MSc Global Health graduate Mark Jackson coordinated a team of 10 Human Remains Detection K9s following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which killed over 6,000 people and affected 14 million. He describes his experience from Tacloban City, Philippines.
Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines on 8 November, 2013 with maximum winds of 378 km/hr. One of the strongest storms ever recorded, Haiyan flattened forests, farms, towns, and cities across the country, leaving 4 million people homeless and 18 million affected. Leyte province was hit particularly hard: the storm surge reached a height of six metres in Tacloban City, killing thousands and destroying entire communities. I arrived in Tacloban seven days after the storm as part of a rapid response team, and joined the emergency humanitarian effort that included help from the local and national government, national and international NGOs, foreign militaries, and various branches of the United Nations.
We all worked round the clock to address the most important issues in this crucial relief phase: shifting the million cubic metres of storm debris, ensuring survivors were fed and housed, treating the injured and sick, and managing the increasing death toll and burial of the thousands of deceased victims.
This last concern brought me to the World Health Organization (WHO) where I work for WHO as a Technical Officer involved in the provision of mental health and psychosocial support to affected communities. Specifically, I work on the management of the dead, including the recovery of dead bodies using Human Remains Detection (HRD) K9 units and the exhumation of temporary mass graves to identify victims through DNA analysis. Unrecovered and unidentified human remains present a significant mental health burden to individuals and communities. As of early April, official counts of recovered bodies and reported missing stand at 6,293 dead and 1,700 missing.
In response, WHO is supporting efforts to recover and identify as many victims as possible. The identification process is led by the National Bureau of Investigation’s Disaster Victim Identification Unit and the Philippine National Police. One part of this massive undertaking that I coordinated involved an exceptional team of 10 HRD K9s and handlers brought in from the United States and other parts of the Philippines.
This operation involved many partners, including local government, WHO, United Nations Development Programme, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and an American NGO called Global D.I.R.T. (Disaster Immediate Response Team). Specially trained to detect human remains in many different environments, the search dogs operated in coastal areas where debris had accumulated as high as 15 feet. Once located, bodies were collected from the debris by dedicated and tireless fire fighters from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP).
One of the largest joint K9 operations ever completed, this effort marked the first time that HRD K9 units were deployed internationally in a disaster situation. To the affected communities, the use of such extraordinary resources for the recovery of the dead demonstrates the ongoing dedication of the government and the international community to the emergency response effort. From a mental health perspective, it was important to signal to those who are missing loved ones that they have not been forgotten, and that dignified treatment of bodies remains a priority. Perhaps most importantly, identifying the deceased helps survivors find closure after overwhelming loss. Although the work is often difficult and intense, it is for this reason that I find it personally satisfying and ultimately worthwhile.