Manny Cabili was the operations boss of an ad hoc disaster relief group formed by a handful of friends after Typhoon Haiyan (known as Typhoon Yolanda locally) hit the Philippines last year.
With long-time friend Rami Villaviciencio, Cabili put together a relief effort primarily via Facebook, and within two days of the typhoon’s impact on the central region of Visayas, the two were running planes and helicopters from Manila to Cebu, and from Cebu into the disaster zone.
Interviewed at Cebu Airport last November under the wing of a Seair Dornier 328, shortly before a relief flight to Guiuan, Cabili said, “One of the reasons we’re doing this is that we think the government’s relief efforts are slow, and disorganized. We’re trying to help where there’s some vacuum, and there’s a lot of vacuum.”
Cabili and Villaviciencio initially planned to make only a few flights, but after they witnessed the scope of devastation, and the magnitude of the relief effort that would be required, they resolved to continue their operations as long as they could continue to raise money and collect relief supplies. In total they made over 50 flights to Ormoc, Guiuan and Roxas, delivering aid, evacuating displaced civilians, and assisting international relief organizations such as IOM with movements of staff members and relief supplies.
Cabili said, “IOM actually discovered me through Facebook, and got in touch to ask if we could help deliver some of their supplies. Of course they are connected also to the military airlift, but for really critical supplies, if they need something fast, we can make a decision in a minute, instead of maybe three or four days.”
“We’ve actually been sourcing our own relief supplies, and other aid, through Facebook,” Cabili added. “People know we’re running this operation, and they get in touch, connecting us with groups of doctors, or search and rescue teams, that want to get in to the disaster zone. The military airlift has been bringing in mostly food and water; we’ve been prioritizing medical supplies and medical teams. And basically, the choices are the military airlift, or us.”
Cabili, who works in the gaming industry, said he is fortunate to have been able to make time to oversee the relief effort. Villaviciencio is in the fuel business, and with his wife Ginger, underwrote the aviation fuel bill, as well as the cost of the planes, helicopters and air crews, all of which were provided at cost by local commercial carrier Seair.
“I think we’re the biggest private relief initiative,” Cabili said, estimating operational costs at roughly $40,000 a day, covering aircraft fuel and service and pilots and ground crews. We have a big 737 that carries most of our supplies from Manila to Cebu, and we established Cebu as our hub. From here, we’re close to the area that need relief. We’re running four flights a day in this Dornier 328, and I have been able to change flight plans, and even aircraft configuration, on the spot as needed.
“The relief operation here is so politicized, we’re actually prevented from flying into Tacloban [the largest city on typhoon-ravaged Leyte]. The devastation there is immense, and they say they’ve got enough aid, but obviously that’s not true. And although we could fly our 737 directly in there from Clark Air Force Base, which is our staging area, the officials want all the relief supplies to be channeled through them.”
Cabili continued: “In our planning meetings we’ve discussed whom to give the supplies to when we land, and I’ve said we have to give it to the LGU, the local government unit leaders, so they can distribute it onward. But people said, ‘What happens if they re-label the goods, and claim the credit for providing them?’ I said, ‘Who cares? What’s important is getting the goods to the people. I don’t care about credit.’ So we did that for the first few days, but now we’re distributing our supplies through organizations like IOM, which are apolitical. The toughest part has been deciding what evacuees can come with us and who has to wait for the next flight, or a military plane. People have been waiting for days to get out.”
“The first few days were chaotic “Cabili recalls. “The first day we got in there was no air traffic control, and we had to buzz the runway to inspect it. Then the U.S. Navy volunteered to set up air traffic control.
“Our group is rag-tag, but our pilots and crews have made a brave and tireless effort, and I think we’ve been operating more efficiently than the more ‘organized’ ones,” Cabili said. “This is the time to give what we have to others.”
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.