less 3,000 people from Samar to Cebu immediately after Typhoon Yolanda. It also served as the initial command and control platform of the Armed Forces for the Philippines immediately after the typhoon. It helped bring supplies and relief goods to the victims of Yolanda.

While I was monitoring the deployment of the NAVSOG personnel, I also checked some of the AFP units that were augmenting the contingent in devastated areas of the Philippines. I was amazed to see how fast SOF units like the NAVSOG, the Army Rangers, the Army Special Forces, and the Air Force Special Operation Wing reacted. They were the ones who immediately responded and were already prepared to depart by the time I contacted them. On that first day, they were waiting either in the airport for C-130 transports or on the pier for ships to take them to their areas of responsibility, such as Tacloban City and Samar province. This was the situation during those crucial first three days: some AFP units, even the reserves, were still waiting for instructions. Some were delayed because they had to wait for the relief goods and supplies intended for the victims. But some were still waiting for decisions from higher command. AFP camps, such as the General Headquarters and Villamor Air Base, were quickly flocked by volunteers and overwhelmed with contributions of goods, but there were administrative problems with the relief efforts, such as determining who would be in charge. Without going into further detail on these problems, the purpose of this narrative is to look at how SOF units can be effectively deployed in crises for HADR, which the United States and some other nations call a Military Operation Other Than War,3 and the projection of "soft power" as a means of humanitarian assistance.4 HADR is an important role for any military and requires military personnel to be capable of a rapid response to any given calamity, whether natural or manmade. The more quickly and efficiently they can react, the more effective the armed forces of a nation will be in any crisis.

Boots on the Ground

After a week of monitoring the storm's aftermath as a staff officer in the Philippine Fleet, I was relieved from my desk duties and assigned to go to Samar as a fleet assessment and coordinating officer. I was again tasked with dual functions: I would be an assessment officer for post-disaster damage and a liaison officer to coordinate certain requirements for the naval assets and personnel located in Samar. Following a week's leave, I reported to Tacloban City. While I was in Samar, I both heard and witnessed for myself story after story of survival, heroism, professionalism, cooperation, courage, and resiliency of people pulling their lives back together after the storm. Comparing it to some of my previous HADR operations, I have to say that the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda was the worst situation I have ever encountered in my life. The heavily damaged no-man's land that I had seen in 2000 during the All-out War against insurgents in the southern Philippines was no match for the devastation created by Yolanda, which looked like a combination of a no-man's land and a zombie land. All the dramas of life had unfolded—stories of ordinary and extraordinary human behavior and of instinctive survival were conveyed not only by the news media but by the different people I talked with and interviewed. There were no rich and poor people, privileged people, or people with high political status in this disaster. Everyone upon whom the wrath of nature fell was equally a victim.

When I arrived in the Tacloban area, the authorities' focus was still on ensuring stability, but the local government and its provincial disaster management team (PDMT) were already in close coordination with international organizations, including the United Nations and the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), as well as the governments of Israel, Canada, Japan, China, South Korea, and others. The PDMT comprised contingents of the AFP, the Philippine National Police, other concerned agencies, and various volunteers. I was part of the navy contingent of the AFP. A majority of the contingents from the different AFP and reserve units were tasked with augmenting the army's 8th Infantry Division, which had to take the lead in organizing and spearheading all of the AFP contingents that arrived for disaster response, even though most of its personnel were missing. Infrastructure from the brigade headquarters down to the company outpost was critically damaged by the typhoon. I was told that most of its personnel were among the casualties of the storm. As I learned this, some questions came up for me, which I noted in my logbook: If your unit or even you yourself are prepared to respond to a natural or manmade disaster but you become the victim of such a disaster, what will you do? What can others do? Do we have contingency plans for such a situation?

This thought struck me with fear, but then I remembered the SEAL team leader who rescued the navy personnel during the typhoon. It came to my mind that instinct and skills are the essential requirements to keep oneself and one's family safe in every situation that might arise. Disaster survival skills should be taught so that they become instinctive for everyone, especially to our families and fellow military personnel.

A Model for Disaster Response

During the week that I stayed in the Tacloban area, I saw how countries could cooperate with one another to help the Philippines, especially in devastated areas like Samar province. It was so enlightening—and somehow amazing to me—to witness how countries could coordinate in times of disaster and to see the positive response of all these countries' representatives, whether military or government officials. They all respected the host country's officials, down to the provincial and local governments. Again, question after question came to my mind: Could this also be a model for insurgency and terrorist incidents? In the event of insurgency or terrorist activity, should the host nation remain in control? Will decision making in large-scale emergencies come down to the local government officials in the affected area? If this protocol could work in a disaster-stricken nation, it seemed like it should also work for other problems.

US disaster response to other nations, such as the post-typhoon Philippines, takes a comprehensive approach. Through initiative and the assets that were already in place, the United States was one of the first responders in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. The JSOTF-P dispatched personnel and air assets for immediate assistance. The Disaster Assistance Response Team, the US Agency for International Development, and the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance quickly followed, assessing the situation and trying to fill all essential requirements in the worst-hit areas. I experienced firsthand how these US teams managed a rapid-response situation, including some innovation and adjustment that were needed in the post-typhoon environment. At the same time, there were lots of responders in the area who were eager to do their jobs. They respected the host country representatives, especially the local government officials who were in control in the disaster area—even the AFP was not the leading agency at that time. In the report I wrote for my commanders, I suggested that the disaster response I witnessed could serve both as a model for doctrine development and the basis for best practices in a HADR operation, especially in a country like the Philippines that is prone to typhoons, earthquakes, and other types of natural and manmade disasters.

The Vital Role of the Special Operations Forces

When I thought about the intervention methods and the deployment of responders during my time in Tacloban, it occurred to me to include in my report a discussion of the ways in which SOF could play a vital role in the HADR mission. But I have my own reservations about presenting this idea. If disaster relief became a formal role for our SEALs, some would perceive it as a role for lesser men, not for SOF, who are trained to be elite warriors and killers. Most of my fellow SOF warriors would hate me for making them take on a "not sexy" job like disaster response.5 But I truly believe that SOF can make the difference in saving hundreds or even thousands of lives if they are deployed not only as trained first-responders but also as the first people sent into disaster-stricken areas. Humanitarian assistance and disaster response may not seem sexy, especially for specialized soldiers who take pride in their killer instincts, but they can make a big difference by giving people the precious gifts of life and hope.6 In my career, I have participated as a responder in three major disasters: flash floods, a sunken ship, and the typhoon. In each instance, my capacity and my capability were challenged to the utmost limit. The work was rewarding and fulfilling, even though I have also had experience with combat missions and fighting as a SEAL operator. The HADR mission is always on my bucket list of priorities—it keeps me going and meets my professional goal of helping other people in times when they need help the most. But what also keeps me thinking about the deployment of SOF units for HADR is not just the experiences I've had, but also the fact that I can see how advantageous it would be to develop SOF as highly professional specialized response units.

There are five factors that I believe make SOF ideal as immediate responders in a disaster.

  1. SOF are rapidly deployable compared to their conventional counterparts. SOF units can be immediately inserted into any disaster-stricken area and make an initial assessment of conditions before the conventional support or other units are deployed to the area. In another typhoon scenario, for example, SEALs could conduct an initial damage assessment of the piers and coastal infrastructure, conduct a hydro survey, and fulfill other essential requirements for ships carrying food, medicines, shelters, and other relief goods. Lack of information about the safety of some of the piers and wharves damaged by Typhoon Yolanda was a problem for responders. Some ships, for instance, hesitated to dock at some of the piers in Samar province, which meant their cargo did not reach the people who needed it.

    Ranger and SOF units could also clear vital roads blocked by the calamity so that trucks carrying troops and goods could reach the affected areas. Paratroopers could assess the airport and airstrips to find alternate landing zones as needed after any calamity. It took two or three days after Yolanda passed to clear the Tacloban airport because there were no trained personnel on the ground. If paratroopers had been dropped immediately after the typhoon struck the province, airlift and supplies could have been quickly provided to the victims, thereby saving hundreds more lives. The Civil Affairs Group could conduct morale briefings, give people the information they need to survive, and provide support and comfort in a post-disaster situation.
  2. SOF are highly specialized and have the skills to do initial assessments before the main effort of delivering support and logistics begins. Most SOF personnel have skills in multiple languages and could serve as communicators, not only to higher command but also to the local people. SOF personnel could also identify and set up the best tactical command post or command and control area.
  3. SOF personnel are the most disciplined members of the military. They have a high workload capacity and a high sense of tolerance and professionalism. Most of the work that follows the initial assessment after a disaster is about helping people and saving lives. Minute by minute, responders hear people screaming for help and begging for rescue. Some soldiers have difficulty in this situation, especially when dead bodies are scattered all around. A SOF operator can better tolerate these conditions and fulfill the task of prioritizing who needs to be saved.
  4. A SOF officer is the best initial ground commander for HADR. If the disaster area has no initial command or authority left functioning, a SOF officer is the most fit to organize crisis management. His training and deployment—including leadership training—have prepared him to respond to this kind of management situation. When a Philippine SOF commander was tasked to head the initial contingent of the AFP after Typhoon Yolanda, he performed his duties quickly and efficiently before transferring them to the local government and the army division. His performance made a difference, and he was even praised by the US president for how well he performed during that crucial time of chaos and uncertainty.
  5. Information operations, including Civil Affairs and psychological warfare, is another important aspect of special operations. This function is vital for all responders and units, international and local, acting in support of a HADR operation. A fellow student at the US Naval Postgraduate School proposed building a website that would cater to responders and units conducting and supporting HADR operations, with information on safe navigational routes and cleared road networks; updates on casualties and medevacs; airport clearance; important relief supplies; a directory of victims and families looking for lost members; and so on, to help coordinate all the international units and relief organizations, including military responders.

These are the lessons I have learned as a SOF disaster responder. My experience can serve as a case study for how SOF can be deployed effectively in what may be a "not-so-sexy" job, but one that could positively affect hundreds of lives by giving disaster victims hope and helping them survive manmade and natural disasters like Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines.

About the Author(s):

LCDR Gilbert Villareal is a SOF officer in the Philippine Navy.

  1. Typhoon Yolanda (known internationally as Typhoon Haiyan), a Category 5 super typhoon, is estimated to have been the most powerful storm to reach land in recorded history. The storm took three days to pass over the Philippines but was at its height on 8 November 2013.go back up
  2. Much of the destruction from the typhoon came from the enormous waves of seawater that the storm pushed onto low-lying coastal areas. These storm surges were estimated to reach as high as seven meters in some places. Reynaldo Santos, Jr., ìPowerful Yolanda Hits Eastern Visayas,î Rappler, updated 9 November 2013: http://www.rappler.com/nation/special-coverage/weather-alert/43183-20131108-yolanda-am-update go back up
  3. James Callard and Peter Faber, ìAn Emerging Synthesis for a New Way of War: Combination Warfare and Future Innovation,î Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 3, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2002): 61ñ68.go back up
  4. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Future of Power (New York: United States Public Affairs, 2011), 47.go back up
  5. Doug Borer, ìHADR: Not a Sexy Job for SOFî (lecture, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif., April 2015).go back up
  6. Ian Rice, ìHistory of Specops [sic]î (lecture, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif., 7 April 2015). go back up
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