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MIT responds to Typhoon Haiyan

Community springs to action after the Philippines’ deadliest natural disaster.
A child surveys damage outside of his home in San Jose, a neighborhood of Tacloban, Philippines, located on the ocean.  Everything close to shore was washed away by the November 2013 storm surge.
A child surveys damage outside of his home in San Jose, a neighborhood of Tacloban, Philippines, located on the ocean. Everything close to shore was washed away by the November 2013 storm surge.
Alison Laporte-Oshiro

On Nov. 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines. Winds reaching nearly 200 mph battered the city of Tacloban and the surrounding areas, creating 16-foot waves that swept away homes, people, and livelihoods. It quickly became the country’s deadliest natural disaster on record: More than 6,000 people died, and nearly 2,000 went missing. The damage was estimated at $1.5 billion.

By now, the story has largely faded from the headlines, but the challenges that Filipinos face in rebuilding their homes and communities endure. To help in this recovery, individuals from around MIT continue to provide support and guidance for those affected.

Taking action

In a message to the MIT community the weekend of the disaster, President Reif extended his condolences to the people of the Philippines. He also charged Provost Martin Schmidt and Faculty Chair Steven Hall with exploring ways in which MIT might be able to help Filipinos in their recovery. 

About a week later, Schmidt and Hall followed up with a message describing the Institute’s focus on the safety of those with ties in the Philippines and inviting community input. The response was overwhelming. From faculty, staff, and students to alumni and relatives of MIT affiliates, the community stepped forward with a remarkable eagerness to help. In addition to those who expressed an interest in working together to strategize a response, the community showed its generosity, donating nearly $10,000 to the MIT Philippines Relief Fund

Building on this outpouring of support, a working group chaired by associate professor of history Christopher Capozzola was formed to leverage the expertise of the MIT community in addressing problems facing the people of the Philippines. The working group identified the Independent Activities Period (IAP), which was due to start in just a few short weeks, as an opportunity for on-the-ground assessment.

Acting quickly, the working group distributed a call for proposals aimed at community members interested in traveling to the Philippines over IAP to assess the situation and identify ways in which MIT might be uniquely positioned to assist.  Using donations made to the MIT Philippines Relief Fund, the working group approved the applications of Mary Anne Ocampo, a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Alison Laporte-Oshiro, a graduate student in the Sloan School of Management. Ocampo and Laporte-Oshiro traveled to the Philippines in mid-January and returned at the end of that month.

Modeling relief and recovery

Laporte-Oshiro, who had previous experience in disaster response work as a member of Save the Children’s Emergency Response Team, focused on immediate aid operations. Working under the guidance of MIT Sloan professor Vivek Farias and MIT Humanitarian Response Lab director Jarrod Goentzel, Laporte-Oshiro traveled to the Philippines’ hardest-hit region, where she mapped aid flow, identified bottlenecks, and pinpointed areas where MIT’s engineering, logistics, and operations management expertise could immediately be brought to bear.

Focusing more on long-term efforts, Ocampo, who studies metro Manila’s vulnerability to flooding, assessed recovery initiatives and rebuilding efforts. She gathered data; mapped current flood mitigation projects; documented the rehabilitation of Estero de Paco, which has become a model for rebuilding in flood-prone areas; and identified ways in which MIT might support future urban resiliency efforts.

Ocampo and Laporte-Oshiro worked closely with other MIT affiliates, including Sally Susnowitz, assistant dean and director of the Public Service Center (PSC), to prepare for their journeys. In the Philippines, they established connections at Asian Development Bank, Ateneo de Manila University, the University of the Philippines, the Philippine Red Cross, Save the Children, the United Nations, the U.S. Embassy, and the World Bank. They also benefited from the support of the extensive MIT Alumni Association network in the Philippines, led by Gerardo Borromeo ‘83. 

Both travelers described their experiences as extremely meaningful. “The destruction was terrible, absolute,” Laporte-Oshiro said. “But is was amazing to see how excited everyone — victims, first responders — was to hear that MIT wanted to help.”  Ocampo agreed: “Our time in the Philippines created so many unique opportunities for connecting with great organizations, understanding the strength of local communities, and imagining ways that MIT could support post-disaster relief and recovery.”

Capozzola expressed his appreciation for the progress that Ocampo and Laporte-Oshiro made on their trips, and described the importance of maintaining momentum: “When we first met after their return from the Philippines, Alison said something that has stayed with me. She said, ‘People will remember if you come, ask questions, and don’t come back.’ The steps we’ve taken over the past three-and-a-half months have been significant, but the real value will be in what we do next.”

Noting the outpouring of support following the disaster, Reif said, “The MIT community’s eagerness to help in times of tragedy continues to inspire me. Both in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon and in the months since, I have been enormously proud of our campus’s response.” He added, “I am especially grateful to Chris, Mary Anne, and Alison for their leadership. Their contributions have been invaluable in helping to define ways that MIT can make a lasting and meaningful impact.”

Getting students involved

To that end, the MIT community is moving fast to build on the process Ocampo and Laporte-Oshiro have begun, incorporating its responses in teaching, research, and community-building, both on campus and in collaboration with Philippine partners.  Ocampo is hoping to conduct a planning and design studio that will transport a class of MIT students to the Philippines next spring.  The students would potentially collaborate with their counterparts at Ateneo de Manila University and the University of the Philippines to develop strategies for improving urban resiliency.

Meanwhile, Public Service Center Grants may provide partial funding for student public service work in the Philippines, as well as for faculty-initiated service-learning projects.

Other corners of the Institute are also launching initiatives. Through the participation of several of more than a dozen Action Learning labs, MIT Sloan is planning a yearlong initiative during which teams of students will work with organizations involved in the Philippines recovery. MIT Lincoln Laboratory has set up an initiative through its new Beaver Works Center on campus to explore ways in which its advanced technology can support future large-scale disaster relief operations. 

The Humanitarian Response Lab is pursuing an opportunity with the United Nations’ World Food Program to place a member of the MIT community in the Philippines to design new supply chain strategies that increase response capacity. In addition, lab director Goentzel has focused two of the student projects in ESD.283, Humanitarian Logistics, on the Haiyan response. In one, students work with the Red Cross and the Shelter Cluster to analyze the distribution of shelter and non-food items in the aftermath of the typhoon.  In the other, students partner with the World Food Program and the Logistics Cluster to track logistics flows and identify bottlenecks during the response.

In addition, the Asian Pacific American Employee Resource Group is planning a fundraiser next fall to benefit the MIT Philippines Relief Fund.  Donations to that account will continue to support MIT’s efforts.

Interested in getting involved in any of these initiatives or starting your own?  Please email

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