I was finally able to make it to Tacloban after almost two months of wanting to. Someone asked me what the difference was between Tacloban and other towns in Western Visayas that I had visited last November. After all, the sight of broken coconut trees were common, as were destroyed homes that littered the sides of highways, or electric poles that were either down or a grotesque version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Obviously, the key difference is death, the number of those killed, the grief of those they left behind, and the collective trauma of residents who went through hell and not yet back. Death has a look that is not easily forgotten. Death has a smell, too, that offends when left unattended beyond a day or two. Death leaves a memory that is almost impossible to bury. And Tacloban experienced death at abnormal levels.
Tacloban is not just one city, it is also a de facto metropolis of Leyte. Lesser known municipalities, Palo and Tanuaun, contributed substantially to the death toll that people outside think is only Tacloban’s. There might be a few other towns, but I am certain of Tacloban, Palo and Tanuaun, all of which I visited earlier this week. The look, the smell, and the memory from the stories told me by survivors of the death experience struck me even after two months after Typhoon Yolanda.
No wonder that younger workers and volunteers of Gawad Kalinga (GK) discouraged me from visiting in November and early December, even before the Christmas Season locked me in Metro Manila due to visiting guests and relatives from abroad. Physical conditions were very challenging to senior citizens like me who have not kept themselves in good physical shape. I was frankly told that I could help very much more being an online warrior, facilitating information and donations, but could be a liability in the harsher conditions of a devastated environment.
The GK headquarters since November have been inside the compound of the Liceo de Verbo Divino, or more popularly know as DWU (Divine Word University). The instinctual desire to help others moved the school authorities to allow GK to house its relief operations in the school grounds. Of course, while less so, DWU sustained damages as well, and electrical and water services were interrupted like everywhere else. But our instant headquarters seemed like a luxury hotel in the context of indescribable disaster, and our gratitude knows no bound.
And so should the gratitude of hundreds of thousands whom our relief goods and services reached, funded by so many from the Philippines and abroad, packed by thousands of volunteers in Metro Manila and Cebu City, and shipped to Tacloban and Ormoc. The generosity and service attitude of SVD fathers made so much possible. If GK has helped many, GK itself has been so blessed with the help of others.
Now, a new year begins, and a new stage in post-Yolanda emerges, a powerful transition from relief to reconstruction must be pushed to happen. The old Tacloban cannot come back anymore, but much of it can be foundation for a new Tacloban. What is physically left is not the true foundation of a new Tacloban, it must be the spirit that has learned to survive against all odds, the aspiration to grow beyond just recovery, and the determination to build in an atmosphere that can be unfortunately littered with political debate and noise.
It is only right that the surviving residents of devastated areas should have the strongest say in how they want the reconstruction to go. After all, who else have higher interests in the provinces affected but their own residents? But national government, foreign institutions committed to help and provide resources and expertise, and concerned Filipinos here and abroad must first carry the brunt of reconstruction efforts until the typhoon survivors are able to help themselves.
Typhoon Yolanda was like an enemy that struck a deadly blow to the Philippines and all Filipinos, not just to the typhoon victims. Yes, residents of the affected provinces were most hurt, but the whole nation hurt with them. Today, the whole nation must rebuild with them, too, maybe even take the lead.
It is easy to tell the survivors of Typhoon Yolanda not to lose hope, but it is not as easy for them to simply move on. Too much had been lost, too valuable have been the losses, too deep has been the pain. The survivors continue to need external lifelines as they did during the relief period. We must be that needed lifeline.
From November 8, 2013, the concern, generosity, and even courage were overwhelming. Even my visit earlier this week, or two months after Yolanda, showed a continuing, translated sympathy from many sources, not just well wishes. There is no doubt in my mind that the Tacloban image became the center of global media attention will transform itself before the eyes of the world.
And through Tacloban as the symbol of devastation, the Philippines will continue to be watched, and helped, and will be the object of intervention. Our brand of Philippine politics will be judged, as we as a people as well. We did not become the central object of attention, and aid, for nothing. We will amaze the world with our resiliency, or we will make fools of ourselves in the most public of manner.
I cannot but help say a prayer, for the sake of those who went through hell with Typhoon Yolanda, that it will be a hell-and-back experience. I cannot but pray that the best of us outplays the worst of us. And I cannot help but pray that the post-Yolanda effort to rebuild broken lives become the basis for how Filipinos will vote in 2016.
In my heart, though, I know that the Filipino youth will play a crucial role even if politicians will try their best to outmaneuver each other to be the darlings of the Filipino and global public. It will be them, our children and grandchildren, who will be our heroes.