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Looking Back

History repeated

/ 10:54 PM November 14, 2013

Finding sympathy after a tragedy is easy; finding the same generosity in good times is not. You will truly know who your friends are when they share in your happiness. International media have focused on Tacloban and brought an outpouring of aid that we can only hope will be distributed to other areas not covered by the cameras but are also in need. The fact that we don’t have a clear estimate of the damage makes the distribution of relief difficult. Everyone is doing what they can, so please send constructive suggestions rather than complaints. Be part of a solution, not part of the problem.

Early on when Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with messages of concern, someone issued the reminder that these accounts were set up to put people in touch with missing relatives and friends and were not a venue to tweet and post prayers that were best said privately. Then people heeded calls for donations, and the question frequently asked was where the donations should be sent. First, you have to find a credible organization with a track record of delivering the goods. Second, you have to find an organization that works or coordinates with, rather than against or parallel to, national government efforts. Third, you may send relief in cash or in kind, or sympathy.

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In Tokyo, office staff and students who know I’m from the Philippines e-mailed or verbally expressed their sympathy for the country and the victims. Donations of cash and kind are being sent to and accepted by the Philippine Embassy in the city, and two particular donations stood out and brought some embassy personnel to tears. Keniou Watanabe sent money and, along with it, bright paper creations in origami that he hoped could be distributed to children who needed some cheer. Then there was six-year-old Shouichi Kondo who sent the savings in his piggy bank to the typhoon survivors. While the media and the world are focused on the Philippines in sympathy and aid, these should all get to the survivors before the news cameras move to the next crisis.

We know that people in Leyte need clean water, food, blankets, and medicines, but shouldn’t someone on the ground tell us what else is needed, like toilet facilities or ways to identify and bury the dead? Some people take a call for donations as an excuse to do some spring cleaning and with all good intentions send inappropriate things. Early on, a friend on Facebook reminded some Good Samaritans to refrain from sending  barong  Tagalog and long gowns and cocktail dresses to the relief centers. These have to be sorted out and will probably end up unwanted in evacuation centers, to be collected by the industrious and sold in better times in an  ukay-ukay. Clothes sent as relief goods should be washed and folded to save time in sorting. Another person reminded some people not to send loose or worn underwear, saying that spring cleaning is one thing and helping out is another. Some things are meant for donation, others should go straight to the trash.

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Many people have volunteered to repack rice, canned goods and other items into bags for distribution in the disaster areas. Their pictures are all over the Net. But have we thought about the fact that in some urban areas plastic bags are banned by local ordinance because when improperly disposed these become a problem? These could be a problem in the disaster areas, too.

I’ve also wondered: Doesn’t it make sense for the bulk of the food and fresh water to go to designated feeding stations instead of distributed individually to people who do not have can openers for the canned goods? If I were someone whose home had been blown away by the typhoon, whose property had been washed away by the flood, I would have nothing but my life and the shirt on my back. How then will I deal with a bag of rice from a well-meaning donor? No one is asking for donations of pots and pans and matches. Distributing relief goods is one challenge, but organizing everything to produce concrete relief is another.

“Yolanda” is the strongest storm to have made landfall recorded, but surely there were stronger storms in the past that were not recorded on cell phones and disseminated through the Internet? Throughout the coverage of this crisis, one thing repeated so many times is that the Philippines gets hit by at least 20 typhoons a year, that we are used to it, that Yolanda just happened to be stronger and more violent than previous ones we have survived before.

The aftermath of Yolanda got me thinking of other typhoons in the past—one that I remember from my childhood was “Yoling,” which was just as destructive—and how we coped. History shows that Filipinos do survive and overcome, but despite the 20 typhoons that ravage parts of the country every year, why do we seem imprisoned in the past? Shouldn’t every experience of tragedy make people better prepared for the next one? Our long history and experience with typhoons should make coping with disaster second-nature to us, but as Yolanda has shown, it is not history that repeats itself. Rather, it is we who repeat it.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, History, Looking Back, opinion, Yolanda
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