Really Big

I haven’t written a post for a while. I have a few half written posts on geography and a few other ideas. However Typhoon Haiyan has come along. I haven’t been involved in any of the Red Cross response. This is all ably managed by our international team. The scale of Haiyan or Yolanda, has stopped me from writing or thinking about anything else. It is partly because the level of death and destruction has made me feel that any meanderings on geography or place etc, is inappropriate and insensitive when people’s lives and communities have been completely destroyed.

I did also try to write a post on the Typhoon, more on the commentary that I was reading. But again I found this hard. I felt that I couldn’t write about the Typhoon, because I had no experience of the phillippines. I only write now because I have spoken to my friend and colleague, Catherine Gearing, who was just outside Tacloban City (and had been running training in the city just before the typhoon hit), and was one of the first people to enter the city. Her story is harrowing. I was so pleased to hear her voice when I called her when she was back in Manila. Despite what she had been through, we had a laugh as she thought I would kill her if she rushed off to tacloban without thinking about what what she needed to take with her. All of her colleagues were saying quick quick, we must go, and she was saying, wait wait, let’s just think about what we might be facing and what we might need. Needless to say she was able to take food and water with her, as they had to hike for 5 hours to get into the city after the roads became impassable.

One of the things that concerned me was the plethora of experts ready to pronounce how unprepared the Phillippines was for Haiyan, and finger wag that it was all about corruption. Many of these commentators were from the US, and I particularly enjoyed a comment from a Filipino man on this particular column “Hurricane Katrina anyone”. It struck me that outsiders were quick to condemn the Filippinos. It did get me wondering, how would our structures cope with 320-370 kmh winds, (100kmh stronger than the last recorded gust from Cyclone Tracy)  and what would we do if we had to provide relief for the population of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide combined. All of them. I recall a few years back my then Boss and I at a catastrophic disasters workshop shaking our heads at how many of the participants, all experienced disaster managers, calmly thought we would handle 50,000 people displaced, and collapse of power, water and communciations.  All seems so simple in a comfy airconditioned room. “NFI” mused Dudley, as we left. Catastrophic disasters are not just big disasters, they are systems failures. Think Cyclone Tracy. Think Marysville on a smaller scale.

It struck me again that the topic of looting came up in news commentary, as it does every time someone does something untoward. In New Orleans, if you were black and stealing, it was called looting. If you were white, it was survival. These were people who were desparate. Would we all be so polite and say stand back when our kids, or elderly mother, or injured brother was without food. I’m not sure that we would. Looting is a common myth, that has been long examined by most of the researchers in disaster management, Quarantelli, Drabek, Dynes, Tierney. The myth has been debated over and over again. I think it comes up because we want to believe there are goodies and baddies in our simple world view of disasters.

Tacloban City will fade from our memories pretty quickly, as the latest political storm in a teacup replaces it, or the Ashes starts. It won’t, of course, for those it’s residents who probably lose a decade of their lives just get back to ekeing out an existence. Nor will it for the people like Catherine, who was there, and the images are likely to seared into her memory.

One thought on “Really Big

  1. Hi John, thanks for your post. At this stage, the question that I’m having a hard time getting off my mind is: what can we change in our approach to preparedness in preparation for the next Yolandas? The most overwhelming aspect is that nobody knows, because nobody can mitigate the risks of such big events… and the worst is yet to come.


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