It’s been a little more than a week now since Typhoon Haiyan plowed into the Philippines. With maximum sustained winds of 195 mph, Haiyan – also known as Yolanda – is the most powerful tropical storm system in recorded meteorological history to make landfall anywhere in the world. The previous record had been held by Hurricane Camille, which packed 190 mph winds when it slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast in 1969.
The Philippines are no stranger to typhoons. Strategically situated just north of Indonesia, between the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea, this country of 96.7 million has to brace itself every year for tropical events. But, this time things are much worst. As far as storms go, Haiyan couldn’t have hit a more vulnerable location.
Barely a quarter century removed from the brutal, 20-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines still rank as a developing nation, even though it’s a relatively fully-functioning democracy. Geographically classified as an archipelago, the Philippines are comprised of 7,107 islands. But, it’s actually part of the overall Malay Archipelago, the world’s largest such area. Humans have occupied the Malay region for at least 30,000 years. For centuries, though, the Philippines often served as a crossing point between mainland Asia and the larger islands of Borneo and New Guinea. The arrival of Islam in the latter part of the 14th century changed much of the Philippines’ culture; a fact that remains even now, as the nation battles more radical Islamic elements. In 1521, Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan became the first documented European to arrive in the Philippines. He didn’t last long. Barely a month later, local warriors killed him and several others who were part of his expedition during an intense battle. But, the Spanish government, in its own bitter rivalry with Great Britain for world domination, persisted and launched more expeditions to the Malay area. More battles ensued and more blood was spilled, but in 1565, King Phillip II succeeded in making the islands a Spanish colony. It is him for whom the Philippines are named. The Philippines remained a Spanish outpost until the 1898 Spanish-American War. In 1935, the islands became a self-governing entity.
The “self-governing” part is always tricky for any nation that tries to set itself apart. It’s especially difficult for those where democracy is an alien concept – which is pretty much most of the developing world. After centuries of Spanish domination and Roman Catholic indoctrination, the Philippines weren’t a good candidate for automatic conversion to the democratic process. I recall how a contingency of average Filipinos known as EDSA 1 toppled the Marcos regime in 1986, sending him and his family fleeing for their lives. Even if his wife, Imelda, couldn’t haul her cache of designer shoes out of the imperial palace, the Marcos family had managed to siphon billions from national coffers before exiling themselves to Hawaii. As the haggard clan disembarked from a plane, one Marcos relative clutched a bag of diapers, as if it was her only possession. Then again, it’s quite possible fine jewelry and blocks of cash were hidden inside, so why wouldn’t she keep a tight grip on it? In an attempt to make peace with the Philippines, the U.S. government indicted Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos on a series of racketeering and money laundering charges. After Marcos died of cancer in 1989, the U.S. dropped all charges against Imelda. She may have never got her shoes back, but at least she’s living in paradise. Who says crime and corruption don’t pay?
When EDSA 1 finally rid the Philippines of Marcos, it installed Corazon Aquino as president. Her husband, Benigno, had been a vocal critic of Marcos and was exiled in 1980 for his views. When he dared to return to the land of his birth three years later, Marcos had him assassinated. Thus began the torturous battle for freedom and the long slog towards a democratic state. When international pressure compelled Marcos to call for elections in February 1986, Corazon Aquino was chosen as the opposition leader.
But, as foreign observers feared, everything that could have gone wrong with the Philippine election process did. Results eventually proved Aquino as the victor, but not before scores had died in rioting. When the Marcos family fled, Aquino took her rightful place as president of the burgeoning democracy and spent her single, six-year term fending criticisms of ineptness and coup attempts by Marcos supporters.
With a labor rate that is about 52% services and 32% agrarian, it’s no surprise the Philippines continues to struggle against the tide of wealth inequality. Roughly 26% of the population lives at or below the poverty line. Thus, Haiyan’s arrival added to the misery. But, that happens wherever communities subsist in states of financial insecurity. When Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, President George W. Bush received staunch criticism for his inaction. True, as a lackluster president, Bush didn’t have the mindset to respond to a natural catastrophe. No one in his administration did. But, for years, scientists had been warning the state of Louisiana that its southern enclaves were vulnerable to devastation, notably low-lying New Orleans. But, the Crescent City itself was already in a state of decay. Most of its citizenry relied upon government assistance and menial cash jobs just to survive. The people were ill-equipped to help themselves get out of harm’s way; e.g. rent a car or buy a plane ticket. The endemic corruption in both the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana set everyone up for disaster.
As of now, the death toll in the Philippines from Haiyan stands at 3,631 – the “official” estimate. With so many rural areas still cut off due to lack of electricity and telecommunications, the number of victims may be higher. I see reports of how bodies were left to rot on city streets and I’m glad chances of that happening here in the U.S. are rare. People were upset that so many damaged vehicles were left on the streets of New Orleans almost a year after Katrina. But, human bodies and animal carcasses?
Every one of those bodies was once a person; an individual who had a family and friends; someone who had hopes for a better future. When death occurs on so massive a scale, it’s often difficult to think of the deceased as individuals. It personalizes the disaster for us, so it’s easier to think of the dead masses and just shake our heads at the horror of it all.
Governments can’t address each one of them, so it has to consider the entire calamity and do what it can. But, it’s really up to the survivors and their communities to cope with the aftermath. They have to deal with the destruction; they have to clean out their homes; they have to gather what food and water they can find; they have to tend to the injured; they have to defend what’s left of their world. In other words, they have to care for themselves. That sounds brutal, but in a brutal situation, who best to take care of you and your loved ones except you, if you’re able-bodied?
I do know this: despite the mess, people will survive. Someone will always get through such disasters and continue with their lives by rebuilding their neighborhoods and therefore, their countries. After the initial shock, they stand up and just keep going. It’s hard and it hurts; nothing like that is ever easy. They may never recover emotionally or even physically from the upheaval, but they go on for as long as they can. It’s just human nature.
This post from fellow blogger, Donna Amis Davis, a long-time resident of the Philippines, provides more personal insight into the disaster.