First, a confession. I am the notsowise guy who blithely suggested that 11/8 (Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, November 8, 2013) is our unfortunate tragic parallel to America’s 9/11 (the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on September 11,2001). In fact there can be no comparison, since one is an act of God; the other an act of man.
Next, a declaration. This column is not a screed against the Aquino administration, or against disasters in general. Our government did many things wrong in response to the tragedy, but it also got some things right. And we’re faring much better than feared.
And finally, a policy note. As a matter of policy, when writing about this disaster, I refer to it as Yolanda/Haiyan—in order for Filipinos to always remember the exceptional international response and compassion for us in our time of need and the international support still needed to enable us to fully surmount this catastrophe.
I think Yolanda/Haiyan, because of its sheer power and ferocity, provided our nation and the world a moment of moral clarity to get together and act as one – in support of all the victims and affected communities. It was a demonstration of solidarity and empathy for which we Filipinos cannot thank them enough.
Remembering and moving on
Today, on the first anniversary of Yolanda/Haiyan, I hope this day of remembrance does not become an industry like the 9/11 commemoration—packaged like entertainment, weighed down by propaganda and scandal journalism, every emotion scripted, the victims stereotyped and the bad guys ritualistically flogged.
Today, when Yolanda becomes something that happened last year, we need to hold on to the memories and images that made it so devastating and so horrifying, and so difficult to surmount, individually and together.
It’s understandable that government is zealously trying to sell the narrative that East Visayas and Tacloban have now returned to normalcy, that the reconstruction slogan “build back better” is really taking hold. Crony media have dutifully retailed the story, talking of a new Tacloban rising from the ruins.
A fishbone in Tacloban’s throat
But there is a contrary reality that abides and persists, and it shows us the awesome tragedy and misery that persist among the victims of Yolanda who are still living in tents, unable to rebuild their lives and return to their occupations, and the awesome challenge of rehabilitation and reconstruction that now faces the government and the affected communities..
This challenge is vividly crystallized by the images of the ships that were swept ashore by Yolanda into the heart of the city, into the homes of so many of the city’s working class.
One year after, there are seven ships still in the city, stuck like a fishbone in the city’s throat. It is not known how many people lie buried underneath them. Because the problem is intractable (it will cost millions to remove the ships), local and national government officials have talked about turning the ships into museums and veritable monuments to Yolanda/Haiyan.
That is for the future. There were clearly problems and shortcomings in the rescue and relief stages of coping with the disaster. Let’s be clear that we’re now in the phase of reconstruction and rehabilitation, which encompasses building shelter, rebuilding public services and infrastructure, and reviving the local economy.
Four needs of disaster victims
Because of my personal interest in what happened in East Vsayas, I’ve been doing a lot of research on coping with natural disasters and the comparative record of nations in facing them.
In the book, the politics of disaster, Professor Marvin Olasky, who is credited as “the father of compassionate conservativism,” says that those facing a disaster need four kinds of help:
First, to become survivors, they sometimes need rescue from rising water, surging fire, or collapsed buildings.
Second, they often need immediate relief, since they are often separated from the regular ways of accessing food, water, shelter, clothing and power.
Third, once the days of emergency are over, they need recovery over the subsequent weeks and months. They need their usual income plus more to do repairs, but the regular means of receiving income may have vanished.
Fourth, as material needs are met, they also need psychological and spiritual restoration, because the previous bedrock may have been sundered.
Thus: rescue, relief, recovery and restoration. They are the key needs on which victims must be assisted, so they will not only survive, but rebuild their lives and their families.
The huge cry of protest surging from East Visayas has arisen because the national and local governments have not coordinated in helping victims, and in using public funds and donated funds effectively.
It is a blessing that so many groups—foreign aid organizations, the Red Cross, nongovernment organizations, private companies, charities and the United Nations– have gotten engaged in the recovery and reconstruction efforts, usually mounting their own projects instead of relying on government agencies to deliver the aid.
As in the Katrina disaster in the US, this outside assistance has made all the difference between success and failure in coping with the disaster.
And it is still a question whether we Filipinos have surmounted the awesome challenge of Yolanda/Haiyan.
CNN syndrome and other lessons
In his highly enlightening book, Professor Olasky provides an instructive tour of the huge disasters in history. And He gives the reader he following kernels of wisdom to take away.
1. Unanticipated problems are inevitable, but politics and pride can turn them into disasters.
2. Hurricanes, earthquakes and the like are acts of God. The extent of the damage they cause often depends on the politics and economics of man.
3. Disasters aren’t new. Brimstone buried Sodom and Gommorrah 4,000 years ago.
4. Disasters today often must cope with the “CNN Syndrome, which treats disaster and emergencies as dramatic news and whose appetite can be insatiable.” Media today moves more quickly and make news of suffering immediate.
5. While many people know more about natural disasters, most people believe the disasters won’t happen to them. So they don’t provision or prepare enough for them.
6. The availabilty of funds from the government leads people to ask what the country can do for them, instead of what they can do for themselves and for their neighbors.
7. Seventh and finally, Olasky gives us this gem: When so many are discontented with government under normal situations, why should we think that it could satisfy people in an emergency? To no one’s surprise, the Aquino administration could not measure up when Yolanda/Haiyan made its historic landfall in East Visayas.