After the Big Storm

Lessons to an Academic Institution from Typhoon Haiyan   

January 5, 2014

On 08 November 2013, Category 4 Typhoon Haiyan swept through the central Philippine islands. While we at Iloilo City were spared, none of us were prepared to see the horror left behind by the furious winds and 3 to 4 meter storm surges in Tacloban and coastal Leyte communities. Our university’s Tacloban campus suffered major damage--the first floor of buildings was submerged by the storm surge; roofs blown away. We lost one student and one staff; countless other family members; houses, cars and valuables if not destroyed by the water were looted in the days following. Another sister campus, the UP School of Health Sciences at Palo, Leyte was also wiped out of existence.The northern Iloilo island communities, with whom our University has research/extension partnership, saw their fishing boats destroyed; in dire need of  immediate food assistance given their peripheral location from the mainland routes of relief delivery.


How do we as an academic community respond to such devastation? While we are no strangers to disasters (many of our Iloilo-based faculty and staff survived the flash flood from Typhoon Frank in 2008), this was the first time when university operations were compromised. Over 60 Tacloban students had to be accommodated for cross registration; around 30 students from affected areas already enrolled in our Miagao and Iloilo campuses had to be identified for assistance (particularly if their families lost their livelihoods, and hence financial capacity to support their schooling). For the Tacloban cross registrants, makeshift beds in every non-classroom facility were set up; a donations-based meal program quickly put together. A timely partnership with a major foreign humanitarian organization enabled us to mobilize for relief operations in the island villages  of northern Iloilo (over 4 metric tons) within a week-- braving 2-hour small boat crossings to these remote islands. Kindness poured in from unexpected places: a local restaurant offering free meals; alumni providing clothes and school supplies; union members, faculty and students spending hours sorting relief items; Psychology teachers offering debriefing training to school front liners.


Trying times bring out the best in a community and also makes evident what we are obviously not good at. While we were not lacking in volunteers, our foreign humanitarian partner is frustrated by our bureaucracy and little capacity to handle big amounts of assistance. Teaching comes first; safety second, making it difficult to find time beyond weekends to do volunteer work. We are structured for research and extension activities by way of training-- not in handling relief items and attendant logistics. We are not planners; there was no contingency in place to address the closure of one campus and the need to accommodate displaced students. There was no incident command system for communication, relief operations and in receiving of assistance; everything was done ad hoc.


On a personal level, the disaster made me realize how robust my international network has become and how much support it can provide. In the days after, I received dozens of emails from worried colleagues around the world who knew I was from Iloilo. During a conference trip to Bangkok, my Asian Public Intellectual (API) Thai friends put together a solidarity event which impromptu raised a substantial amount for relief efforts to my University; API colleagues from Indonesia followed suit, as is a research collaborator from the US. A friend who runs the Asia food bank took interest in my University’s work at Carles; sending in 2 metric tons of relief items from Taiwan.


As I write this piece, I am very cognizant that many more challenges lay ahead of us in rebuilding the Tacloban campus and in relocating the School of Health Sciences constituency to our Miagao abode. The students left behind in Tacloban who did not have the wherewithal to get out and cross-register need substantial catching up if they were to remain on their academic program track. There is much work to be done; but I am as hopeful as every Filipino made resilient by numerous disaster events.  


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