Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Marvin Montefrio: Blogging on Typhoon Haiyan

There are events in our lives that need to be engraved more permanently in history to always remind us how they influenced and changed our lives. There are also those moments we feel like sharing with the world, in the hopes that others will also remember and do something about in the future. The wrath of typhoon Haiyan is one of those moments in my life, and in everyone else’s who witnessed this tragedy as either a victim in an afflicted town in the Philippines or as a sympathizer from a distant community abroad. This tragic event clearly defines our times, not just as members of the ESF community who are passionate about environmental issues, but also as global citizens of a changing planet. I share this blog post not just to provide my version of this piece of history, but also to tell a story that would, hopefully, inspire others to act now and to remember (and act more) in the future. I sincerely thank each and every one of you for taking time to read this post. I hope this story will linger in you and inspire you to think of ways to do something in the immediate future and in many years to come.

Ominous Clouds Above

It was the afternoon of November 6 (Wednesday) when Yasmin (my wife) and I heard about super typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Yolanda) in the news. We were in Metropolitan Cebu to do interviews for a research project when news erupted about a super typhoon brewing in the Pacific and set to take a path across where we were at. Born and raised in the Philippines, Yasmin and I are used tropical cyclones. On average 20 typhoons visit the Philippines every single year, most pass by quickly while a few leave a more lasting impression. But there was something about super typhoon Haiyan that worried us. Yasmin was set to fly to Manila the following day, but I had plans to go to a nearby province (Iloilo) to continue my data gathering. I could tell she was uneasy about my plans and was constantly reminding me to check with my contacts if the event would still push through. At the last minute my plans got cancelled and I had to rebook my flight back to Manila. While waiting at the boarding gate, flights to and from neighboring provinces were quickly being cancelled. We flew off away from typhoon Haiyan’s destructive path in the nick of time. We were lucky to be in Manila, away from harm.

Early morning of November 8 typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the province of Eastern Samar with sustained winds of 315 km/h (195 mph), making it the strongest tropical cyclone to ever made landfall in history. Haiyan’s strength is equated to a category 5 hurricane, 1.5 times more powerful than Katrina, a category 3 hurricane (at landfall) that caused the loss of at least 1800 lives in the United States in 2005. Haiyan remained a powerful storm when it struck the province of Leyte and gradually weakened when it made four additional landfalls in central Philippines. Haiyan left the Philippines area of responsibility on November 8, 2013, more than 12 hours after it made its first landfall.
Typhoon Haiyan’s Path. Source: mapsofworld.com

Size of Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan relative to the United State. Source: American Red Cross

The Calm After the Storm?

It was not as bad as we expected, at least from where we were in Manila. We were expecting torrential rains with harrowing winds, just as how we experienced super typhoons before. But it was surprisingly weaker that we imagined. The last typhoon that hit Metro Manila, we thought, was several orders more powerful. Apart from a few hours of power outage, the day Haiyan came was largely uneventful for us, Manileños (people living in Metro Manila.)

The calm we experienced in Manila did little for us to understand what it is like to be in Haiyan’s path. On November 9 (Saturday), a few news clips made their way to the giant television networks in Manila. Indeed, the images were very different from what we experienced. Winds were much stronger and there were flying debris and flooding. However, the first images shown did not reflect the damages we imagined a super typhoon would bring to a development country like the Philippines. Even a local news anchor was amazed how the first estimated death toll did not even reach 20. Yasmin and I breathed a sigh of relief, saying, “thank God we were spared,” but at the back of our heads we knew it was too soon to thank our lucky stars. Come the following day we realized that we spoke too soon.

The Devastation Unfolds

More news started to trickle in on November 10 (Sunday) when communication lines were being reestablished and more media personalities made their way to the affected areas. The first few images on the newspapers and television screens were shocking. Cities and towns reduced to rubble, remains of those who perished lie on the streets, and survivors scramble to find loved ones. A few towns were constantly featured, including Tacloban City, a once vibrant economic center of Leyte and the Eastern Visayan region. At least 90 percent of the city is believed to be destroyed, with very little man-made structures and trees remaining standing. Public infrastructure has been severely compromised: electricity and fresh water services indefinitely suspended; roads and bridges leading to the city impassable due to serious damages and large debris; the airport completely wrecked; and all communication lines down. The local government has been completely paralyzed, as civil servants, such as medical workers and police, have become victims themselves, with quite a few injured, missing or confirmed dead. Even the media could not find the right words to describe the magnitude of devastation in Tacloban City. But one correspondent did say, “this place is like a war zone, as if a bomb had been dropped here.” One survivor cried out loud to confirm, “there’s nothing left here. Tacloban is no more!”

The human drama narrated on the ground was too heartbreaking to watch. Local government officials burst into tears as they described their peoples’ traumatic experiences of surviving the powerful winds and storm surges. The mayor of Tacloban City recounted how he and the people in his home had to punch holes in the ceiling and climb to the second floor to avoid being swept away by the ravaging waters. Many detailed how they grabbed on to whatever they could as they watched family members being engulfed by the monster storm. Others did not even have to talk to news correspondents – the lifeless bodies they carried vividly conveyed their tragic encounters with Haiyan. I still cannot forget that Sunday when we saw the local paper’s front page photo of a father carrying his lifeless child on the streets of Tacloban City. It was a melancholic Sunday for me, my Dad, and Yasmin, and for every Filipino family across the nation.   

Extent of destruction in Tacloban City, Leyte. Source: Associated Press

Ships dragged inland by the storm surge in Tacloban City. Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer

A resident in Tacloban City carrying his lifeless daughter. Source: Reuters

The Tragedy Continues

After the clouds cleared up to reveal the devastation in hard-hit towns and cities, the situation on the ground seemed to have gotten worse day by day. The absence of basic public and commercial infrastructure in afflicted towns and cities has triggered confusion, panic and despair. It is chaos on the ground. Survivors have rushed to leave their towns, only to find out that most of them are unable to do so. Some have anxiously waited for military planes to take in evacuees, while others have attempted to walk to other towns hoping for a better situation in those places. Meanwhile, communication has been down and victims are constantly findings ways to let their loved ones outside of their communities know of their situation. But it is not the inability to move out of afflicted areas or communicate with loved one that describe the seemingly worsening tragedy on the ground. It is the lack of food, fresh water and medical attention. 

Supervisors have become desperate as they scramble to find food, water and medical assistance. In Tacloban City, survivors amass outside the airport to cry out for basic aid to be delivered. The rush for food and water has also caused deadly stampedes, adding to the already growing number of casualties. Those injured have flocked to nearby hospitals and wrestled with others to get the attention of the already lean medical staff and to secure the remaining medicines. Victims in Tacloban are becoming increasingly frustrated, as the flow of relief goods and aid barely keep up with the incredible number of people who suffer and perish because of dehydration, starvation, and infections. Many resorted to “looting” grocery stores and supermarkets in frantic attempts to feed and save their families and friends. On top of the chaotic atmosphere is the horrific stench of decaying remains of people that are still lying uncollected on the streets and under the debris. Even those who have food could not bring themselves to eat because of the overpowering smell of decaying flesh.

Incidences of “looting” in Tacloban City. Source: EPA

Conflict and violence on the ground have also escalated. There have been reports of aid operations being attacked by rebels and even armed starving survivors. During relief operations, the Philippine Army has also been reported to engage in firefights with the members of the New Peoples Army, the militant armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Conflict has also reached areas unaffected by the typhoon. Sympathizers from Manila and other unaffected provinces have become frustrated and angry. Lately the social media has been inundated with “hate messages” towards the government because of the perceived slow delivery of aid. Even the news media is now rife with finger pointing and blaming. Unfortunately the tragedy has been reduced to ugly politicking, polarizing debates and coercing people to choose sides between anti- and pro-government. As one commentator said, “either you defend this man [the Philippine President] or you defend the people that this man is ignoring.”

Signs of Hope

The first five days after Haiyan struck the Philippines were disheartening and frustrating for many Filipinos, especially those directly affected by Haiyan’s full fury. Just when many of us are about to lose hope, stories of encouragement have started to reach mass media. Government agencies, religious groups, non-government organizations, schools, and home owner associations in Manila and elsewhere in the country have mobilized to get as many relief packages prepared and delivered to afflicted areas. This has included 24-hour repacking of relief goods in both governmental and non-governmental institutions. Evacuees from afflicted areas are also being attended by volunteers in several centers in Manila. Many creative endeavors have also been organized, such as the “art for a cause” and “dine for a cause” programs to rally the support of the elite. School organizations have also come up with novel ways of helping by building on their strengths. The National Institute of Physics, for example, recently started Project Lightline to make emergency mobile phone chargers out of donated electronic wastes. The organizers hope that Project Lightline would help survivors contact relatives and friends to let them know of their situation. Medical schools are also sending volunteers to assist in beleaguered hospitals and do forensic work for bereaved families.     

Support from overseas is likewise uplifting spirits here in the Philippines. Countries all over the world have begun pledging and donating funds for immediate response and reconstruction. Countries like Japan, Canada and the United States have sent their disaster experts and military forces to aid in distribution of relief goods. Even non-governmental organizations and private citizens abroad have made efforts to raise funds for the typhoon victims. A case in point is the story about a six-year old Japanese girl who gave up her savings to donate 5,000 Japanese Yen to the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo. The messages of concern Yasmin and I receive from friends and colleagues in the United States and Singapore are testament to the overwhelming support Filipinos receive from across the world.

An even inspiring set of stories is that of the courage and support that survivors share amongst each other. For some time, narratives of survivors “looting” shops and robbing other typhoon victims permeated media. These narratives conjured images of chaos and desperation, with some observers unfairly judging the character of Filipinos in these affected areas. There are now stories vividly recounting the resilience of families and communities and the kindness and compassion they share with each other. As recalled by one survivor, in the height of despair a stranger offered to her the food and water he “looted” from a nearby grocery store. There are also numerous reports of how some families have taken in their shelter other survivors and how many have risked their own lives saving those of others.

Relief repacking centers in Metro Manila. Source: DSWD

Mobile clinics provided by corporate foundations. Source: Rappler
Japanese Relief and Medical Workers in affected areas. Source: Associated Press

The Empire State Building shining the colors of the Philippine flag to raise awareness about typhoon Haiyan’s destruction.

More Help Needed

Although the delivery of food, water and medical supplies has recently hastened and the influx of aid and donations continue, the survivors of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines still need more assistance in the next months and years to come. It will definitely take time for survivors to get on their feet, recuperate from the trauma they experienced, and rebuild their lives. In disaster management, the assistance given months and years after a tragedy is just as important as the immediate response. Although we have been receiving generous assistance locally and abroad, we hope that help will continue to be available in the future. Certainly there is still a lot of work to be done.

Thank you for the concern and support you have given us these past few days. Please do not hesitate to contact me (mfmontef@syr.edu) should you want to know more about the Haiyan disaster and/or offer some help. Yasmin and I will organize a short forum to talk about Haiyan, its aftermath and its implications when we return in Spring 2014. I will be posting a few more follow up blog posts in the next few weeks. Once again, thank you for your kind support. 

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