As the world knows, last Friday a super typhoon devastated several communities through the Visayan islands of the Philippines. The media has been covering a variety of stories ranging from the infants who have been born in post-Yolanda rubble and are in desperate need of attention to the slow delivery of aid. The numbers of those who have lost their lives is debatable, and the numbers of people who will continue to lost their lives in the coming days is equally debatable as many regions have yet to be reached. Images of the destruction are paralyzing, and leave many of us with feelings of hopelessness.
A few days before Haiyan/Yolanda made landfall I was skyping with a friend who is in the middle of making a decision about living and working in a developing country for two years. He asked me some questions no one else has asked me, questions I don't think I've even asked myself since being back from the Philippines. He asked me how I handle knowing I just got on a plane one day and left my community behind. He asked me if I struggle with guilt on a regular basis for living the life I'm now living after living such a different life just a year ago.
I think the answers to these questions are complicated, and I think they depend on my mood and the worldview I may possess on any given day, but largely I would say, "Yes. it is hard to know how easy it was to get on a plane to leave a life I had shared with such amazing people for two years. It is hard to know how easy it was for me to adapt back to life hear. It is hard to have moments of guilt and to wonder where they come from, then think back to the Philippines and know how much I could be doing for people there with the money I spend here on a dinner."
Now, these statements are even more true. I wish i was there to help. To burry bodies, unblock roads, search for water for mothers who have just given birth...to do anything that needs to be done. But, I am here, and from here I will do what I can with your help.
My island was not affected in the super typhoon last week, but I spent some time in Tacloban and Baybay, two of the friendliest places I had been during my time in the Philippines. Several families took me in and treated me as a one of themselves. They were comfortable people to be with and refreshed me during a time when I needed to be re-inspired and reenergized.
The islands that were hit by Yolanda were home to several PCV's. Some I knew, and many I've never met. Several volunteers were on Leyte and Samar when Haiyan/Yolanda hit. All of the PCVs that were serving in the affected areas have now been evacuated, though it wasn't until after the storm. They were consolidated in a hotel in Tacloban, the largest of the devastated cities, and when they emerged from the hotel after the storm passed, they realized that not much more than their hotel was left standing. They were lucky. They were especially lucky in that the US State Department had already mobilized to come rescue them. One of the PCVs reported this:
The PCV who wrote that above statement was on the same plane as the news crews from CNN, BBC, etc. and those reporters told him that they'd covered Haiti, Katrina, and a variety of other horrendous natural disasters, but that they had never seen anything like this. They were having a hard time finding the words they would use to report the story. Many of the videos the news outlets gathered had to be censored because they were too graphic to air.
The volunteers and tourists that were air-lifted are the lucky ones. It's those who were left behind that we all should worry about. The estimates of over 10,000 dead are still just an estimate, but that number can be lower if aid can reach those who survived the initial storm before they die from lack of food, clean water and medicine. As often happens in disasters like this, the aid arrives at the nearest airport, desperate people are already lined up at the airport, and by the time all of those people receive aid, there is none left to spread out beyond the airport or city limits. Some of the hardest hit municipalities are far from the city - in fact, one report said that the 3.5mi road from Tacloban to one of the municipalities is taking rescue workers more than 6 hours to traverse because of downed trees and power lines.
While I'm fortunate to not directly know of anyone who was killed, is missing, or was rendered homeless by the storm, many of my PCV friends lived in and served those very communities that have now been flattened. They have yet to be able to make contact with their host families, colleagues and friends. They don't even know if their loved ones are alive. One friend said she was online chatting with friends in her community on Friday night, before the storm hit and they said they had gathered everyone to the school gym so that they would be safer than in their homes. She hasn't heard from them since that night, and when she saw aerial footage of the town, she saw that the gym was flattened. It's a horrible feeling being so far away and not being able to help.
While other volunteers have been helping map the affected areas in order to facilitate aid delivery, we've been working together to make contact with people who are in a position to get aid directly into those remote communities that have yet to receive any aid. We're working with the mayor and local officials from one of the remote municipalities who were able to evacuate before the storm. Some of those more connected and powerful friends have arranged convoys and are packing up supply trucks to drive from Manila. We are waiting to hear back that they are able to make the trip successfully without being ambushed and looted before reaching their destination. If they are able to successfully reach those remote areas, some of our funding will be directed toward their efforts. If not, we will donate the ongoing funds to the agencies who are proving to be the most effective at distributing aid and helping to rebuild.
This is not a hopeless situation. It is incomprehensible, and it is horrific, and it is beyond devastating, and it is going to be a long and hard road to recovery, but it isn't hopeless. The sooner aid can reach the people in remote places that have been isolated until this point, the better their chances at survival are. Filipinos are resilient and industrious. They will overcome this, but your help is needed.
Please consider donating. If you are interested in giving directly to the communities where PCVs lived and served please let me know. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will put you in contact with some Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who are collecting donations to send to their municipalities, host families, and colleagues. I highly recommend doing this as it is the only way to ensure money reaches many of the people who have yet to see aid.
If you are more comfortable donating to large charities here is a list of various organizations that are actively working on the ground and are expanding their service day by day.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and for supporting the people of the Philippines.