My previous blog "The Competition of Emergencies" was excerpted into an op-ed piece on Philippine Daily Inquirer on 19 December 2013.
BOHOL—With the recent spate of emergencies hitting the Philippines, there’s a need for it to be smarter and think more about how to approach the scale-breaking disasters we should come to expect. But we need to start thinking not just about what happens during a disaster but also the ramifications. A disaster doesn’t truly become a disaster unless the response falls short of what the affected people need.
Not being able to prepare and respond well to disasters actually causes another issue that hampersresponse and recovery. This is what I call a competition of emergencies. What we’re not realizing is that the inability to address the increasing frequency and scale of disasters is the perfect setup for disaster. That we’re not preparing on a scale proportionate to the disasters we are experiencing just means that we will continue to respond and play catch-up with the rotation of disasters.
Also published on Oxfam's blog here.
When our rapid assessment teams came back from Leyte and Eastern Samar, they came from a total information blackout into a storm of angry and combative debate on the efficiency of government response to supertyphoon Haiyan victims. A couple of my colleagues marveled at how negative the atmosphere was and admittedly, the debate has gotten pretty exhausting and polarizing. Everywhere I go, whether it's a dinner, a team meeting, an email exchange or social media, the conversations run along the same questions. Why is government response so slow? With so many donations pouring in, why are people still saying they aren't being served? Where are our donations going to if we're still not moving fast enough? Why should we give it to the government when they are moving so slowly?
It's interesting to be in the position I find myself in, working for a humanitarian agency and having relationships with government and other aid agencies, while at the same time being as involved in the public's reaction as you inevitably find yourself in when you're using social media. Early on in the week, when I could tell that the general feeling towards this response to Haiyan was going to get very heated, I made the conscious decision to step back and not get involved in these debates. But there is a lot of context in what's happening now that I feel is not explained comprehensively enough to understand why we're not moving as quickly as we should.
A few days ago, I was asked to be on the panel of BBC World Have Your Say (BBC Why) on the Analysis of an Aid Mission with representatives from some of the larger aid agencies all around the world. In spite of it being at 2AM in the morning, it was an interesting conversation because it was a rehash that a lot of the problems we're currently encountering were also experienced in a few of the larger disasters in recent years. The Haiti Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina are two such disasters frequently mentioned in line with Supertyphoon Haiyan, and from the aid workers on the panel, there was a sense of "well, we're not learning from our mistakes if the same situations keep happening!"
In work such as mine, I’ve learned to deal with scenes of disaster by keeping myself a little apart from the situation. Not so much that I don’t understand what is happening, but enough so that I don’t get overpowered with emotion and find it so difficult to work. It helps that in my country, Pinoys are resilient and cheerful, smiles ever on our faces, even after hardship and tragedy. We may not always know how we will recover from a disaster but there’s never-failing hope that we will. That is the indomitable spirit of the Filipinos.
In the last few disasters, as they get more severe and more frequent, it’s gotten more difficult to keep that part of me impartial and neutral. Not when I can see trauma and panic in people’s eyes at the possibility of another disaster when they haven’t recovered from the latest one yet. I see the emotions much more completely and in turn, it’s beginning to affect me more.
Our day starts at 7AM and our team is split into 2 to cover as much ground as possible. We’ve deliberately chosen affected areas that we feel have not gotten much coverage and between our teams, we hope to cover at least 4 municipalities: San Isidro and Sagbayan (mountainous municipalities) and Clarin and Calape (coastal municipalities). With the advice of our drivers, we take alternate routes to get to our areas. This adds about 30-45 minutes to our drive, but an hour on the road is still much better than the 6-8 hours we spent crossing Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and Tagum City for Typhoon Pablo. The drive is surprisingly smooth, and I only occasionally see collapsed buildings and rubble. This is a direct contrast to reports that these areas are inaccessible. What we find striking are the number of concrete houses that have collapsed while the wooden houses were still left intact and standing, having absorbed the shock of the earthquake better.
Even from the vantage point of a descending plane, I can see the gaps in the landscape of Tagbilaran City. Where there used to be buildings or structures in place, interspersed now between standing buildings are collapsed roofs, crumbling buildings or cordoned off rubble blocking off streets. Around it, Boholanos are going about their business but I know that every once in a while, people pour out to the streets to wait out an aftershock. Just yesterday, they were as intense as a 5 or 6, strong enough to be an actual earthquake, but actually just echoes of the 7.2 earthquake hitting just off-center of Bohol last October 15.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.