Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Philippines Typhoon relief, first hand

Winnie Romeril in Palo. Leyte in the Philippines
There's a lot of people I'm proud to have gotten to know during my three-plus years with the American Red Cross. One of the best is Winnie Romeril. In addition to serving as the NYS Disaster Public Affairs Lead, Winnie travels all over the world to work on International Red Cross relief efforts. I first got to know Winnie as she shared the story of her time helping earthquake victims in Haiti in 2010. Now, she's oversees again, this time helping victims of Typhoon Haiyan as part of the ongoing Red Cross relief efforts.

Below is Winnie's first hand report, shared on her Facebook page, of her first days helping the people devastated by last November's storm. We will continue to keep you posted on the work Winnie and her fellow Red Cross volunteers are able to do, thanks to your support. And Winnie, thanks for all that you do, and stay safe!!
Impressions at 4 a.m. Entering Day Two

I can’t sleep. My mind is filled with vivid images from yesterday. 

From Winnie Romeril:"Typhoon-damaged building on the east coast 
of the Island of Leyte."
We drive through miles of lush green rice paddies punctuated by graceful white herons. Occasionally we see people working the fields, cows finding shade under storm-felled coconut trees, the brightly-colored Philippine flag twisting in the hot, humid breeze. It looks deceptively refreshing. It is not. The heat here is impressive. We stand in the sun for hours with the Philippine Red Cross volunteers organizing and carrying out the relief distributions. I sweat off my sunscreen in minutes. Reapplying it is futile. I feel very far away indeed from my snowy home 13 time zones away.  

The smiling chorus of “Thank you, mam’! Thank you for helping us!” evaporates my petty discomfort. 

The full relief package is too much for one person to carry, especially for the elderly and pregnant women. So village men join the Red Cross volunteers ushering their neighbors through the line with their arms full of mats, mosquito nets, tarps, boxes and bags of food, and other relief supplies. When everyone has received their goods, the men get their turn.
From Winnie Romeril: "Relief supplies are precariously
piled up on this bicycle taxi. Volunteers form the community
help the elderly, pregnant women and other vulnerable people
get the relief supplies to their homes."

Relief distributions need lots of space— for people to assemble, trucks to line up, and for survivors to gather up their supplies. Every barangay (town) has one perfect space for this. THE singular most important outdoor meeting space in every village is… (drum roll, please)… the basketball court. I had no idea Philippinos love basketball so much! 

Last November’s Typhoon Haiyan, known here in the Philippines as Yolanda, was the strongest storm in history to make landfall. The basketball courts, being flat and made of cement, weathered the torrential rains and devastating winds better than any other structure. 

Many inland villages were 70-95% destroyed by the typhoon. Survivors tell stories of their houses being swept away by raging rivers or blown away by the gale-force winds. The more highly populated costal cities were served first. It’s disaster triage. Care for the highest number of survivors in the quickest way possible. 

From Winnie Romeril: "As in other recent disasters,
like Haiti, The Red Cross decided not to place our logo
on the emergency shelter tarps handed out in the immediate
aftermath of the storm. The light grey tarps with dark
grey stripes are from us. Survivors form previous disasters,
such as the 2004 tsunami, complained that it was
undignified to have our logo on their home. Sworn to uphold
dignity, we have decided as a global Red Cross movement
to no longer label our tarps. In Haiti, all sorts of reporters
and congress people said they didn't see the Red Cross
relief anywhere as they posed for interviews
with thousands of our tarps as their backdrop."
Locals are making notable progress nearly three months on. Here and there alongside the rice paddies we see newly framed out structures of freshly milled coconut wood- not normally a common construction material since the wood is soft. However with 33 million coconut trees damaged or destroyed, people are using what they have available. It will take years to fully recover, but today they got a boost to help them along the way.