Officials at the United Nations now estimate that Typhoon Haiyan left more than 4,400 people dead and nearly 2 million others displaced after it swept through the Philippines earlier this month as one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded. 

Yet, as in any tragedy, the stories of death and destruction have been matched by equally touching accounts of those compelled to help others in need. In the coming weeks, news out of the Philippines will likely change from officials counting the dead and medics healing the wounded, to everyday volunteers rebuilding homes, schools and churches in an attempt to replace a sense of normalcy swept away in the storm.

Several tour groups and volunteer-abroad organizations have already whipped up disaster response programs to help anyone with skills (or anyone with helping hands) to travel to the Philippines to aid in that process -- all in an extremely controlled environment.

China-based Young Pioneer Tours typically specializes in trips to North Korea, but Travel Director Chris White said he would switch gears in December to lead a special group of volunteers to the Philippines to assist in the post-Haiyan recovery. He said while the organization would prefer those with specialized skills (medical professionals, construction workers, EMTs, relief workers), all are welcome. “We haven’t turned anyone away,” White said. “Just providing an extra set of unskilled hands is incredibly valuable right now.”

White said Young Pioneer Tours had structured its operation to be scalable, and volunteers will be split up into teams and assigned to a specific worksite with a specific mission plan. The organization, whose team will pay its own way to assist in the recovery, has raised $4,000 in five days and hopes to bring that number up to at least $15,000 before Dec. 1 to purchase medical supplies, tools, equipment and food. Their goal is a simple one: work with a team in Bantayan to deliver supplies, remove debris and rebuild 10 homes.

“Security is our top priority,” White noted. “The organization we are working with in the Philippines says security is improving, and I expect by the time our volunteers start showing up on site security will be significantly more stable.”

Most volunteers with Young Pioneer Tours will not arrive until mid-December, giving the team on the ground enough leeway to evaluate the region where they will be working and ensure that no volunteers will be at risk.

Allowing sufficient time for emergency response teams to carry out their work is vitally important in disaster relief, experts say. Sending unskilled volunteers into an area right after a devastating storm, while seemingly helpful, can actually harm the recovery. Not only could it be a danger to the volunteers, but it could also impede the work of those specifically trained in this type of work.

“The worst thing someone could do is show up and add to the problem by not being prepared and getting into a situation they will need help getting out of,” White said. “Going with a group is the only way I suggest volunteering in this type of disaster.”

Groups can provide a safety net as well as the logistical support and local knowledge needed to make a real difference. Christian Clark, program adviser at Projects Abroad, said booking with a reputable organization best ensures safety and productivity.

“There are a lot of dangers of showing up somewhere without a concrete idea of where you are and what you are there to do, ranging from being physically vulnerable to being at risk of not having your time put to good use,” he said. Projects Abroad put out a special call this week for volunteers eager and able to assist in its disaster relief project in the northern part of Cebu Island, close to the typhoon’s path.

While Young Pioneer Tours is focusing on rebuilding homes, Projects Abroad will concentrate on restoring schools and child care centers to look after local children while their parents are working to clean up the rubble. “Or efforts are focusing on education,” Clark said. “We are helping to repair and renovate schools and child care centers so children can continue to receive regular education. We are also helping to look after children to allow families to focus on getting their lives back together and helping with relief efforts themselves.”

Projects Abroad, which had a presence on the ground in the affected area before the storm hit, sent its first set of volunteers in this week and said the response has been tremendous. All volunteers must commit to a minimum of two weeks and pay their own way (though accommodation is provided with a host family in an undamaged home).

Global Volunteer Network, or GVN, which has a long history of involvement in disaster situations, is also in the process of developing a program in the Philippines, but said the risk of outbreaks of disease, the potential for civil unrest and difficult logistical challenges in travel within the country meant it was still too soon for it to send in volunteers.

“The situation on the ground is still unfolding and we are yet to learn of the true extent of the damage,” it said. “It is important that the offer of help does not become a burden on already stressed communities. Even when being extremely helpful, volunteers still need to be fed, housed and supervised.

“With this in mind, we are busy developing a recovery and rebuilding expedition for when the immediate relief operations are over. We expect to take a group of volunteers (or multiple groups depending on demand and need) to the Philippines as soon as is practical and possible to disburse funds and materials and to plan for further recovery operations.”

GVN set up a fundraising appeal where those who wish to volunteer in regions of the Philippines devastated by Typhoon Haiyan can begin raising money today.

For those who lack applicable skills or are simply uncomfortable with the idea of entering a disaster zone, bringing your tourism dollars to the unaffected islands of the Philippines is also a great way to support the recovery.

Tourism receipts in the Philippines were expected to reach $5 billion this year, making it one of the most important sectors of the economy. The Philippine Department of Tourism issued a plea for tourists to return Monday, saying that domestic and international transport remained operational and many of its top destinations were both intact and accessible.

Attractions like the chocolate hills of Bohol, Manila and the island of Boracay were largely spared by the fury of Typhoon Haiyan, and both travel agents and government officials have urged tourists not to abandon the Southeast Asian nation in its time of need.

“We are still the same beautiful country and we are still the same people,” the tourism board said Monday. “We continue to be the same fun destination that the world has come to know. And the root of all that fun has always been anchored on the Filipino people's warmth, hospitality, strength and indomitable spirit.”

More Information

Email to donate or learn more about Young Pioneer Tours’ disaster relief effort in the Philippines.

Click HERE for more information on Projects Abroad’s Disaster Relief project in the Philippines.

Click HERE to read up on the Global Volunteer Network’s Philippines Recovery and Rebuild Program.

Click HERE for general information on travel to the Philippines.