The Social Work Response to Typhoon Haiyan

November 18, 2013 @ 10:36 pm

Rescue operations, wake of Typhoon Haiyan

Around the time New Yorkers were thinking back to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy of one year ago, the news broke of a typhoon to end all typhoons in the Philippines—the strongest tropical cyclone to make a landfall on record. Typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda) devastated the center of the country and affected some 11 million people, many of whom are homeless. The news hit hard at the School of Social Work, particularly among students who are from the Philippines and/or are involved in the new disaster management caucus. Several of them provide reflections below, and share plans for contributing to the relief efforts on campus. Joining them is a recent Columbia graduate who played a leading role in forming a coalition of students and faculty members wishing to provide relief to Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Raymond Firmalino (MS’15)

Raymond Firmalino First thoughts upon hearing of the disaster: I thought, “What local organization can I link with to help in the relief efforts? I was already familiar with Liga Filipina of Columbia University, a Filipino cultural group on campus and decided to brainstorm with them on ways we could mobilize the campus community to raise money and collect supplies for survivors.  After our exchange, I knew I had to bring this information to the School of Social Work community. So far, I’ve reached out to classmates, the Disaster Management and Preparedness Caucus, The Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, the Student Union, my professors, and Dean Takamura. Everyone has been nothing short of amazing in their support. I’m scheduling meetings with other personnel at the School as we speak.

What the Philippines needs to prioritize right now: The Philippines is a nation of more than 7,000 islands and is currently ranked third among 173 countries in terms of risk to disasters and natural disasters. This means that the Philippines must utilize organizations with extensive experience in search and rescue and large-scale relief and recovery programs. And it’s doing just that: organizations are providing assistance to hard-hit cities like Tacloban, where medical, food, water, and sanitation supplies are being distributed and volunteers are being deployed. Also, to overcome the destroyed infrastructure as a result of Typhoon Haiyan, teams with logistics and satellite telecommunications expertise are also on the ground.

What I (and others at Columbia) are doing to support the relief efforts: I invite the School of Social Work community to join with Liga Filipina of Columbia University in its various relief activities. We are holding bake sales on Low Plaza on the main campus from 12:00 to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. We invite people to donate baked goods as well as partake in eating them! We are currently vetting organizations the proceeds will be going to. This past Sunday, November 17th, a group of us gathered together to pack boxes in partnership with the Afya Foundation, which is working with the Philippine Consulate General of New York. The shipment is leaving JFK airport today, November 18th. Finally, Liga Filipina is hosting a benefit concert/dinner on Friday, November 22nd, in Lerner Party Space, called Waterproof: Typhoon Haiyan Fundraiser. It will be a chance for Columbia University and the people of New York City to sample Filipino foods from local restaurants; enjoy performances from Liga members, dance groups, and musicians; and support relief efforts. We have just learned that CU Raas will be performing.

To learn how to help and get updates, I urge you to join the CUSSW Typhoon Haiyan Relief Coalition Facebook group and “like” Liga Filipina of Columbia University’s Facebook page.

Also, anybody with any questions can reach me at

Yuki Ohsaka (MS’15)

Yuki OhsakaFirst thoughts upon hearing of the disaster: As an international student from Japan, I found the news about the catastrophic situation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan to be heart wrenching. I was also thinking about the possible role of social workers in the crisis situation, which is the reason why I founded the Disaster Management and Preparedness Caucus (DMPC) at CSSW.

What the Philippines needs to prioritize right now: I lived in Kobe when the Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred (1995), and have worked with social workers in the communities affected by the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami just over two-and-a-half years ago. Clearly, the Philippines has to prioritize Disaster Related Deaths: deaths caused by harsh environments after a disaster, resulting from fire or destruction of buildings, a lack of medical care, outbreaks of disease, and the deterioration in physical or mental health of survivors. To ameliorate the risk of secondary deaths during the post-disaster phase, disaster response and recovery work should be done with a person-in-environment perspective, since disasters change people’s circumstances drastically. Thus, social workers have an especially critical role in carefully assessing the needs of each individual affected, as well as organizing the community to create a support system. This in turn helps to develop local community resilience to disaster, whether natural or man-made.

What the Disaster Management and Preparedness Caucus will be doing to support relief efforts: The Disaster Management and Preparedness Caucus (DMPC) was created to provide social work students with opportunities to develop their awareness and skills as professionals in disaster management. In response to Typhoon Haiyan,  DMPC will be trying to raise the School of Social Work’s awareness of the situation. Like Raymond, we cooperated with Liga Filipina in collecting and packaging donations to send to the Philippines. We are also spreading information about a benefit concert this Friday. Please join us!

Brie Scolaro (MS’15)

Brie Scolaro First thoughts upon hearing of the disaster: When I first heard the news of Typhoon Haiyan, my heart ached. I knew that it would cause immense, widespread devastation. I hoped that individuals from all over the world would be moved by this tragedy and add to the relief effort in some way. I hoped that my peers at the School of Social Work would see this as something we needed respond to. Thankfully, I am involved with the Disaster Management and Preparedness Caucus that Yuki started (I am serving as Secretary). I see it as part of our caucus’s responsibility to join with other student groups on campus and help connect our peers to Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts.

What the Philippines needs to prioritize right now: Most resources in the Philippines are being allocated to the initial response phase: search and rescue, mobilizing food and water, airlifting and transferring individuals. The Philippines has already signaled that they are lacking the manpower to effectively continue these basic response efforts. Other countries need to continue to send military and management personnel to help re-establish order and safety. In addition, the Philippines will face the challenge of managing the continuous influx of volunteers and resources. These resources will not be of use unless they are managed and mobilized strategically. Ultimately, the Philippines will need to balance operations in the initial response phase with the continuous influx of outside resources.

Tatum Stewart (MS’15)

Tatum StewartFirst thoughts upon hearing of the disaster: As a social work student, I immediately thought about what types of government policies and projects may have been implemented prior to the disaster that would lessen the harmful impacts of Typhoon Haiyan. This preemptive implementation of preventative systems to address future disasters is an aspect of disaster preparedness and response in which our caucus is interested. Although management of a site in the post-disaster stage is very important, we hope to see a future where governments have the foresight and willingness to make the necessary policies and investments regarding disaster prevention projects that can ultimately avoid the painful ramifications that come with any disaster, ranging from emotional trauma on an individual level to the economic impacts on both local and national levels.

What the Philippines needs to prioritize right now: The Philippines should immediately address those places with the highest need of food, water, and shelter as a means of preventing further deaths from crime, spread of disease, malnutrition, exposure, etc. Supplying necessary resources like food, clean water, as well as evacuating residents to more sanitary living spaces, is one way to prevent the spread of disease as well as to address their other immediate needs.

What I (and others) will be doing to support relief efforts: As Yuki mentioned, our caucus is focusing on fundraising here in NYC, working in concert with Liga Filipina.

Kirsten Homma, Vice President of the Consortium for Japan Relief*, and Research Assistant, Columbia University Medical Center

Kirsten HommaWhat the Consortium for Japan Relief will be doing to support relief efforts in the Philippines: The Consortium for Japan Relief (CJR) has no specific plans, but we are eager to work with Filipino groups involved in disaster relief to help them figure out what they, as students, can do to raise awareness of the disaster on the CU campus, in NYC, and even throughout the country. After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, CJR did not partake in any fundraising activities but instead worked towards gathering evidence-based information about the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear-meltdown, and distributing that information to any who would listen. We are still dedicated to this sort of information dissemination, but now our focus is on the aftermath of the disaster: rebuilding and revitalization.

Lessons learned: We’re happy to share with Filipino student groups what has and has not worked for us. For events and information gathering to be meaningful, one has to bear in mind the legwork necessary to pull it off. CJR has definitely learned a lot over the past three years and would be more than happy share details about our event-planning processes, such as coming up with a conceptual framework, applying for grants, and publicizing.

* Columbia School of Social Work Dean Jeanette Takamura is one of the founders.

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We welcome further contributions to the above. Please send to

Image: “Operation Damayan,” taken 13 November 2013 by DVID SHUB, via Flickr Creative Commons.