Yolanda: The First Responders

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We were at the Philippine Embassy in Washington D.C. monitoring Yolanda’s deadly rampage that November morning in 2013 when the call came in. The person on the other end introduced himself as a member of Mammoth Medical Mission, a volunteer team of doctors and nurses from California who specialize in mass casualty incidents.

They were en route to Mexico for a medical mission when they heard about Yolanda, which was referred to as Haiyan abroad. The caller said Mammoth Medical Mission decided to make a detour to the Philippines and would like to ask the permission of the Embassy to allow them and Team Rubicon, another California-based emergency response group made up of Iraq and Afghan war veterans, to proceed to Tacloban so they could lend a helping hand.

From what they have been hearing on the news, the team headed by Dr. Michael Karch knew the effects of what has been described as one of the most powerful storms in recorded history were going to be catastrophic and they wanted to make it to ground zero as soon as possible.

From what they have been hearing on the news, the team headed by Dr. Michael Karch knew the effects of what has been described as one of the most powerful storms in recorded history were going to be catastrophic and they wanted to make it to ground zero as soon as possible.

As mass casualty experts, they knew the first 100 hours after a disaster is critical because this is the only window where lives could still be saved through surgical intervention.

Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. was in his office when I came in to inform him of Mammoth Medical’s request to be allowed to leave Los Angeles for Manila within a few hours. The Ambassador sought the opinion of the others in the room with him.

“They cannot just proceed without the permission of the Department of Health,” someone pointed out. “Foreign medical teams must secure a clearance first before they could be allowed to enter the country and that process takes 48 hours.”

I was taken back by what was just said. The Philippines was being pummeled by one of the most violent storms in history and yet there was no sense of urgency in opening doors for those who could actually help. This was a situation unlike any other that the Philippines was confronted with. Time was of the essence.

“But, Sir, we have not experienced a crisis like this before. We have not seen the full extent of the devastation yet but we would definitely need all the help we could get and get those teams on the ground as soon as possible,” I told the Ambassador.

“Perhaps, we can call the Secretary of Health and get his permission,” I suggested.

Ambassador Cuisia did just that. He quickly made a call to Manila and was able to reach Health Secretary Enrique Ona. Sure enough, he was able to get clearance for the American emergency responders.

Ambassador Cuisia did just that. He quickly made a call to Manila and was able to reach Health Secretary Enrique Ona. Sure enough, he was able to get clearance for the American emergency responders.

Not only that, he also called Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista to make sure the members of Mammoth Medical Mission and Team Rubicon would be accommodated in the military flights heading to Tacloban.

Less than 36 hours later, Mammoth Medical Mission and Team Rubicon became the first foreign volunteer groups to make it to Tacloban. Thanks to Ambassador Cuisia’s intervention, the two teams were able to make a difference and helped save hundreds of lives on the ground.

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Photos Courtesy of Team Rubicon

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