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The gift of perspective

/ 10:53 PM December 23, 2013

It’s enough to make you cry. When they paid a visit to Tacloban, about two weeks after the onslaught of Supertyphoon “Yolanda,” “macho men” Manny Pacquiao and Chavit Singson broke down in tears, related Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez. “Pati  sila  humagulgol (even they broke down sobbing),” Romualdez noted, his face still reflecting his incredulity that the boxer-congressman and the “warlord” politician of Ilocos Sur could be so moved by the sights and sufferings of the people of Tacloban and environs.

I didn’t so much cry as feel weighed down and dispirited during my own visit to Tacloban last week. Rep. Gina de Venecia, who found out since her daughter KC’s death that she seems to be extra-sensitive to the spiritual realm, warned us about this “heavy” feeling as we waited for our Cebu Pacific flight in Manila. Indeed, I was not only weighed down by the lingering malaise the palpable tragedy left, but I actually came down with a bad case of intestinal flu upon reaching home.

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Still and all, the trip had given me a gift I did not anticipate: the gift of perspective. Suddenly, all the baggage I’d been carrying—a depleted budget, unfilled items on my gift list, competing Christmas party invitations—was lifted off my shoulders. All these niggling worries, anxieties and unspoken fears suddenly evaporated. What were they but minuscule concerns compared with what the people of Tacloban had gone through? Parents had lost children, families were rendered homeless, hunger had become a daily concern, and contemplating the future seemed too painful it turned many of them catatonic.

But the people of Tacloban and nearby towns continue with their daily lives. In ruined marketplaces, one spied temporary stalls vending vegetables, clothes, household items and even sweet small pineapples from Ormoc. The afternoon we were there, the city administrator urged us to drop by Robinson’s Mall, which was reopening even after looters had stripped the stores of most goods.

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“What can we learn from Tacloban’s experience?” De Venecia wanted to know, adding that the greater Dagupan (Pangasinan) area, which she represents, likewise faces many natural threats and impending disasters.

“Knowledge and information is power,” was Romualdez’s immediate reply. “We all need to know what can befall us so we can properly plan and react.” He advocates the preparation of “local” maps and disaster scenarios so that local officials could fine-tune their responses.

Another lesson: “Communication is crucial.” Despite the advent of digital technology and the proliferation of cell phones, Romualdez said all these were rendered useless once the typhoon had knocked down the telecom towers and phone lines. “Satellite phones need to be distributed widely,” he observed, “preferably one in each municipality.” He had also suddenly discovered “the value of old-style communications,” he said, such as transistor radios, short-wave facilities, and “at least one one-kilowatt radio station in an area, to keep people informed.” Note that it took the rest of the country and the world at least two days before finding out the state of devastation and deaths in Tacloban and nearby areas.

“We survived for a reason,” Romualdez told his audience of other legislators, civic leaders and media. “And I think the reason is that we need to learn lessons from what happened here, apply these lessons, and share them with people like you who can then spread the word around the country and the world.”

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Along with asking Congress people, mayors, barangay heads and other local officials what lessons can be learned after Yolanda, international organizations working with child survivors say that children, too, deserve to be heard from, as their views are not only important, but also different from those of adults.

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It is important to ensure that children are involved in the rehabilitation efforts and processes, say the groups Save the Children, Plan International, World Vision and Unicef. “We need to continue listening to the children and working with them to facilitate their participation. They will be part of our response and continue to be (a) source of the resilience they have demonstrated,” says Tomoo Hozumi, Unicef representative in the Philippines.

“Yolanda exacted a huge toll on the services which matter most to children, such as schools, daycare centers, health centers and homes,” say the agencies. “Yet, as is often the case in disasters in the Philippines and elsewhere, children’s views have so far not been sufficiently considered, with their needs often being decided for them.”

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To begin gathering the views of children in Yolanda-affected areas, the agencies gathered more than a hundred children together in a consultation, where they were asked what for them were the top priorities in the period of rehabilitation and rebuilding.

“By taking children’s views into account, agencies and the government can ensure that the decisions being made, which affect children’s lives now and in the future, really respond to their needs. Children play a vital role not only in helping rebuild, but also in reducing risk and strengthening resilience in the long term.”

Among the recommendations made by the children at the consultation were to put in more toilets in evacuation centers, more sanitary napkins in hygiene kits, carpentry tools in shelter kits, and the urgent need to clean up after the oil spill off the coast of Panay Island. One child, Darren, 16 from Dulag, Leyte, said children like him “can plant seedlings that can replace the trees that were toppled in order to avoid flooding in the future.”

And a common plea among the children: “Reopen our schools as soon as possible.”

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TAGS: Chavit Singson, children, disasters, education, Gina de Venecia, Manny Pacquiao, opinion, paskong pinoy, supertyphoon ‘yolanda’, tacloban city
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