With sustained winds of almost 200 mph, Typhoon Haiyan took the lives of over 6000 people, most of them on the Eastern Visayas islands of Leyte and Samar, and displaced an estimated 4 million people. Thousands of victims still live in temporary shelters.
My own experience with the tsunami tragedy in Tohoku significantly increased my awareness of disaster recovery and its seemingly insurmountable challenges. When a disaster first hits, the entire world pays attention, largely thanks to social media, and an onslaught of sympathetic messages and financial aid pours in.
Then the world moves on.
Case in point: I asked a journalist friend of mine to help me find an online news site that would publish this article about one year after Typhoon Haiyan, but there were no takers. Surfing the Web, I find there are one-year anniversary articles on a number of sites (thankfully) but those articles are more or less buried deep down (not on CNN’s main page, and the thirteen stories down in World on Google News).
But for the victims, it’s not so easy.
I visited Leyte island in late March, and even though almost 5 months had passed, the devastation was inescapable (pics here). Compared to Tohoku after 5 months, the recovery was progressing slowly. Many homes had gone without repair, or a temporary fix like cardboard. Temporary schools were lacking educational supplies, air conditioning and sometimes roofing. People struggled to find work.
During this visit, I met Leonardo “Sandy” Javier, mayor of the Leyte town named after his grandfather. He showed me many of the recovery projects which are providing work for the victims - for instance, fiberglass fishing boats that can easily be constructed by the fishermen themselves, allowing them to return to their livelihoods.
When the typhoon hit - on November 8, 2013 - all roads were destroyed and debris was left everywhere. Mayor Javier grabbed his friends and colleagues, and together they headed towards the island’s main city, Tacloban. A 55 km drive between the towns would typically take about an hour, but this drive took them the entire day. The process of clearing the road— from trees, abandoned vehicles, power cables, even homes — took them the hours.
Along the way, the most difficult task was carefully removing the dead bodies from the road, setting them aside for families to give a proper burial.
Once they made it to Tacloban, they found a town in chaos - from the lack of police to stop the looting, to the desperation of medical emergencies, Mayor Javier and his team stepped in to perform the heroic acts needed to get victims through such a tragedy.
It’s a shame that his story has not been told - and that the world has forgotten the people of Leyte. So, what can we do? Most importantly, we should always remember that disasters may seem like they come and go - but in reality they leave their mark forever.
Please join me in a prayer for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan and their families.
PS Much respect for my friends Sarah and Naoji who each went to the Philippines as volunteers to help with the recovery, and Eric who arranged charity efforts in LA. And thanks to Rapa for arranging the trip to Leyte, Enrique for joining me, and Jimmy Javier for the insight and information.
Photos from Leyte, Philippines (March 2014)