Serendipity in the Philippines. I have stopped questioning what brought me to this particular place in the world. It certainly wasn’t the result of a grand quest by any means. The wheels were in motion when I first applied for an internship in Jamaica almost one year ago. As fate would have it, I was reassigned. All I knew was this: in spite of the earthquakes, the brownouts, floods, typhoons, and more brownouts, I couldn’t have been more grateful to be where I was, right there in Iloilo City. Words escape me when I think about the people I met in those 7 months, and the scenes I saw in those final two. It is my sincerest hope that no one will ever have to endure the variety of nature’s torment as Filipinos do. Truth be told, I don’t think any other people in the world could shoulder that kind of burden so gracefully.
It has taken me so long to put this whole thing down in print because I’ve never been a writer of stories or emotional experience. I typically write in hypothetics or fact; what can I say, the satirist in me prefers this. Actually, I think the only time I really opened up and talked about my experience after the typhoon was in a raw and honest moment weeks later while on the phone with my mom. I hadn’t really absorbed anything I was seeing until that moment. But for the sake of taking you on a literary tour of my mind, here’s how it went down…
Following a weeklong visa-renewal induced expedition visiting Savannah and Emily’s wonderful friends in Singapore and Malaysia, it was back to work; I, to prepare for the appeal stages of fulfilling LGSP-LED’s tourism frontliner trainings/manuals, and the girls to organize the Blue Water Competition. Even though it felt like we had been away for a lot longer than a week, we got back to the grind fairly quickly, easing our way back to where we left off.
By Wednesday of our week back, I heard a faint buzz about a typhoon. Let me just preface this by saying, hearing the word “typhoon”, is not an uncommon occurrence in the Philippines. Sadly, typhoons are about as common as a severe snow storm in Toronto. All 7,100 islands of the Philippines are highly vulnerable to tropical storms, typhoons, landslides, floods, and earthquakes (only 2 weeks earlier having experienced a 7.4 magnitude earthquake, severely impacting Bohol) among the list of natural disasters. I know what you’re thinking. Why is it that Third World countries always get hit with all this injustice when it’s more developed countries that have the highest hand in contributing to climate change? Oh you weren’t thinking that? Well, maybe you should. Maybe we all should.
To stay on point, I really felt for my fellow intern in Bohol who had been working for two months on developing culinary tourism in the resort heavy tropical destination. Somehow, this small island needed to rebuild. But such is life in the Philippines. No one ever throws in the towel here. It simply is not an option. What made me sad was that I was expecting to go to Bohol to attend workshops on culinary tourism only days after the earthquake left its mark. But alas, the damage was done.
Fast forward two weeks. When I first heard about a Typhoon named Yolanda (internationally known as Haiyan). I admit I thought it didn’t sound all that threatening. I recall even making a joke about the name ‘Yolanda’ in a Facebook status. News reports were calling it a “supertyphoon”, shouldn’t it at least sound scary? Well Yolanda or Bubbles, Thor or The Hulk, the name wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing could have prepared me for the wrath of Haiyan, a supertyphoon that would soon develop into a signal 5 storm, annihilator of cities, and murderer of thousands.
By Thursday at around 2 p.m., our office got word that the mayor had cancelled work and school for the following day, and furthermore was sending people home early encouraging everyone to prepare for the impending storm. Earlier reports claimed this would be the strongest storm of the year. But no one really believed that, after all, this is typhoon season in the Philippines. Later reports would confirm that Yolanda (aka Haiyan) was in fact the strongest storm ever recorded on the planet. On the PLANET.
On your average “typhoon day” any mention of an impending storm might be met with a shoulder shrug or raised eyebrows as if to say “Yeah, so?”. On this day in particular, though, with the radio on in the office and the announcer speaking in more than usual muffled Ilonggo, I could only assume this was just a typical typhoon day. But the moment I saw the look of concern on everyone’s faces, I knew it was serious. I loaded up my phone with credit, texted the girls, and marched over to the nearest supermarket to stock up on supplies. In hindsight I should have hit the supermarket first – it was mayhem. Canned goods were stockpiled, shelves were empty, carts were loaded with bottled water, and don’t get me started on the chips aisle.
As difficult as it was to move, I managed to grab a few candles, a box a waterproof matches, powdered milk and canned goods before racing to the checkout lines which were getting longer by the minute.
Emily, Savannah and I spent the next waking hours waiting for the power to go, or the rain to come. But neither went nor came. She would hit landfall in the night and reach Iloilo by noon tomorrow. So the house went to sleep.
I guess it would be insane to imagine a dreamless sleep after getting news like that. Only for me, it didn’t feel like a dream. It was like a memory, so vivid and so real. The next morning I met Savannah at our dinner table and asked her if the storm had passed. I knew the answer was no, but I told her about my dream anyway. I dreamt that I woke up to find out that the eye of the storm had actually passed right over the city, and that it was too high up to have the kind of damage we were expecting. It was a miracle.
We had a chuckle. I rechecked the news.
Yolanda made landfall in the middle of the night in Eastern Samar, and devastated Leyte early that morning. It was all I could do but pray for the safety of my fellow intern Andrea (who I hadn’t even met yet!), stationed at the LGSP-LED project site in Palompon.
By about 11 am, power and cellular reception was no more. The wind and the rain followed suit. We watched from our windowless loft on the top floor of our house until the wind became too much and started forcing water in beneath the roof. The volume of the rain hitting the aluminum roof increased. Faster. Louder. The sky transformed, violent, blackening every cloud in sight. It looked like we would be needing those candles sooner than expected.
We tried as much as possible to distract ourselves from the destruction that we knew was taking place outside. Interviewing each other, I recorded a video while we sat in candlelight:
“I feel really sad for all the people outside that don’t have strong shelter like we do”
“I hope everyone is okay. It’s really unfair, especially after there were reports of tornados in Pavia just last week”
“I think the people of the Philippines have been through enough”
When it seemed like the worst of the storm had passed, in a strange twist of fate, the power resumed and the SOS signal on my mobile was replaced with 2 bars. I messaged Lea and my friends to make sure everyone was safe. To my surprise our crappy internet stick even came back to life, allowing us each to check in with our loved ones online who we’re sitting in wait to hear from us. Forty-five minutes later, all lines of power and communication would be lost for nearly 3 days as the transformer in our neighborhood inevitably gave way.
As information trickled in, I learned that my dream wasn’t far off at all. The storm that should have incapacitated the city, in fact only left it with minor cuts and scrapes. An hour north of the city was an entirely different scene. In a meeting with Mayor, he described the view overlooking Iloilo harbour from the top floor of City Hall. The strait that sits between the island province of Guimaras and Iloilo showed no signs of a storm; calm waters indicated the protection from the hilly island just adjacent to us. To the right, Mayor said, blowing rain and high waves drew a grim picture of the magnitude of conditions the city was spared. Atop the hills of Guimaras sits a large cross. Right there in the boardroom of Mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog, the mayor said a prayer thanking God for sparing his city. This was followed by a prayer for those millions who weren’t so lucky.
IN HER WAKE
In the days following Yolanda, all hands were on deck at the provincial Capitol. Students, employees and anyone and everyone filed the small circular lobby, occupying every square inch of floor, unsystematically bagging rice, sardines and noodles. On a few occasions I managed to organize an assembly line to improve the flow and assign everyone in my work station a job. It did strike me as odd, however that these relief goods being distributed would require fresh water to prepare.
Once the major roads were made accessible and cleared of fallen trees and debris, I joined the Rotary Club in their goods distribution mission to the northern municipalities of Concepcion and San Dionisio. The further north we would drive, the faster my heart would race. I couldn’t believe the destruction before my eyes less than a mere hundred kilometres from where I lived.
Clouds of smoke emerged from villages along the narrow road as people were coping with the abundance of solid waste the only way they knew how. Metal roofs were crumpled up like paper. Trees of every size imaginable were baring their roots. Living rooms were exposed without walls. And any tower that once supplied power or communication was toppled over. The SOS signal on my mobile hung around these areas like the constant odor of burning garbage. I thought, worse than living in darkness for weeks must be the inability to communicate survival to loved ones. I used a template I created to fill in personal information on Google Person Finder for individuals with family and/or friends residing in another province or abroad (translated in Ilonggo with a big red sign). I also took their photo to upload to the site, accompanying their profile as a “found” survivor of supertyphoon Yolanda.
I had heard about water distribution that was taking place in select municipalities in northern Iloilo where coastal communities had been severely damaged. It was only after my involvement with collecting data for the relief organization Humanity First that I learned this water was actually privately donated.
Working to address the basic need of access to fresh water (disaster relief groups are organized by ‘clusters’; in this case Humanity First was in the Water Cluster), Project Manager Brian Wilson reached out to me through a connection I made at a briefing in the governor’s boardroom with the Canadian Forces deployed Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) Lieutenant Colonel Walter Taylor. In four days, Mr. Wilson told me, UNICEF would be deploying its first shipment of water purification bladders.
In those crucial days that followed the briefing at the province, access to information, I would learn from Mr. Wilson, was nearly impossible to obtain. Unfortunately – and for a multitude of reasons – I wasn’t all too surprised. Time is a tricky concept in development work, but this was disaster relief. Granted, it was a realm I didn’t have much experience in, but nevertheless one in which I knew time could not be afforded. It had to be communicated that without the filled in forms (there were two: Initial Rapid Assessment, and Displacement Tracking Matrix) it would be difficult to prioritize placement and determine water bladder allocation according to need.
On visiting some of these areas first hand, I became well aware that for many coastal municipalities (including San Dionisio, Concepcion, Carles, and Estancia; incongruously, the latter having suffered an oil spill from a barge slamming into the village from the storm surge), the extent of the damage to their main source of livelihoods (30,000 fishing boats and 33 million coconut trees) left them all the more vulnerable to time.
Since I had become vaguely familiar with the intricacies of government offices in Iloilo, I took it upon myself to knock on every door at the Capitol, forms in hand, until someone could help me. To go into detail about the lack of interest my pleas were met with would be moot. To put it plainly, I wasn’t getting anywhere. I met with seven different personnel and department heads that day, including those at the Social Welfare and Development Office (which was overseeing donations), the Health Office, and finally the Provincial Planning and Development Office.
After stating the (unofficial) purpose of my visit for the seventh time, I was pointed to the door of Sir Mario Nillos, provincial department head, and a man who’s acquaintance I had made in previous meetings with LGSP-LED.
This data, I explained, is essential for the aid – that is en route as we speak! – to be appropriately assigned.
When I spoke those words for the umpteenth time that day, it finally dawned on me. NO ONE wanted to be moved down the priority list. In their mind, cooperating in my data collection would mean that some would benefit while others would be left behind.
I took a deep breath. I might have to resort to different tactics…
Sir Mar took a moment to read the forms thoroughly. He took off his glasses. Nodded.
I will have some people from my office collect the information you need. Give me 2 days.
Thanks to the magnificent team at the Iloilo Business Club, the hard copies were immediately scanned and emailed to me while I was away in Manila for an LGSP-LED meeting. I was then able to forward about the data collected from 10 different municipalities in Northern Iloilo, including the ravaged communities of San Dionisio, Carles and Concepcion.
It has been six months since Yolanda devastated the Philippines. On my return to Canada last week, I attended a presentation of findings and key lessons taken from the response in a panel discussion hosted by the Humanitarian Coalition in Ottawa. Among the panelists were Stephane Michaud, Canadian Red Cross Deputy Director Emergencies and Recovery, as well as Serge Koskinen, Manager and International Humanitarian Assistance Directorate for Canada (Mr. Koskinen was also deployed to Iloilo/Roxas with DART).
During the discussion, it was brought to light that there hadn’t been much media attention to Yolanda’s six month anniversary, and that it was likely indicative of the success of relief efforts. I cannot verify whether or not this statement is true as I am no longer in the field, and unfortunately, experience has only taught me that what you hear may be entirely contrary to what you see. However, despite the fact that a lot of the findings were delivered on a strictly off-the-record basis, I can deduce two forces at hand in the response and recovery efforts over the past six months.
First and foremost, the compassion and generosity shown by the world was insurmountable. I have no words to express how moved I was to learn, before the government of Canada’s matching program, how much the Canadian Red Cross was able to collect from everyday people. (You can read the 6 month donor report here). What’s more, ongoing commitments to recovery and integrated programming – including five year capacity building – carried out by various organisations has inspired me to commit myself as an ambassador for such humanitarian causes both in my personal and professional life.
The second force at hand in the healing of the Philippines post-Yolanda is the resilience and unwavering spirit of the Filipinos. One of the common concerns raised in the aftermath of a disaster of this magnitude is security. We have seen that, when faced with adversity, the “every man for himself” mentality can create a dangerous and unsafe living environment for survivors. However, it was assessed that security was not a major concern in this case, and I have no doubt that this was due, in large part, to the nature of Filipinos. Inherent to Filipino culture is humility, generosity, kindness, and consideration for their neighbour.
Even as I walked through a crumbling elementary school in the municipality of Sara, I was offered sandwiches and Coca Cola by a desperate principal who had only five notebooks and 20 pencils to distribute among 1,200 students and teachers.
This article is merely my account of the storm and the months that followed. I am very aware that I was in an extremely rare position at that time, both as a volunteer, and as Canadian working in such close proximities with the government. It’s not every day you are in a position to witness this kind of destruction and have the opportunity to do something tangible to help. At the same time, I also appreciated the unique position I was in to witness the complexities that come with disaster relief and humanitarian aid in the developing world.
The question that still plagues me today though is, with overwhelming resources making their way to Iloilo, how was there no one knocking on doors at the Capitol in an official capacity? That said, I believe there is a grave need for official Monitoring and Evaluation Officers to be fixed on site, both to assess/collect data, and to coordinate with cluster groups to prevent overlap of efforts.
I hope that people will never stop caring. I also hope that people continue to ask questions. Yes, the news does a good job of awakening our sense of responsibility when disaster strikes. Consequently, it also does a good job of diverting our attention from the root cause of these disasters, that is global warming. We can’t possibly ignore the rising intensity of natural disasters taking place in the world today. Haiyan wasn’t a nightmare for people of the Philippines, it was a reality.