WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Building resistance

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 14 Nov) – Was it Nietzsche who said what won’t kill you will make you stronger?

Ah, rats.

Work – the one that allows me to earn my bread – has kept me busy all day. It’s past midnight before I can allow myself the time to think about Sendong and Pablo and Yolanda.

When Sendong struck Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in December 2011, we were dumbfounded. We thought that was the worst.

Then Pablo struck Davao Oriental and Comval in December 2012, and he was a bit more terrible. We also thought that was the worst.

You’d think if we could survive Pablo, we could survive anything.

But Yolanda came, and no doubt she came with a vengeance.

Wine is strong. Kings are stronger. But a woman…

Hmmm. You don’t respond to a woman the way you would to a man. Call me sexist. Or call me a psychologist.

While we may be fooled into thinking that Yolanda is just like Pablo or Sendong, only just heaps more terrible, I have this feeling we may be wrong.

Yolanda came for Samar and Leyte, Cebu and Panay, Mindoro and Coron. Yes, she did – even though on TV that it’s mostly Tacloban we see.

Where Sendong and Pablo struck contiguous areas, Yolanda played hopscotch over several islands, leaving grievous desolation and destruction in her wake. Though getting to Iligan and CDO, Dav Or and Comval proved difficult for a long time after the storm, the places Sendong and Pablo hit connected to other areas that had been spared. These were communities that had a history of supporting other communities, bringing in relief in times of disaster.

My spirits lifted when I saw the convoy from Pikit delivering relief to New Bataan. The former Pikit first lady had led that delegation a day after Christmas. She braved the drizzle as she told me that, “We used to be the ones to receive relief. Now it’s our turn to give. Christmas.”

The former Pikit first lady is a Muslim. She came to New Bataan bearing Christmas gifts.

On the very first day after Pablo, I saw personnel from the DPWH and electric cooperatives of other provinces and cities in Mindanao helping to clear the roads and open up lifelines for relief goods to get in. We don’t see that yet in the islands that have been hit by Yolanda. This is among the reasons why 72 hours after the storm, many communities that have been hit by Yolanda have yet to be reached for assessment, for aid.

As early as 72 hours after Pablo, we saw temporary shelters sprouting up for the survivors. We had trucks moving in from CDO carrying with them the tents Sendong survivors had used and were then donating for their neighbors in Davao Oriental.

In Baganga, I remember a soup kitchen ran by the 67th Infantry Battalion on the beachfront that first week. I remember kids loitering down there, touring all those places where volunteers from out of town had set up to give away food. I asked some of them where their parents were. They said their elders were lining up for tarpaulins and jerry cans and other stuff that humanitarian agencies were allowed to distribute.

I do not see these things happening in Tacloban five days after Yolanda. There is even lesser likelihood that these things are happening already in the outskirts of Tacloban.

As early as the first day after Pablo struck, I felt safe to come down to the ground to deliver psychosocial support to affected populations. Five days now after Yolanda, and the communities hit are still not ready to sit down and talk about it, gain a measure of calm to be able to think a little more clearly about planning for tomorrow.

The desperation of the Yolanda survivors has intensified. In fact, it is like a wave of destructive energy that is building up. It would seek release in one big explosion, if the sporadic release through looting and crying jags do not allow the venting off of enough steam. And if the government insists on keeping everybody in that area, in that frustrating situation, there is only so much that the human mind can take.

Until the situation allows people to take back some measure of control to their lives, those storm-hit islands will drive people crazy.

I have two suggestions:

First, allow those foreign medical teams to set up. They are the least likely to be attacked. Symbiosis will come into play – survivors will protect the healers so they can get treatment. When things are getting done as they should, when wounds are being healed, it’s a good start at restoring order.

Second, keep the food flowing. There is enough stuck in the Tacloban airport. Get trucks into Tacloban, commit those trucks to stay in the area to ferry food where it is needed. Conscript those trucks, if we have to. Just, feed everybody, please. Keep the food coming. Never mind if the first few distributions would be disorderly. People will share what they get. Survivors still identify with each other. They have yet to turn on each other. Believe me that they will at this moment still help each other,

Keep the food coming and the sense of urgency from extended deprivation would abate. Survivors would be more orderly a week later because they trust that the supply won’t dry up. Under those conditions, natural leaders among the survivors would emerge and assert. This is an emergency situation. Let’s stop waiting for the legitimate political authority to come in and take charge. Accept natural leaders because they are likely to have the people’s trust. Natural leaders would be able to help external supporters restore peace and order more swiftly than the local politicians who got to office by buying votes.

(Gail Tan Ilagan, PhD, Director of the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University, writes the column, “Wayward and Fanciful” for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews.)