Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shield from the Storm

We walked through the debris field that was the coastal town of Hernani, in the Philippines, surveying the catastrophic damage wrought by Typhoon Haiyan - Yolanda as Filipinos call it. This was not just a typhoon of record proportions; it was a tsunami, annihilating everything in its path.

There seemed a tragically simple calculus to the storm's fury: homes made of bamboo were completely flattened, their flimsy tin roofs splayed on top of the fallen timber; concrete structures fared marginally better, walls still standing, but windows and doors completely blown out by the 195 mph winds.

Passing by a bright yellow, but badly damaged structure that read "Pedro E. Candido Memorial Library", we saw four teenagers sitting on a stone wall, horsing around, laughing.

I called out to one of them, a stunning girl with corn rows piled high on her head: "Hello. How are you? Are you alright?"
She replied: "Yes, I'm happy!"
"Happy?? Really??" I asked, incredulous given the devastation that surrounded her.
"Sure. I'm alive. My family's alive."

In village after village, island after island, a similar scene played out - people with sunny, smiling faces expressing happiness that they had survived, and profound gratitude to us for bringing the first medical relief these areas had received. This resilience was remarkable, and surprising in the aftermath of such an epic storm. Where does this resilience come from?

Like so many other villages, Hernani, a tight-knit community of about 8,000 in eastern Samar, suffered mightily in the typhoon. In addition to the widespread damage, 57 people perished and more than 500 were injured. Livelihoods, primarily fishing, were wiped out, as hundreds of boats were destroyed. Clean water, sanitation and food are all scarce.

It was not easy for us to reach Hernani. Road access was completely cut off. The only way we could get there was by Navy helicopter from an airfield in nearby Guiuan. When we touched down, hundreds of people swarmed us, eager to carry our medical supplies from the beachfront up a hill to a damaged municipal building next to the destroyed hospital.

Our International Medical Corps team, including long-time volunteer doctor from the U.S., Rob Fuller, and 4 Filipino doctors and nurses, quickly set up and within 10 minutes were treating the long line of patients - elderly people with wounds from flying debris, children with upper respiratory infections and skin infections from the unhygienic conditions.

In the short-term, through our mobile clinics, we've continued bringing medical relief to remote, hard-to-reach communities that might otherwise be missed. But the mayor of Hernani expressed a fear that we all have in the long-term: "I'm worried people will start to go hungry. People can't fish. We have no coconuts and bananas. I'm also worried the children will get diarrhea because there's no clean water and no working toilets. We can rebuild, but we need help."

The recovery from this disaster will be extremely difficult. Water and sanitation systems, health care, and livelihoods have all been decimated. But this country was fortunate in that the population is highly educated and it had a relatively strong infrastructure and disaster response capacity before the typhoon hit. Communities here came together, neighbors provided each other shelter, people felt an obligation to lift those next to them who might be more vulnerable.

Having witnessed first-hand communities ripped apart by natural disaster and conflict - from Syria, to Haiti, to the Congo - the resilience I've seen in the Philippines proves to be a powerful shield against any storm.

Back in Guiuan, where the typhoon first made landfall, and where more than 110 people died, Dr. Flores of the municipal hospital told me the story of a woman who gave birth, and three hours later, as the storm hit, took her baby into her arms and ran. That woman and her baby survived, living in an ambulance for four days before finding more permanent shelter with neighbors.

"This has been very hard for us," said Dr. Flores. "We thought we would never see the sun again. But we survived and we want to get back to work. You give us hope."

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