Healing hands

US Marine Osprey aircraft from Okinawa, Japan, loading relief supplies at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City. (Photos by Linus Guardian Escandor II and Ali Vicoy)

US Marine Osprey aircraft from Okinawa, Japan, loading relief supplies at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City. (Photos by Linus Guardian Escandor II and Ali Vicoy)

Tacloban City in the province of Leyte is a postcard-pretty coastal community etched in history as the place where United States General Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise to return and fight alongside Filipinos against the Japanese colonizers.

How apt to see American troops from today’s generation working alongside Filipinos to liberate typhoon-devastated areas such as Tacloban City from the chaos, hunger, and desperation that come after a storm. Indeed, climate change may yet be the battle of our lives.

Super typhoon Yolanda left in its wake a decimated city, smashed to the ground, roofs, walls and ceilings ripped apart and people dazed and traumatized. Food and water, bountiful in the old Tacloban, have become the survivors’ battlecry.

Government was apologetic, citing the collapse of a standard system for managing disasters where local governments have always been relied upon as the first responders. Yolanda made sure that the first responders won’t be around – no pedigree, title, or position mattered that fateful day when she struck, and struck hard.

Life as we knew it, has been violently altered by Yolanda. Every cold morning shower matters even more nowadays. A traditional breakfast of fried rice with egg cooked sunny side up, and a quick trip to a beauty parlor have become luxuries in our eyes. Through the tears of others, we are struck by the fragility of life, the importance of every moment.

Typhoon Yolanda, known internationally as “Haiyan,” packed sustained winds of 235 kph (147 mph) with gusts of 275 kph (170 mph) when it made landfall. It entered the Philippine area of responsibility on a Thursday, making six landfalls before finally leaving on a Saturday afternoon. Was it the most powerful typhoon ever to hit the Philippines, if not the whole of planet earth? The country’s climate experts differ in granting her that epitaph.

Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III sought the understanding of all Filipinos in a statement issued to explain the delay in the delivery of relief goods: “As Yolanda battered the country, electricity and communications were lost in many areas. This affected not only the communications of those who want to ensure that their families are safe, but also the coordination of our relief efforts. For us to give the aid that is required we need to know what is needed in each area; and we had difficulty obtaining this data. There were also a number of local governments that, because of the extent of the destruction, were paralyzed, because among those who fell victim to the storm were their own personnel and officials. Just think: we returned to a situation where information had to be spread through word-of-mouth—no TVs, cellphones, or Internet; stores and establishments were closed; it was difficult to organize relief efforts. This was the root cause of the chaos that erupted in some areas.”

Political leader Bem Noel who founded An Waray partylist, a regional party based in Leyte, described Tacloban City after the storm as “forty years of memories washed away.” Before and after photos emerged online, a silent epitaph for what was, and what could have been.

Filipinos are resilient. Like bright sunshine that follows a raving storm, people and groups here and abroad have launched their own relief drives. There will be fewer yuletide parties this year, but no matter – the spirit of love, compassion, and generosity has swept the nation. Prayers serve as the bedrock of hope as the healing hands of a united world turn to us, lifting us up, with God’s grace and love.

More than thirty countries have also pledged to help, offering mobile hospitals, money, trauma equipment, and tents. In Saudi Arabia, a group of Filipinos in Jeddah have started its own fund drive dubbed as “Oplan Yolanda.” Task Force Yolanda, put up by Filipino netizens in Saudi Arabia, receives requests from Filipinos overseas for help in tracking down relatives in typhoon-hit provinces. In the US, active Filipino-American groups are mobilizing support for typhoon-hit communities. The biggest ships, the most experienced rescuers, and even an aircraft carrier have found its way to the Visayas region, as love from all corners of the earth seek to overcome the stench of destruction, the incomparable loss of lives.

Was enough done to prevent the loss of lives given the projected size and power of the storm? Constant warnings were given out, and on the day before Yolanda’s arrival, no less than President Aquino sought to underscore the storm’s gathering strength. A local official said they had a warehouse filled with relief goods and evacuation plans were carried. The storm surge spared no one, and all plans, resources, and managerial capacities were simply no match for it. The thing is we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. For, how do you handle a super typhoon like Yolanda? Given a choice, Godzilla on steroids would have made an easier nemesis. Yes, there are lessons to be learned as we slowly, painfully rise on our knees, before the world that has shown great love to a perpetually grateful Philippines.

(Send comments to toots.ople@yahoo.com)

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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