Elite US rescue team impressed by PH barangay system during 'Yolanda' mission

By Don Tagala, ABS-CBN North America Bureau

March 3, 2014

NEW YORK CITY – They are the world’s first responders when natural disasters strike.

Team Rubicon is a unique group of specialized US military veterans – many of them have returned home after fighting 10 years of war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but with a renewed sense of purpose to save lives in times of disaster.

One of them is Filipino-American Lourdes Tiglao.

A native of Mandaluyong City in the Philippines, US Airforce veteran Tiglao was part of Operation: Seabird – a group of first responders who facilitated search, rescue, and disaster relief efforts within 48 hours after Typhoon Yolanda pummeled the Philippines last November.

Team Rubicon provided food and water, treated more than 2,100 typhoon survivors, and helped rebuild parts of the typhoon-ravaged areas.

“We train like we’d work and we work like a train,” Tiglao said. “So what we executed in Operation Seabird, we train in the US when community service, we do a lot of off-site training in order to hone our skills so that when a disaster actually happens we already know what to do.”

But what stood out and became helpful in their operation was the organizational structure known only in the Philippines – the Barangay system – the smallest administrative division in the country almost equivalent to the ward system in the US.

Tiglao said, “They really had a good emergency system within the barangay. Their hierarchy of organizational structure, it never went down. In a disaster, that is one of the first things that break down.”

“The people knew who to go to and how to get the relief that they needed,” US Army Veteran Alana Duffy said. “Because of the way that baranggays work, that sense of community I think that we could develop more here in the United States. So when a disaster hits, people know where to go and respond the best way for their families.”

US Marines, Colonel Christopher Starling says it was no small feat to deliver over 2,000 tons of aid and evacuate more than 18,000 Filipinos from ground zero.

Starling says the success of the operation was made possible by the close cooperation between the Philippine and the US military – thanks to the joint military exercises like the Balikatan trainings.

“When Typhoon Haiyan occurred we already have that key linkages to the Philippine military,” Starling said. “We have personal relationships at the senior level that makes it very simple to respond. We have equipment to stage, we know what the road networks are, we know the infrastructure. Balikatan prepared us to respond for something like a typhoon.”

But with planned cuts on US military spending, Starling says it remains to be seen if military operations overseas like Balikatan and humanitarian missions like Operation: Seabird would be affected.

“Certainly those are things that…everything comes on the table when you talk about budgets being cut,” Starling said. “My sincere hope is that we will understand the importance of our foreign alliances and the importance of working with our partner nations that will continue this into the future.”

“The Balikatan paid off, because the collaboration was seamless and they were telling us that without those exercises they could not have performed as well as they did,” Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia Jr. said.

You may contact Don Tagala at don_tagala@abs-cbn.com for more information.

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