In the aftermath of Typhoon Pablo

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/24 December) — Getting a copy of the newest publication on our research into Mindanao disasters got my friend, an Army officer, to muse about the problems soldiers have in getting people to evacuate in the face of clear and present danger. I told him it might work if people were allowed to bring their livestock and their personal belongings. This was four days before the worst storm to visit Mindanao in a hundred years would hit landfall in Baganga where we were sitting and
talking that clear, sunny morning.

He must have listened.

A week later, the residents of Barangay Baybay Caracol in Caraga told us that the troops my friend sent to bring them out on the evening of December 3 allowed them to load their chickens, pigs, and goats with them on the transport to the evacuation center. The coastal village emptied very fast just before tremendous waves crashed upon the houses in the wee hours of morning. On December 8, four days after Typhoon Pablo ravaged Davao Oriental and neighboring Compostela Valley, the residents of Caracol were starting to come home, rebuild their houses, wash their clothes, and start making plans to get their lives back to normal.

Caracol was a breather for us at the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services (COPERS). Amidst the widespread devastation wrought by Typhoon Pablo, I wanted my team to see a more hopeful sight. People do recover from disaster. Sure, there was still a lot of pain – eyes misted and voices cracked as they talked about the fearsome howling of the wind.|

They remembered a world gone crazy with everything flying, iron sheets on the roofs crumpling like paper. It was bedlam. Some thought it would never end. But four days later, the villagers were beginning to realize that the nightmare was over. They were picking up the pieces and starting over.

After talking to some of them at the purok leader’s front porch, we went around knocking on doors and asking people how they were doing. I thought it was our contribution to hasten the return of normalcy for the folks in this coastal village. Receiving visitors and talking to them about cleaning up after the storm, inspecting the damage, and exploring ways to make their houses habitable again was about reconnecting and empowerment. It got people thinking about setting doables to care for their own needs.

Psychosocial processing took a different track in New Bataan the day before. Eric Batican, COPERS External Director, led a team that he prepared to work with people who had escaped the deadly flashflood. Some of them still had members of their family missing. They were staying at an evacuation camp that, upon Eric’s arrival, virtually emptied on account of Senator Jinggoy Estrada staging a program a few blocks away. Eric’s team worked with the 157 families that chose to remain in the camp. With more space to work in groups, the session for psychological first aid proceeded in an orderly manner. The team even had the luxury of wrapping things up with an assembly for a short program and relief distribution from the meager supply we had loaded in the van.

Therapeutic art for children in New Bataan.

People in distress could be forgiven for not fully appreciating sometimes that what we volunteer psychologists do is a form of relief also. We find that getting there with token material relief for them eases rapport building. People in distress are a lot more ready to share the burden of difficult emotions when you hand over a bottle of water, a serviceable jacket, a couple of new underwear, or a food pack. So before we head out to help people in disaster, we try to put together stuff that they would need. Our students pitch in. They would be the first to hit the establishments all around the campus for donations to disaster survivors. All these they would deliver at the office as they sign up to volunteer for deployment out there in the affected communities.

COPERS External Director Ericson Batican leads the orderly relief distribution after the delivery of psychological first aid to 157 families in the Andap evacuation center.

While in New Bataan that day, Eric’s team worked with the Army troops also. Charlie Company had been literally put out of commission – four soldiers died, seven were missing, and 22 were in the hospital with broken bones and a lot of wounds. They had gotten caught in a sudden flashflood while trying to evacuate the residents of Barangay Andap in New Bataan. What was left of the battalion was bravely trying to carry on, severely undermanned and overcome with grief over their fallen comrades.

COPERS affiliate Pearl Asenjo debriefs a soldier at the evacuation center in New Bataan. COPERS also undertook CISD on this soldier’s wounded comrades who were recuperating at the Panacan Station Hospital.

The 66IB was overstretched with search and rescue while at the same time maintaining order at the evacuation centers and providing road security for the emergency relief coming from outside. With so much media attention focused on Andap, they also had to remain on high alert to secure the politicians and representatives of high profile aid agencies and media that flocked to New Bataan. These demands on their time could not allow them to sit down for stress debriefing and grief counseling. Still, working
shoulder to shoulder with Eric’s team, some of them were also able to unload some of their psychological baggage. That night, 66th Infantry Battalion commander Tony Florendo and 10th Infantry Division chief of staff Ricardo Nepomuceno texted me thanks for us seeing to the needs of their troops.

Typhoon Pablo disrupted communications services and transport networks to 43 towns and 7 cities in Mindanao. It literally leveled Baganga and Cateel in Davao Oriental to the ground. What is worst though probably understandable given the scale of destruction all across the path the storm took, LGU response had been disappointingly sloooow. Today, two weeks later, some isolated areas are yet to be accessed for information and relief. In this time, COPERS had seen how the faulty relief distribution
was adversely affecting the emotions and cognitions of survivors. Until today, many towns are not yet ready for psychosocial processing, although the threat of food riots has been warded away by the massive flooding of food relief to the municipal disaster centers a week after the superstorm.

Caught up in the post-Pablo media whirl of the Pacquiao fight, the Miss Universe also-ran and our guilty Christmas festivities, I don’t think many among us have even begun to comprehend the humanitarian and environmental disaster that has befallen a major section of mainland Mindanao. Pablo tore apart internet and cellphone backbones in these places, preventing survivors from getting the word out there. Unlike Sendong last year when the rest of us got real-time information on the situation and needs on the ground, the big picture of the aftermath of Typhoon Pablo is taking a long time to be assembled. Duty bearers and scientists cannot assemble this picture by playing desk jockeys and having someone else get the information for them. We need to get out there and employ our expertise.

From Mawab to Nabunturan to Montevista to New Bataan to Compostela to Monkayo in Compostela Valley; from Mati to Taragona to Manay to Caraga in Davao Oriental; from Trento to Cuevas in Agusan del Sur; from Bislig to Lingig in Surigao del Sur. This weekend we traveled to Cateel and Baganga. That may look as if COPERS had already covered a lot of ground, but for the
work we psychologists need to do, two hundred visits to each of these towns won’t be nearly enough to meet the psychosocial needs of the survivors there. That’s just 16 of the 43 towns where Pablo wreaked havoc, uprooting trees and snapping off the branches in midair, only to throw these like javelins every which way.

In the aftermath of terror, the survivors of Pablo’s fury continue to be battered by homelessness, dispossession and deprivation. We need help to help people out there. Mindanao has had more than its share of natural and human-initiated disasters in the last decade. It has benefited from the generosity of the Psychological Association of the Philippines (PAP) members who in previous years have trained so many community-based resources to do psychological first aid, art therapy for children, trauma
healing, and other forms of psychosocial processing. It is time to activate these community-based resources and encourage them to go out there and help people come to terms with their continuing disaster experience.

Ten days after Typhoon Pablo, the memory of that early dawn when the howling gale brought 15 minutes of total darkness – when mothers lost the babies in their arms, having them literally ripped away by the malignant force of the raging wind and the rampaging water – remains fresh in the minds of the survivors. It was a world gone crazy, they said. We did not expect it to be that intense, that destructive, they said. It was punishing, they said. We lost everything, they said.

And yet, after all the telling, someone is bound to say in a seemingly wondering voice: “I came through. I am alive.”

To that we say, “Yes, you did. Thank God you are.”

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