Yolanda (Haiyan): Remembrance, Reflection and Responsibility

Nov 9 2017 - In the arcane world of natural disasters, names matter a great deal—not only because of history and science, but because people need them in order to remember or mourn what and whom they have lost.

Yen Makabenta

In the case of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), we are told that because of the extensive damage and high death toll that it caused, changes in disaster nomenclature are afoot. In the Philippines, Pag-asa has announced that the name Yolanda would be stricken off the typhoon-naming lists. Pag-asa chose the name Yasmin to replace Yolanda for the 2017 season.

During its 2014 annual session, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) announced that the name Haiyan would be retired from its naming lists on January 1, 2015, and would be replaced by the name Bailu.

This information is useful to have because yesterday, in seemingly just the wink of an eye, the nation was already marking the fourth anniversary of Yolanda (Haiyan) and its devastating landfall in the East Visayas on November 8, 2013.

It’s awkward that to be true to the historical and meteorological record one must also take account Yolanda’s international name. This is imperative because Yolanda’s claim to be one of the worst natural catastrophes in history is closely wedded to the fact that Haiyan made landfall and did great harm also in many other countries in Asia-Pacific, and they remember it also by a different name – their own or the international name.

Earthquakes and tsunamis have a simpler naming system. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which occurred on December 26,2004 is simply remembered as that. The undersea megathrust earthquake triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing 230,000 to 280,000 people in 14 countries. Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. The event is known in the scientific community as the Sumatra–Andaman earthquake. The resulting tsunamis were given various names by the affected countries.

Filipinos refer to their biggest natural disaster simply as “Yolanda.” Instinctively, Philippine journalism attaches the word “Super” to Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), as if in salute.

Yolanda and the memory hole
I monitored yesterday’s commemoration of Yolanda, and I have researched the progress of the rehabilitation and rebuilding of Leyte and Eastern Samar, in order to assure myself that my home region and home province are marching in stride with the ambitious programs of President Duterte.

I have an angst (dread) that because of the many failures of the Noynoy Aquino administration, Yolanda and its sorrows and lessons have been dumped by bureaucrats and politicians in a memory hole. There are so many things and so many tragedies that the Liberals and Yellows dearly hope would be forgotten by the nation. The new administration has its own promises that still remain to be honored.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a memory hole as “an imaginary place where inconvenient or unpleasant information is put and quickly forgotten.”

It originated from George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which described a dystopian future, where historical documents and records could be disposed of to allow for manipulation of memories of the past. A memory hole is any mechanism for the alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records, such as from a website or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression that something never happened.

I was curious to see how far the Aquino government went to revise the historical record of Yolanda, so that the following abominations would disappear:

Aquino government officials’ infamous statements: Aquino’s “Buhay ka pa, di ba?”; Mar Roxas’ “You are a Romualdez, the president is an Aquino,” and many others;

The accounting by former Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman of the billions of pesos worth of donations for Yolanda’s relief that were placed in her charge, and were reportedly mismanaged;

The failure of government up to now to deliver the thousands of houses that were promised to Yolanda victims;

The grotesque non-performance of Sen. Panfilo Lacson as rehabilitation czar under President Aquino, and the humbling lesson that an engineering task should never be assigned to a policeman.

At yesterday’s commemoration, thousands of families stricken by Yolanda held demonstrations in Tacloban City and Catarman, Northern Samar to protest the failures and demand better action from the Duterte government. People Surge, a non-government organization based in Tacloban City, staged a silent protest along the national highway in Tanauan, Leyte, which enumerated with five body bags the false promises of the Duterte government: the investigation of the “gang of five” (former President Benigno Aquino 3rd, former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas 3rd, former Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, former Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla and former rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson), who collectively and individually neglected and denied vital assistance to the typhoon victims.

Comprehensive view of Haiyan
To get a better and more incisive perspective on Yolanda (Haiyan), I recommend to readers the fine article of Wikipedia on the disaster. I never expected the online encyclopedia to be so thorough in discussing the scientific, geographic, humanitarian, economic and political dimensions of the tragedy.

The Wikipedia article on Haiyan is in its way the most enlightening and comprehensive that is readily available. It links the reader to further articles that shed important light on many topics.

It is especially enlightening in its discussion of the colossal humanitarian assistance and donations that countries made to assist the country in the relief and rehabilitation of Yolanda-affected areas.

It lists the aid given country by country and the invaluable contributions of private and philanthropic organizations. It was especially pleasing to see cited the impressive and comprehensive disaster response provided by the Taiwan-based Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, which organized a large-scale cash-for-work program in Tacloban from November 20 to December 8 with up to 31,000 participants per day, totaling nearly 300,000 day shifts. This operation not only helped clean out the thousands of tons of debris covering the city, but also kick-started the local economy. Tzu Chi also contributed emergency cash aid of P8,000, P12,000 or P15,000 pesos depending on family size for over 60,000 families in the affected areas of Tacloban, Ormoc, Palo, Tanauan and Tunga, and has provided free clinics, hot meals, and temporary classrooms for over 15 schools in the area.

Tzu Chi impacted Yolanda’s victims in a personal way. It’s assistance like this that enable families and stricken communities to recover from disaster.

So did many Filipino humanitarian and private foundations. They have not stopped up to this day.

Remembrance, reflection, responsibility
Some people mistakenly believe that the Yolanda catastrophe should ever be remembered in all its horror and devastation. To do so is itself catastrophic.

Remembering Yolanda with an intensity that does not diminish over time will destine people to live in the past. This way, warned Ellen Goodman, “people will become curators of their ancestors’ grievances.”

It is foolhardy to interpret literally George Santayana’s counsel: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Repetition is also the fate of those who remember the past too well.

Far better is the counsel provided by the historian Carol Gluck. She made the case that what is really needed are three R’s: remembrance, reflection and responsibility.

She wrote: “We don’t want to transmit all the burdens of the past; we’re not looking for a constant open wound. What we need is remembrance for those who died and the day of the disaster. We need reflection for understanding how it really happened. We need to take responsibility for the past and therefore the present and the future.”

Among friends, relations and communities in Leyte who lived through Yolanda and its pain and sorrows, I have been most impressed firsthand by their indomitability and resilience.

In every traumatic experience, psychologists say, there is the fear of being paralyzed with grief. And then also the fear that recovery will require forgetting.

But forget we must. At some point, yes, we have to learn that Yolanda’s proper place belongs in the past.

This story was originally published by The Manila Times, Philippines

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