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A nation in distress falls back on cultural values burnished over centuries of hardship.
MANILA — As the tropical sun rose over the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan blew out to sea, and the magnitude of death and destruction slowly came into focus, the Filipino masses responded with long-cherished national values.
The country had weathered a storm of historic immensity. But the disaster-prone Pacific rim nation has been through this before, so often that it has words and concepts that help guide people through. On the lips and in the minds of the masses were terms like “bayanihan” — meaning a shared burden — and “kapit-bisig” — a linking of arms in solidarity.
Amid a national catastrophe of unimaginable scope, with at least 10,000 feared dead and entire communities leveled by the winds, Filipinos in areas spared the wrath of Typhoon Haiyan are mounting fund-raising and donation drives to aid their storm-battered kin and friends.
While international aid is embraced, this is not a nation that stands by and waits for assistance. Filipinos have converted their social media accounts into newsfeeds carrying pleas to send aid to areas besides Guiuan town in Eastern Samar, where Haiyan first made landfall, and to the cities of Tacloban and Ormoc, flattened by the storm and its tidal surge.
As the world tunes into Tacloban, Filipinos have been searching elsewhere, to ensure that no distressed community goes unnoticed. Rather than waiting idly for the officials to respond, citizens-turned-journalists are calling attention to areas equally battered across the sprawling archipelago — like Palompon town, which sits between Tacloban and Ormoc; the diver's haven of Coron island; Iloilo in Negros Oriental; the province of Antique; and Bantayan island in Cebu.
The scale of need is enormous. Millions lack shelter. Relief operations have been hampered by heavy debris in harbors and destruction at airports. Felled trees, upended electricity posts and downed power lines have left all but a few roads to the disaster sites impassable.
In the calamity zones people used whatever internet and smartphone access they had to send out mayday calls and list the supplies they needed the most. These posts were uploaded as memes and circulated prominently on the web as status updates or tweets.
By Facebook, Filipina Mai Arnaiz Jardeleza-Cataquiz called attention to Estancia, where the dire situation was still unknown. Tagging local journalist Carmela Huelar, the message reads: "In Estancia, Ilo-Ilo alone many many dead bodies are turning up [along] the shoreline. Some of the deceased are from the neighboring islands/provinces and the deceased from Estancia showed up in the neighboring island shores of Carles, Iloilo and other surrounding islands."
This means "the deceased are buried without their families knowing about their missing love[d] one’s status,” Cataquiz wrote. She added, “There is an oil spill happening right now. To my friends in media [especially] Carmela Huelar, kindly let your colleagues know please about this so that authorities can help the local government manage the dire situations over there.
"We are very very worried [for] our relatives in this village," she concluded.
Despite the nation’s palpable desperation, Filipinos online took time to thank the international community for each pledge and donation of personnel, goods and cash. Aid arrived from quake-stricken Japan, Norway, Russia, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, the Vatican, New Zealand and Australia.
Even tourists stranded at the airport in Busuanga airport in Coron, which sits beside the resort island of Boracay, were swept up by the spirit of bayanihan and kapit-bisig. A local news network filmed them helping to unload relief goods from a Philippine Air Force C-130 aircraft. A still photo captured off the video footage went viral with messages of thanks from grateful Filipinos.
In the United States, Filipino-American communities also began seeking donations for Haiyan's survivors and coordinating with people in the Philippines to ensure the safe arrival of these donations, mostly in cash.
At times, social media efforts payed off, yielding momentary joy amid the trauma. Two Filipino poets, Richard Gappi and Merlie Alunan, had been in Tacloban when Haiyan hit. For the day after the storm they had been unaccounted for. Their friends launched text brigades, posted messages of concern online, and took shifts deploying Google's improved crisis tools for post-Haiyan relief operations.
When these poets were found well and alive, a community of the Philippines' best literati rejoiced over social media and via voice calls.
In cases where the searches ended in grief for the kith and kin of the missing, phone lines and status posts quickly conveyed the sad news as family members separated by islands and continents comforted one another as best they could, often in their native tongues, in writing and verbally.
Other attempts to find missing loved ones have yet to bear fruit, and families and friends continue the search.
Many resorted to the customized people search tool Bayanihan PH, which enables users to enter data on the person being sought, to compare these with records of persons listed in evacuation centers, the dead and the known missing.
While telecommunications have been restored to relief operations and command centers in the calamity zones, there were many dead zones where mobile phone signals were unavailable "due to lack of electric power in the affected areas," according to carriers’ advisories. The telcos announced that they would send in generators from Manila.
Tacloban and Ormoc are not expected to have electricity back until Jan. 1, 2014, at the earliest. The areas outside of these cities are likely to have to wait even longer.
Efforts raise funds for relief and rehabilitation have included a call for Filipino artists to donate their paintings and sculptures for auction; a call by local musicians to hold benefit concerts; and for local businesses to pool the proceeds of their retail sales for a day or more and donate these funds to relief agencies.
As promising as these efforts are, they will take time, and millions need help immediately.
Jose Carlos L. Cari, a politician representing Baybay, south of Tacloban, issued a plea on Facebook for underserved calamity areas over his Facebook account: "Please help share and spread the information to reach authorities & media,” Cari wrote. Naming the heavily damaged areas of Mayorga, Dulag, Tolosa, Tanauan, he wrote, “More people are dead. Scarce supply of food, water, medicine. People are outraged, taking everything they can get due to lack of supplies! These areas need medical attention immediately!"
He also urged authorities to send fuel and water, and underscored that the district’s only functioning hospital, Baybay Hospital, “is running out fast of medicines, fluids, antibiotics, and other supplies."
While the scope of Haiyan’s devastation appears overwhelming, it was not long ago that the country weathered the fury of a destructive typhoon. In 2009 Typhoon Ketsana flooded 12 of the 14 cities in Metropolitan Manila. Back then, Filipino netizens converted their social media accounts and used Google Maps to pinpoint areas where workers were needed to assist survivors stranded on rooftops and rescue communities isolated by the high waters.
Two years later, Facebook users created the Philippine Typhoon and Calamity Watch group, where members share everything from memes calling for help in areas still waiting for relief, to practical lists of what specific communities need, and calls for volunteers to gather and re-pack donated goods for the areas ravaged by Haiyan's wrath.
The damage wrought by Haiyan was heartbreaking to many Filipinos, but most have just kept plugging away, volunteering where they could, contributing whatever skills they had to offer.
In Makati City, a modern district that houses numerous call centers, offices and convenience stores gathered donations. And workers in Manila’s premier business districts spent lunch hours and coffee breaks packing relief goods for their beleaguered compatriots.
There were even unconfirmed reports that the capital's most hardened prisoners, in the Bilibid Prison, skipped a meal so the food they did not consume could be sent to the calamity-stricken areas.
Whether or not that is true, it would not be out of character. For Filipinos may not be perfect, but when the situation calls for it, they work together. When grief comes calling, they grieve together and comfort one another as best they can.