Ten Typhoons a Year: Carren Jao Reflects on Life in the Philippines Before Haiyan

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Relief goods assembled at Ateneo de Manila University Covered Courts in response to Haiyan. Photo by: Alyson Yap.

DnA DJ Carren Jao moved to the US from the Philippines in her teens. She was traveling when Haiyan hit her native country but, like the millions of Filipinos who live abroad, she maintains close ties to home. Here she reflects on growing up with storms, before this big one.

Carren Jao Philippines
Carren Jao in Manila.Photo by: Catherine Jao-Sevilla

DnA DJ Carren Jao moved to the US from the Philippines in her teens. She was traveling when Haiyan hit her native country but, like the millions of Filipinos who live abroad, she maintains close ties to home. Here she reflects on growing up with storms, before this big one.

Growing up in the Philippines, an archipelago of little more than 7,000 islands in the Pacific, one gets used to rain. It is a part of everyday life, so much so, that an umbrella is part of everyone’s daily gear. So when news of a pending typhoon in the Philippines came, I was worried, but not surprised. I made the requisite calls to immediate family in the Philippines, reminding them to stay indoors and slept at peace halfway around the world on holiday in Brazil.

Every year, almost ten typhoons make landfall in the Philippines. As a child, classes were often cancelled because of storms with 35 miles per hour or more gusts. I won’t lie, I looked forward to the days when the winds blew at the windows, hoping that I wouldn’t have to go to school that day.

Typhoons didn’t seem like overly serious threats when I was younger. They only meant a few hours of rain and strong gusts. They also meant a few hours when Manila’s 12 million-population would hunker down at home and the bustle of the city would strangely quiet down. After the storm, the smell of fresh rain would permeate the streets and cool breezes would lower the city’s toasty temperatures; the world felt new again.

Sadly, that was not the kind of storm Haiyan was. Haiyan was a series of misfortunes that all conspired to bring destruction to the central region of the country.

I woke up the day after Haiyan to a Facebook newsfeed full of horrific stories, requests for prayers, and just as quickly relief efforts under way in Manila. Chaos reigned in my feed—and the reality is even worse. Towns devastated, bodies littered the ground, looting out of desperation. It seemed to play out like a scene from “Walking Dead” and I really couldn’t blame anyone. Given the choice between survival and propriety, I would have chosen to live as well.

Relief goods assembled at Ateneo de Manila University Covered Courts in response to Haiyan. Photo by: Alyson Yap.

The storm caught everyone by surprise. Filipinos knew something big was coming, but it was the 13-foot storm surge that produced tsunami-like effects that caught us blindsided.

In the Philippines, we are used to making do with what we have. If you had money, you built out of concrete and other solid materials. If you did not, you made shelter out of corrugated iron fastened onto a light frame. And so it was that when the gusts estimated at most at 230 mph rushed through the central part of the country, it took along with it many of the homes we have cobbled together. Even concrete structures weren’t safe. Roofs blew out. Glass in the windows broke. Seeing the damage from local television station ABS-CBN’s coverage, I wondered if even the best proposals of disaster resilient architecture would have fared better. What can man do against the sheer power nature displayed in the last week?

Then, there is the aftermath.

After the devastation, reaching the typhoon victims became the problem. Here again, it is no wonder relief efforts have had so much trouble reaching the devastated areas. Transportation has always been a challenge for a country that is essentially a huge collection of islands. Roads are often only two lanes, one going in each direction. Airports usually have small runways that can only take on so many planes. Even in the best of situations, getting to people can be a problem. During a disaster, that is multiplied, as news reports often point out.

What reports don’t tell you is what I see in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, text messages and phone calls: action. Right now, it’s not just the government who are working hard to bring relief, it is every one in the country and beyond (about 10 percent of the Filipino population live abroad yet maintain strong ties to the country).

Volunteers working late into the night and the next morning assembling relief packages. Photo by: Edsel Ramirez.
Volunteers working late into the night and the next morning assembling relief packages. Photo by: Edsel Ramirez.

What used to be a simple social network has turned into a digital community center. Volunteer opportunities present themselves (one friend shared a volunteer drive to pack relief goods at a nearby university); infographics spell out useful reminders for donations (such as don’t pack anything that needs water to be eaten ); status updates become ways to track down family members.

Instead of lavish Christmas parties, many Philippine companies have instead elected to divert its funds toward relief. Friends post mountains of packed goods ready to be shipped. Makeshift websites have cropped up in the hopes of taming the deluge of updates on Haiyan’s devastation.

The Philippines may not have every problem solved, but we are certainly working on it. Yes, the process is invariably flawed, there is definitely corruption in the Philippines and it does hamper logistics and make systems less efficient, and government officials might take this opportunity to attend to their constituents instead of their usual practice of using disasters to campaign for re-election (they wrap relief goods in bags stamped with their name and slogan.)

But because of the sheer force of Haiyan, I don’t think that physical damage could have been avoided, and what gives me hope is seeing a country come together.

Here are some charities supporting relief efforts in the Philippines, recommended by Carren Jao:

1) This is an Indiegogo effort from a friend of mine who’s arranging for a medical mission to Tacloban:
2) Gawad Kalinga
3) Red Cross
4) Habitat for Humanity
5) World Food Program