Thursday, April 2, 2015

Yolanda Horror Stories

(published 03 November 2014, MST)

A hotel in Tacloban City—I was jolted awake, suddenly hearing the television I had on purpose left tuned to the National Geographic Channel. At that instant, too, I remembered that I had left all the lights on, as well.
But. Now. They. Were. Off.
I fished for my cell phone beside my pillow to check the time. It was 3:07 am.
I pulled the covers over my head and willed myself to go back to sleep.
* * *
That was in May, in the run-up to the sixth “monthsary”of the destructive typhoon known internationally as Haiyan but remembered here by its local name, Yolanda. I had the chance to go around some cities and municipalities in various affected provinces. I talked to people from local chief executives to barangay officials to residents—men,women and children on the street.
From these conversations, I concluded that my hotel experience was not the real horror story.
At that time, roughly 180 days after the killer typhoon struck the central Philippines, killing thousands and leaving millions displaced, and destroying livelihood, business and infrastructure to the tune of billions of pesos, many from the affected areas were still reeling from the storm. 
They recounted their experiences with a stricken look on their faces as though the tragedy had happened only a day before.
Local leaders also gave their own versions of what they did and did not do before and after the storm made landfall.
Now, another six months later, we are about to mark the first year anniversary of the event that tried us as a nation, humbled us, and made the rest of the world reach out and help.
Despite the passing of 12 full months, the scars remain—no, the wounds remain open. The stories are the same everywhere, whether the affected area is a big city or a fifth-class municipality. The fact that the people’s stories run along the same theme tells us there must be some organized way to address the bigger problem.
Some of the scariest—often, equally sad—stories with the grimmest of outcomes I have encountered are the following:
Our inability to shift from a response mindset to one of preparedness. In 2010, three full years before Yolanda struck, a law was passed highlighting a shift from just responding to disasters to anticipating and preparing for them. The new approach should consider the location and physical characteristics of the community as well as existing organizational relationships among various levels of various agencies. The law also contemplates what happens long after the disaster strikes, in terms of recovery and rehabilitation, with the aim of making the community stronger and more resilient, more ready for the next disaster to come.
Unfortunately, there was great disparity among the LGUs with regard to compliance to the law or even the adoption of this shift, resulting in tragedy.
 Shameless politics. Access to training and other materials for preparedness were most available to political allies of the local chief executive. Access to relief and donations for rehabilitation depended on whether or not the LCE was a political ally of the national government.
It was ugly and unnecessary. It was unimaginable how supposedly decent human beings can stomach withholding much-needed help to people just because the leader of that community does not sport the right political color.
Lack of coordination and failure in logistics. In the aftermath of the storm, there was no shortage of food, clothes, medicines and even materials needed to restore livelihood to help the survivors. There were so many people willing to help. Whether the help got to their intended recipients, however, and equitably—who needed the most help got the most help—was another story.
While many survivors claim that help barely reached them, we also hear stories about how some families were given an excess of fishing boats—two or three when they used to have only one.  And of course there are the spoiled food items which had turned bad and had to be buried or thrown away. 
Our short attention span. Sure, Yolanda was big news last year, and perhaps over the Christmas holidays, and on the six-month mark, and this week for the anniversary. In between, however, we here in Manila eventually went back to our routines and usual pastimes. There is again conspicuous consumption, and scandal among government officials, and everyday struggles we ordinary citizens have to deal with.
As a result, we have not been able to keep track of how rehabilitation has been progressing down there, whether accountable officials are really doing their jobs, and whether people are feeling any semblance of hope, or normalcy, returning. 
It’s been a year. We don’t know all the answers and all the reasons, because ultimately we are just commenting from the armchair. We can understand how difficult it must be for people on the ground, swamped with competing priorities and multiple responsibilities. Perhaps Yolanda was just so strong it took us all—even the most prepared among us—by surprise.
We recount these horror stories nonetheless because they are true. It is time to pull the covers down and face these things that haunt us, and hound us.
And maybe one day they will cease to be horror stories. They will be lessons learned—material for success stories that we are yet to live.

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