There is a pack of ravenous wolves on my roof, heavy paws pounding on and ripping the GI sheets. Is it the sound of thunder, rabid and bloodcurdling? No it is a howling—snarling, wailing, yowling, baying. The house is shaking, glass windows shuddering, doors banging. There is often a loud thud—a branch falling, or a garden pot or a hanging plant, a street lamp, or galvanized steel. This is the tail, not the deadly mouth with crooked teeth (or the cruel eye) of the beasts and this is Manila, not the prey directly, unfortunately on their injurious path. The worst is over, thank God, but the fear is not. A Lament about Yolanda and Her Pack of Winged Wolves, “a theoretical category six.” It is 1:45 in the morning, 9 November 2013.
I wrote this on Facebook at the time specified. By then, though it was early in the morning, there was barely any word yet from Leyte. Looking back, I feel guilty I had the luxury of playing with words to express my fear, hearing all those sounds around my house in Manila, so far away from the winged wolves I was talking about, which by then had huffed and puffed and blown Tacloban in, along with many other places in central Philippines, leaving thousands dead, millions displaced—and desperate.
The following days would prove me wrong: The worst was not over. We would wake up day after day with the news of death and destruction. Worse yet, for the first few days, the first week in fact, reports claimed that the bodies still lay on the streets and the survivors were looting for food, for water, for medical supplies. There was no help for many, particularly those isolated, and the end of the tragedy was nowhere in sight, as rescue and relief efforts staggered on broken legs, the airport, the ports, the bridges, the roads blocked, the LGUs themselves a victim, the national government stunned, more concerned about its image of being in control of the situation.
But unlike the vital resources, like power and water or government action, love was not in scarcity. Within hours from the initial reports, where the death toll was estimated at 10,000, social media roared with pleas for help, calls to action in behalf of the victims and survivors. Soon followed pledges of assistance, soon followed the heroes and heroines mobilizing the online crowd to “give ‘til it hurts.” Before the so-called leaders tasked to lead us out of such a harrowing experience emerged from the rubble of chaos, confusion, and indecisiveness, love from around the world had converged in the disaster zone, in the peripheries or the center of it, finding expression in the form of planeloads, shiploads, truckloads, carloads, armloads of relief goods as well as millions of dollars worth of aid, in cash or kind or humanitarian services, from many nations, from the US to the UK, Canada, France, the Czech Republic, Japan, Israel, Denmark, Hungary, China, Italy, Kuwait, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, Qatar, Thailand, Turkey, the UAE, and more. Money transfers poured in from Filipinos abroad—New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong… Cash as well as food, water, and medicine helped the most, but relief found its way in many other, creative forms, such as in children’s affectionate letters to the survivors, such as in pictures or videos of survivors’ messages to their loved ones eager for news. In San Francisco, the “group of average guys trying to help out,” all Asian-Americans, collected “Hugs for the Philippines” from strangers on the streets—for every hug, the group was to donate a dollar, which they later in the day increased to five dollars per hug.
Among the major casualties of the supertyphoon was the Philippine government, whose inability to respond quickly and effectively and without vested interests to such a humanitarian crisis occupied way too much space and airtime in the coverage of the world’s leading news organizations, from The New York Times to CNN. Many of the NGOs, like the U.N., as well as individual and corporate donors made a point of keeping their donations away from Philippine officials and politicians. In fact, in my own sphere of influence, friends and family and colleagues, many held back their charitable impulses for fear that their donation would only go into the wrong hands.
On Facebook, as much as there was a call for help there was a clamor for sobriety. At first, the “Shut Up and Just Help” spin focused on just getting as much help as possible and as quickly as possible, with individuals organizing their own independent relief operations, but soon it turned into a sort of censor, a gag order against those who pointed out flaws in the system, such as in the government response. Acclaimed filmmaker Peque Gallaga, the man behind the Filipino classic Oro Plata Mata, took a stand in a Facebook note that in no time became viral. “I am deeply offended by the people who try to stop me and others from stating the obvious. All those people who charge us for criticizing, for being negative, for Aquino bashing—I am done with these people,” he wrote. “In a very Yellow Army way, they try to hide behind an illogical argument that we cannot help if we criticize. I don’t know how good these friends are at multi-tasking, but one does not cancel out the other. We can help and we can criticize.”
And we must criticize, openly, without reservations except for the limits set by the truth, fairness, and accuracy. We must keep the stewards of our time on their toes, not only the Philippine government, but all governments, all those in charge of great masses of people.
What is under threat is our planet, our world. With winds of up to 250 kilometers per hour, Yolanda (international code name: Haiyan) was a supertyphoon, the strongest on record, and I’m afraid, as studies show, that supertyphoons, not to mention heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels and temperatures, entire island states disappearing off the face of earth, and other catastrophes, will be in our future.
What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness; the climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw. —Naderev Saño, opening speech at the U.N. climate talks (Nov. 11-22, 2013) in Warsaw
Last month, just two days after Haiyan devastated the Philippines, world leaders began their two-week-long negotiations at this year’s Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland. As of this writing, I don’t know what solid, hopeful agreements, if any, have been drawn from that crucial meeting. But we can’t sit around just waiting for what these people have decided is best for us. This is our world at peril. This is our future in danger, our children’s future at stake.
It is not only our right to ask the challenging questions. It is our duty.
postscript: The photographs in this post are from a fashion editorial we ran in the magazine I edit, Sense&Style, in October 2013, one month before the most ferocious storm winds on record blew our way. In this Philippine magazine, though our mandate is to celebrate fashion and beauty and sensible, stylish women who make a difference, we are not blind to the dangers of living in a world consumed by the desire for more, more, more when maybe we all have more than enough than what our planet can give us. This fashion editorial, featuring the work of designers like Cherry Samuya Veric (above) and Frederick Peralta (below), as photographed by Pia Puno and styled by Ieth Inolino under the direction of Sense&Style creative director Hector M. Reyes, is only one of many we have produced to call attention to the clear and present danger of environmental degradation, such as climate change. This post is drawn from my editor’s note in the December 2013 issue of Sense&Style.
TODAY’S WRITING TIP: Writing does not need to turn a blind eye on the negative, on what’s wrong, on what’s evil, on what’s helpless and hopeless, on what’s dire and what’s desperate to uplift the spirit.