NewYorker - On November 8th, after Typhoon Haiyan hit, Helen Merino, a forty-four-year-old housemaid in Manila, tried to reach her parents in rural Barangay Tolingon, part of Isabel municipality in Leyte province.http://s3.amazonaws.com/...
All power and communication lines were down, but somehow Facebook was accessible—not for nothing is the Philippines known as the world’s social-media capital. That evening, a cousin messaged Helen’s son on Facebook and posted a picture of a tree that had crushed her parents’ house. But they were alive—they had taken refuge in a school that had been turned into an evacuation center. The school’s roof had been blown off. Throughout the weekend, Helen, her three siblings in Manila, and two in the Davao region, in the south, tried to contact their parents. Helen finally got through to her mother, Rosella, on Monday morning. Rosella reported that she and her husband were all right, but they were still in their wet clothes, and had lost all their possessions. All the trees on their land had been knocked over. They had a little food—unripe bananas picked from a fallen tree. Rosella asked Helen to send them rice by air transport. Meanwhile, Helen’s brother heard that relief trucks were making their way to Isabel. Helen and her siblings, none of whom makes more than three hundred U.S. dollars a month, pooled their funds and asked a relative in Cebu province to bring rice and other supplies to their parents in Leyte.
By Tuesday morning, her father had already built a little shack. They had their homestead, a little rice, water they had collected from a spring, and a measure of calm. The Merinos don’t have much, but they are accustomed to fending for themselves, and they take care of each other. Not every family was together after the storm, or survived. But multiply this story thousands of times, and you begin to get a picture of the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
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We in the Philippines consider ourselves natural-disaster veterans. We have earthquakes: in October, a 7.2-magnitude quake leveled parts of Bohol province, including massive stone churches that were hundreds of years old. We have volcanoes: after lying dormant for centuries, Mount Pinatubo, in Luzon, erupted in 1991, spewing so much ash into the atmosphere that global temperatures fell almost a degree. We have typhoons: up to twenty each year, which are growing more ferocious. These days, the sight of a street in Manila under four feet of water is no longer a source of amazement, just an inconvenience.
By now, we know the drill: we’re sitting in the most storm-prone part of the ocean, not to mention the earthquake- and volcano-filled Ring of Fire. These things happen. We survive, and deal with the damage, with the help of the international community. Along the way, there will be chaos, and infuriating reports of corruption and ineptitude; there will be storms of blame, but we get up and collect ourselves.
In Manila, we had been getting storm warnings for days. On Friday, when Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) was expected to make landfall, we hunkered down in our houses with provisions, kept our phones charged, and waited. The storm didn’t hit us. Instead, we watched, live on television, as it obliterated Tacloban City, in Leyte. One of my friends, watching the devastation unfold in real time, said, “It’s as if Tacloban was battered by the Fukushima tsunami and tornadoes from the American Midwest combined.” Immediately the Internet memes began to sprout: we had been hit by Miley Cyrus’s wrecking ball; Haiyan had come for the woman at the center of the Philippine Senate’s ongoing investigation into the so-called “pork barrel” scam; Atom Araullo, the intrepid television reporter broadcasting from Tacloban at the height of the storm, was Thor himself. Our laughter was laced with anxiety: everyone knew someone in the middle of the horror. Dan de Padua, a television executive, correctly observed that our vocabulary expands with each new disaster: from “tsunami” and “fault line” to “pyroclastic flow,” “lahar,” and, now, “storm surge.” We have all seen many things that you wouldn’t believe, but this storm surge was well beyond belief. The strongest storm winds ever recorded, rising seas, and changes in atmospheric pressure combined to produce a thirteen-foot wall of water that plowed straight through Tacloban City, demolishing everything in its path. As of Tuesday morning, official reports placed the number of dead at one thousand seven hundred and seventy-four. This figure is expected to rise as power and communication lines in the stricken areas are restored. (The Tacloban local government has said that the death toll could be as high as ten thousand.) There are reports of corpses on the streets and a stench of death in the air, people searching in the rubble for food and water, and looting.
It’s easy for observers to condemn Philippine officials for the lack of preparation, but there was preparation. Days before the typhoon struck, there were mass evacuations from vulnerable areas. President Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino had appeared on television to warn people about the storm. No one could have anticipated the intensity of Typhoon Haiyan, which left meteorologists stunned at its killing perfection. Now we must deal with the damage. Even before the government, relief agencies, and international community started sending aid to the hardest-hit areas, Filipinos had snapped into action. As veterans of disaster, they hope that officialdom will help, but they know that they must help their own families. Family reigns supreme in Philippine society—as one of my friends quipped, the impulse that leads our politicians to build dynasties is simply an exaggerated form of their desire to take care of their families.
In Tacloban City, Maria Zyrah Alcober and her husband, Joel, were fortunate that their house survived the storm undamaged. They had stocked up on food and water in anticipation of the typhoon. But the situation nearby had deteriorated. Hospitals refused to admit more patients; there were fears of disease spreading. And there was violence. At night, Zyrah heard people scavenging outside. Their neighbors had already left the city. The houses close by had been looted and robbed. The Alcobers concluded that it was only a matter of time before their house was ransacked. They packed the essentials, got in their car, and drove out of Tacloban, into Samar province. According to Zyrah’s brother, they are now in Catbalogan City, looking for a hotel. One friend of mine has not been able to contact his family in Samar. He’s received reports that they are alive, so he’s going to Samar to get them out. Because the roads are impassable, he will fly to Butuan City, two provinces south of Samar, drive to Surigao, in the next province, board a fishing boat that will cross a portion of the Pacific Ocean, and land in Guiuan, Samar, where Haiyan first made landfall.
Much has been said about the resilience of the Filipinos—and it is not just public relations. It is a fact. Yes, the situation is dire, and please, we need help very badly, but we are not helpless. In Manila, private citizens are collecting donations for typhoon victims. Many offices have cancelled their Christmas parties—in the Philippines, this is a very big deal—and donated the funds instead to the Red Cross and other relief agencies. And there are jokes to lighten the mood, because that is how we get through crises.
At the U.N. Climate Change Conference, which began on Monday in Warsaw, three days after Haiyan struck, the Philippine representative, Naderev Sano, told delegates that climate change means that the world will face more supertyphoons like Haiyan. “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness,” he declared. Sano announced that, in solidarity with his countrymen, and particularly his brother, who had not had food in three days, he would fast during the conference “until a meaningful outcome is in sight.”
Meteorologists still have not conclusively linked climate change to supertyphoons, but they warn that rising ocean temperatures will lead to increasingly extreme weather events. We are shocked at the devastation wrought by Haiyan, but such mega-disasters may become a common occurrence. Who is ready for that?