On Monday, the Philippines and its people were still breathless, still shocked and still wandering though their towns looking for their family members, hoping against hope that they had survived Friday’s Typhoon Haiyan, a storm of truly epic magnitude. The death toll initially was thought to be around 1,000, but the sight of bodies floating in water, uncounted, and the disappearance of many, perhaps under the rubble the typhoon left behind, had some officials speculating the death toll could reach 10,000 or more.
The photographs of the devastation were many and heartbreaking. Mothers, bleeding and scarred and down to the clothes on their backs, stood in front of what used to be their homes wailing for their missing children. They asked all around if anyone had seen them. Neighbors tried to help each other, but the tears were never-ending, and no wonder.
How many times, in how many disasters such as hurricanes and floods, have we heard our fellow Americans in the regions of our country vulnerable to natural disasters say, “We have lost our possessions but it doesn’t matter as long as we have each other and we are safe.”
Imagine then these people of the Philippines, thousands of whom now face not just material losses but that of those closest to them, some of them little children. And heartbreaks are many, but surely some of the worst are in the sights of other children, babies and 2- and 3-years-old being handed to rescue workers. They now are orphaned.
Disasters often bring out the humanity in people, and even with shock still lingering, help was coming in the form of workers and money and supplies from the far reaches of the globe, including the United States. In most communities, help lines and organized efforts from churches were coming to life.
Yes, situations such as this also stir in some a darker instinct, and early on after the typhoon had passed, some people were seen looting stores. In some cases, they were seeking necessities for their children and neighbors, a perhaps understandable instinct. But other people were taking appliances such as television sets, just because they saw an opportunity.
The depth and scope of the typhoon’s damage was astounding. The city of Tacloban, capital of the Leyte province and about 350 miles south of Manila, has been a growing and thriving city with a population of over 220,000. (It was about 136,000 just over 20 years ago.) Typhoons have happened there, but usually the city’s salt marshes get the brunt. This time, the storm surge was reported to have created some 20-foot waves and winds were said to have gusted to 170 miles per hour.
Few structures can survive that kind of attack, and few did. One official speculated that every building in the city was damaged by the typhoon and the storm surge. Indeed, photographs showed only a handful of concrete buildings still standing, and some of those were barely standing. Damage wasn’t confined, of course, to one city. The typhoon struck across the central part of the county, and its “targets” included isolated fishing villages as well as urban areas.
These natural disasters remind us that many of our fellow travelers on this planet live in places that are their multigenerational homes, but places subject to random acts of nature’s most violent variety. Yet home is home, and there they will in some way rebuild, their homes and to the degree they can, their lives. For home is part of who they are and what they are.
Americans along the Gulf Coast understand. Those in places in the Midwest attacked by flooding understand. The rescue workers who will go now to the Philippines understand.
The recovery will be vast. Let us hope also it is swift and that the anticipated death toll will be smaller in the end.