Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan - being a hero for each other

The devastation in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan on Iloilo in the Philippines.
Photo: SBS/AFP
Reflections by Joan Cybil Yao

I NEED to tell you: Typhoon Haiyan was worse than any of us could ever have imagined. The Philippines receives 20+ typhoons every year - floods, landslides and partly-blown off roofs are par for the course.

Believe me when I say we have never before seen the likes of Yolanda /Haiyan.

I need to tell you: Everyday, I read the news and reports from the field, thinking we've reached the bottom of suffering and despair, only to find new depths.

Just when I think my heart can't break any further from the stories of loss and tragedy, something new turns up to break it all over again.

I need to tell you about the bodies decomposing on tree branches, under piles of rubble from collapsed houses, in churches, on the sides of roads, wrapped in blankets or straw mats.

I need to tell you that the news cameras cannot show their faces - features frozen in fear as they died.

I need to tell you about the storm surge - the 6-metre wall of water that rose out of the sea, rushed several kilometres inland and crashed over every building and house by the coastline.

You need to understand that our nation is made up of 7107 islands; nearly everything is by the coastline.


I need to tell you how the storm surge swept in and out four times during the typhoon. Imagine the tremendous force of the sea, surging forward, crushing walls and foundations - and then that same force, sucking everything back in with it.

I need to tell you how children were pulled from their mothers' arms; how people clung desperately to rooftops or tree branches as friends and neighbors sped by, drowning or screaming for help; how today, bodies are still washing up on shore.

I need to tell you about the woman who had to bury 9 of her family members after the typhoon; about the man who lost 30 of his family members to the storm; about the husband and wife who lost their three daughters, and have only located the bodies of 2.

I need to tell you about the man who told his wife to stay in their house because it would be safer there. He found her body after the waters had subsided, embracing their dead son with one arm, and clutching the rafters of their one-story home with the other.

The water had risen too high. I need to tell you how the smell of death permeates the shattered cities and towns all along the Visayas islands.

How relief workers cannot reach people quickly enough due to destroyed roads, airports, bridges. How even to this day, we do not know the full extent of the damage - communications are still down, particularly in the more remote islands and areas of the Visayas.

I need you to understand how helpless we feel - how our boxes of mineral water, biscuits, candlesticks and matches seem like such a weak salve against the brutal violence that nature has unleashed upon our brothers and sisters.

I need to tell you I am driven to distraction, wishing there were more I could do.

At the same time, I need to tell you about the amazing NGOs, universities, corporations and individuals that launched into action immediately after the typhoon.

I need to tell you about the telcos that worked around-the-clock to restore connectivity to at least the main hubs in the Visayas. I need to tell you about the large international NGOs that opened their websites for donations and began mobilising relief services, the day after Haiyan struck.

I need to tell you about the universities and schools that have launched various initiatives to raise funds and supplies for the victims.

I need to tell you how, from 6am-12pm, there are students and volunteers tirelessly packing bag after bag of relief goods to be sent to the survivors.

I need to tell you about the restaurants that have offered to donate their profits for this week to relief efforts; the shipping and transport companies that have offered to pick up and deliver relief goods for free; the various corporations and rich individuals that have made sizeable donations, even without public announcements.

I need to tell you about the millions of [overseas workers] whose hearts are bleeding for their countrymen right now; who are almost constantly monitoring the news and social networking sites for the latest developments; who are organising fundraisers and benefit concerts for the victims and survivors back home.

I need to tell you about the generosity of the whole world - millions of dollars in aid, military or medical support from the governments of the United States, UK, Japan, Australia, Canada, the European Union, and even our neighbors, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.

A pair of young girls in the US set up a lemonade stand to "help typhoon families" - these acts of kindness give us so much comfort and hope during this tragic time. We are immeasurably grateful to be in your thoughts, prayers and hearts.

I need to tell you about the Philippines' negotiation team to this year's UN Climate Talks in Warsaw, which is pleading with the global community to wake up to the effects of climate change and take preventative action, while there is still time.

I echo the words of lead negotiator Yeb Sano, "If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?"

I need to tell you about our government officials - yes, I know, some of them are corrupt, and yes, perhaps they have not handled this crisis as well as we would have hoped - but I need to tell you, there are good people in government.

There are people who have slept very little since the typhoon hit; they have been coordinating aid efforts; they have been trying to fix roads, assess the damage, restore order, and channel goods/services to where they are needed most.

They may not be doing a perfect job, but now cannot be the time to criticise them. They are our government officials, just like the people in the Visayas are our countrymen and women - we must help one another right now; the fingers we use to point blame are better used to pack relief goods or click on the "Donate" box.

Finally, I need to tell you about Filipinos: We are a happy, easygoing people, who can find reasons to smile, sing and be grateful - even in the humblest of conditions, even in the direst of circumstances.

We care a lot about family; that is why 10 million Filipinos spend years living far away from their loved ones, remitting money that will hopefully pay for better lives and futures back home.

Most Filipinos don't have much by means of material wealth, but we make up for it by sharing what we do have with one another. It will astound you, sometimes, how those with the least are the most willing to give the little that they do have.

I recall visiting a Gawad Kalinga village once, where our hosts, a poor family living in a 16 sq m house, actually spent the little money they had to buy food to prepare lunch for us.

This, when their family of four would normally subsist on just a pack of instant noodles and rice each day.

When you hear the word Bayanihan (rooted in the word "Bayani", which is Filipino for "hero") this is what it means: Being a hero for one another.

I can think of no better time for this than now.

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