Earlier in the afternoon, while stuck in the constant Manila traffic, I was (as always) scrolling through my phone and monitoring what was coming out of Yolanda. In the middle of the rants, complaints and doubts, I came upon a post about positive stories that grew out of the concern for Yolanda victims.
What struck me the most was a photo of a half-full bag of Bear Brand milk and the story of the elderly laundrywoman who gave it to a man asking for donations for Yolanda victims. The genuine heartfelt donation came with the explanation that the half bag of milk was all she had to give because she had absolutely nothing... but if you mixed it with water and gave it to the children, it would make them happy because it was Bear Brand milk. Tears welled up in the eyes of the man as he thanked her and walked away, dissolving into tears as soon as he got to the privacy of his home.
So did I, man. So did I. Stuck in the normalcy of Metro Manila traffic and the world moving forward as it must do, I scrunched down in my seat so the cabbie couldn’t see me surreptitiously wipe my tears. I continue to be floored by people who think they have nothing still coming up with something for people who have lost everything.
It’s officially a week since Supertyphoon Yolanda changed the Philippines. And I do mean change. Millions of Filipinos were touched by this disaster and millions of people around the world were moved along with us. We’ve been hit by disasters repeatedly over the years and in short order, but this one feels different.
I’ve unconsciously started picking up stories of people who were indirectly affected by the tragedy. None of these people were in the typhoon path. Stories now focus on people who’ve lost their loved ones, homes and way of life in a devastating few hours. But the links that bind Filipinos, whether just here in the Philippines or around the world, have ensured that this is a national tragedy. Maybe that’s why we’re all deeply affected by Yolanda; we or someone we are close to is connected to someone in the fatal line the supertyphoon drew across our country, from Eastern Samar to Coron.
I’m no storyteller so I can’t do justice to the emotions of these stories that touched me. But these are some ties that bind us despite distances:
In an emergency response team meeting in Bohol, my public health promoter told me that the municipal health officer in Sagbayan had gestured towards the stock of medicines behind him saying “All this should just go to Tacloban. They need it more.” (Sagbayan is the epicenter of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the Philippines on October 15. Sagbayan registered damages to 80% of all. Their Municipal Hall is completely damaged, leaving the local government to operate completely out of tents).
In Makati City, while making small talk with a store employee, she tells me that she’s just waiting for her visa to Dubai. Her family’s home by the coast of Ormoc City is completely gone and for days, she’d been crying, wondering what happened to her parents and her siblings. But finding out that her family is alive is bittersweet. They are now living in a pig sty with a tarpaulin for a roof and getting by on relief. And now to rebuild their home in Ormoc City, she is waiting to work in Qatar for a job that pays more. She’ll be away from her children but she tells me “No choice eh.”
A couple of days after Yolanda at around 6pm, I was walking back to our Tagbilaran pension house, cursing the lack of electricity as I nearly tripped several times in the dark. My mobile rang with an unknown number and I answered a call from a woman I had met briefly in a meeting in Manila. She asked me if I could get her in touch with someone in Oxfam who could help their local partners in Cebu affected by the storm. The worry and concern was obvious in her voice.
Yesterday, I got a tweet from someone I had never met before, asking if I knew what happened in San Miguel and Balinganga in Eastern Samar. There was no information on the areas her relatives lived in. I promised I’d check, called up the assessment team and heard the apology in a colleague’s voice when she told me mobility issues had made it difficult to enter those two areas. It took a while to compose only 140 characters full of regret for not being able to help more.
An old law classmate based in Australia messaged me an hour ago asking advice on how she and her other friends could volunteer for disaster assistance. She feels all she and her friends are skilled for is buying tickets to provide relief assistance but it wouldn’t be any use, so all they can do is raise funds instead.
My tough bestfriend in Manila, a realistic director of an NGO, tells me she cries over what is happening. My steady bestfriend in Detroit, a talented doctor in a prestigious children’s hospital, tells me she cries over what is happening.
My funny irreverent aunt in New Jersey is dead serious as she pushes our Oxfam appeal in her Facebook daily, saddened over what is happening.
In the days following the Supertyphoon, in the thick of Oxfam mounting the response, I would check our Facebook group for updates, feeling helpless and itching to help from Bohol. In the rush of the days that followed Yolanda, a colleague in Cebu was working to get a warehouse, hygiene kits and other relief as quickly as possible. Once in a while, she’d resurface on Facebook to post the names of her relatives in Leyte, asking our rapid assessment teams if they had seen them anywhere. Another colleague in Manila was writing proposal after proposal for funding to get the money to reach the 500,000 we want to assist. Early one morning, a post floated down my newsfeed listing down the things she was praying for that day: that our teams would come back safely, that she write quickly, that everyone working stays brave and healthy... and that she would finally hear from her relatives in Samar. An Exfammer working abroad worriedly asks us here in country if we can find out about her relatives in Leyte. Another colleague working in Myanmar rushed home even before the road to Tacloban was clear, intending to make her way there as soon as she touched down so she could find out about her relatives in Leyte. All of them know firsthand about the 24/7 nature of working in an emergency. Oxfam would have understood if they excused themselves from the work... and they didn’t. Their worry was packed neatly away as they worked, resurfacing only when they would take a breather to check for information.
In a previous blog, I said I couldn’t help but feel responsible. Maybe the reason we all seem to be so affected is with so many links criss-crossing the world and zooming in on Leyte, Eastern Samar and other Yolanda-affected areas, the ties that bind us make us responsible for our own.
This disaster feels different because I think we face a monumental cliffhanger of a question that we’re all waiting for the answer to: now that we know that a disaster of this scale can happen to us, what are we going to do about it?
I keep going back to: should we just keep waiting for the answer?
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.