Turning Tragedy Into Charity: Responding to Typhoon Haiyan

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in Tanauan, Leyte, Philippines walk amidst the rubble days after the storm.
Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in Tanauan, Leyte, Philippines walk amidst the rubble days after the storm. | Photo: Wayne Anderson/Mammoth Medical Missions

Less than a month after the central Philippines was hit by a powerful 7.2 earthquake, the even more destructive Category 5 Typhoon Haiyan -- the most powerful cyclonic storm in recorded history -- tore through the region on November 7. The storm's wrath was most notably felt in the eastern Philippine provinces of Leyte and Samar, where the typhoon's storm surge flooded cities and villages, while winds of as high as 195 miles per hour pummeled houses and denuded trees. As of this writing, over 4,000 lives were confirmed to be lost, with tens of thousands rendered missing, and millions affected. And by the time the storm dissipated in southern China on November 11, it also caused serious damage, injuries, and casualties in Micronesia, Palau, Taiwan, Vietnam, and China.

Across the Pacific, the Filipino American and medical communities, immediately sought ways to help those most in need.

Just days after Haiyan (also designated within the country as "Super Typhoon Yolanda" by the Philippine weather administration) wreaked devastation, Mammoth Medical Missions, a team of physicians based out of Mammoth Lakes in Mono County, California that specializes in providing emergency medical aid to rural and mountain areas worldwide, was one of the first relief groups to respond in the region most affected by the storm.

Originally scheduled to perform a routine surgical mission that week in Chiapas, Mexico, the 16 doctors, surgeons, and support volunteers from the Eastern Sierra made a group decision to make last-minute arrangements to fly to Manila, Philippines instead. Coordinating with the Philippine government and an emergency assistance group there, the Mammoth group was transported from Manila to Leyte courtesy of the Philippine Air Force.

"We asked them to take us to the worst spot," said Mammoth Medical Missions' anesthesiologist Wayne Anderson, "They told us they'd send us to a bad spot, but not the worst spot."

That spot was the town of Tanauan, 30 miles south of Tacloban City, also a coastal town that bore the brunt of the fierce winds and the catastrophic storm surge,

"[When we arrived], I can just see absolute devastation," added Anderson. "It looked post-apocalyptic, there were barely any buildings left standing. It reminds you of Hurricane Katrina or Sandy...but even worse. It was utter annihilation."

Doctors from Mammoth Medical Missions set up a makeshift surgical ward in the town hall of Tanauan, Leyte, Philippines, to treat the sick and injured survivors of Typhoon Haiyan.
Doctors from Mammoth Medical Missions set up a makeshift surgical ward in the town hall of Tanauan, Leyte, Philippines, to treat the sick and injured survivors of Typhoon Haiyan. | Photo: Wayne Anderson/Mammoth Medical Missions

Setting up a makeshift surgical ward in Tanauan's town hall, the Mammoth physicians brought equipment and supplies for some 100 surgical setups. According to Anderson, the Philippine government has restrictions on which drugs could be brought into the country, so they had to make do on what they were allowed to bring in.

A few women required caesarian sections, one man suffered a stab wound in the chest, which the surgeons had to fashion a makeshift valve with a surgical glove in order to treat him (Anderson said that the stabbing victim was transported to a hospital on another island, where he is successfully recuperating).

Anderson added that most people suffered from cuts and lacerations from glass, tin roofs, and other debris, which would otherwise be a minor concern had they not been wading through bacteria-laden flood waters. The team had to clean up wounds with antibiotics before they got infected, which could result in amputation or even death. The Mammoth group ended up treating about 200 patients. The group even had to brave yet another typhoon that blew through the region, albeit one that was much more benign.

The amount of medical supplies and the transportation arrangements made with the Philippine Air Force dictated the duration of their stay, as they were set to return home at the end of last week. The Mammoth physicians did pass the torch on to the Tokoshukai Medical Aid Team from Tokyo, Japan, who arrived with enough medical supplies to continue treating the sick and injured in Tanauan for a longer period.

"We had mixed feelings," said Anderson. "We felt guilty about leaving, but happy to be safe."

Considering the severity of the disaster, the aid and recovery effort will surely last for months, even years, to come. According to Kim Escudero of Mammoth Medical Missions, the group is willing to continue their work there. "It's all dependent on time commitment, money, and supplies, but we would definitely like to return," she said.

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Here in Southern California, home of the largest Filipino community, not only in the United States, but outside of the Philippines, concern about the typhoon was extremely high, as it was not only the top story on ethnic community media, but on mainstream media as well. And on the Internet and social media, the deluge of information, opinion and rumor related to the disaster was overwhelming in and of itself. With both the perception and reports of certain political figures in the Philippines either intercepting relief supplies or usurping credit for political or personal gain being commonplace news, there was concern over which charities were reputable and effective.

One member of the Filipino American community decided to use his talents to create a resource to address that. Moonie Lantion, a tech professional from Los Angeles with some 15 years experience in the industry, created the website PhilippineRelief.com, where information on reputable charities and typhoon-related benefit events is aggregated and posted online.

"There needed to be some place to centralize two main pieces of info -- one, where can people donate; and two, what events can people go to in order to support," he said. "It was spread out all over social media, so I just wanted to put it all in one place that's easy to access."

Members of L.A.'s Filipino American community convene in Historic Filipinotown to plan action and events in response to Typhoon Haiyan.
Members of L.A.'s Filipino American community convene in Historic Filipinotown to plan action and events in response to Typhoon Haiyan. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Information-sharing was not only done in the virtual world but in real life as well. Last week, Lantion, along with over 50 other Filipino American professionals from the corporate, nonprofit, academic, and arts fields, assembled for an emergency summit at the headquarters of the nonprofit Search to Involve Pilipino Americans in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown, to share news, announcements, and expedite the planning process for local relief efforts and long-term aid to rebuild the central Philippines.

"The Filipino American community is very diverse -- we have a hundred groups and of course the share of drama and competition that comes with having that many groups," said Annalisa Enrile, a professor at the USC School of Social Work who organized the meeting. "But when there is something big that happens, we also have the spirit of Bayanihan (Tagalog for "communal effort") which brings is all together despite our various agendas."

Enrile continued, "The meeting at SIPA was meant to be a space where we could check in, share our ideas, and connect our resources. Also even though we are an ocean away, this is our way of being a type of first responder. As soon as this happened a lot of people in that room were in the ground doing work, fielding calls, trying to establish systems. It was good for us to come together in once space and be with one another for support- this is the way you build and maintain community."

A three-hour telethon that aired on KTLA-TV last Sunday night raised some $152,000 for the American Red Cross to go towards Philippine typhoon relief. Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in East Hollywood, home to a large Filipino congregation, netted $20,000 at a benefit concert there last weekend. The popular Eagle Rock foodie establishment The Oinkster, owned by Filipino American chef Andre Guerrero, sold Adobo Burgers last weekend for typhoon relief. Other establishments held donation drives. And more concerts, drives, and benefit events are planned for the coming weeks.

Others are just getting started in their own efforts to help typhoon survivors. Rachel Cometa Estuar, PTSA president at Foothills Middle School in Arcadia, intends to start a letter-writing exchange between American and Philippine schoolchildren, where students here can offer words of hope and encouragement to their counterparts overseas.

"Sometimes it takes just one thing to turn our hearts to the loss that others experience," said Estuar. "It all happens to us at different times."

The typhoon certainly put the Philippines in the national and international spotlight. Some of my non-Filipino friends and acquaintances have asked me how my family has fared. All are alive, but still greatly affected (one cousin in the province of Samar had the roof blown off her house, and family in Bohol, already ravaged by October's earthquake, are living on two hours of electricity per day, as the typhoon also damaged the region's geothermal energy plant). But I appreciate the gestures, as it gives me an opportunity to share what hasn't been reported on the news.

The spotlight on the Philippines is of a magnitude probably not seen since the 1986 "People Power" revolution that toppled the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and ascended Corazon Aquino as that country'd first female president. Her son, Benigno Aquino III, is the current president of the Philippines, who is facing criticism over an unusually slow response by the Philippine government to the disaster, as highlighted by CNN reporter Anderson Cooper's on-air remarks.

The younger Aquino's critics accuse him of playing politics: Leyte is the home province of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, and the Marcoses were believed by many in the country to be behind the 1983 assassination of the current president's father, the beloved opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr. Some have likened the Philippine president's poor response to the typhoon akin to that of another president's son: president George W. Bush, in his response to Hurricane Katrina.

For the majority of the Filipino American community though, in times of disaster, politics takes a backseat to bayanihan, as it should. But like the typhoon itself, that spotlight will soon dissipate, and another disaster will capture the public's eye. It will take years, perhaps decades, for the central Philippines to recover from both the typhoon and the earthquake. And it will take the work of the Filipino American community, and other Philippine diasporic communities worldwide, to remain a consistent shoulder of support.

"This disaster sets a new precedence -- we have never seen anything like this," said Enrile. "For those people who are dedicated to empowering the Filipino American community you have to do something. The response has to be serious and steadfast. We have to be in it for the long haul because after immediate relief we need to move towards replenishment and rebuilding."

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