Tuesday, 18 February 2014

My Valentine’s Day disaster

I traveled with Elizabeth McNaughton on Valentine's day in Tacloban, Philippines, the worst area affected by Typhoon Haiyan. This is her story.


It is a Valentine’s Day like no other and it starts early. I look out the jeep window, a little bleary eyed from the 4am start. Tacloban flashes past as we drive to a relief distribution. We slow a little as we come to a roundabout - it looks a little odd, kind of lumpy with little sticks and flowers on it. I lean up against the window for a better look - my stomach drops. My sleepy mind had mistaken a mass grave for a council gardener’s mishap. Five minutes after arriving at the airport I feel walloped by reality. I guess this is what you can expect from the strongest cyclone on record to ever make landfall.
We stop at the relief distribution site. I sit a little before getting out. There are loads of concrete slabs – the remains of the buildings that once stood here. They make me shiver as they remind me of the Boxing Day Tsunami. My eyes dance over the life around me and settle on a tiny clearing next to a palm hut. The hut has a precarious lean to it and a patch it job barely holds it together. Traffic whizzes by on the narrow road inviting calamity only to be saved at the last minute by a cacophony of horns. It is here that I am privy to a special moment.
A dad is hunched over washing a beautiful little boy. He does it in such a caring way. I can see that a bucket bath on the roadside has become a familiar ritual for them both. The little chap is completely lathered up and delights in the attention. He squirms and smiles as cold water runs down his back, completely oblivious to the beeping horns and chaos around him. I think perhaps it is these constants and rituals that help people through times like this. I think of my precious husband and son back home, and then I can’t help it, I think of the fathers and sons under the roundabout. Enough thinking. I jump out of the jeep.
A Philippine Red Cross volunteer hands me a box, one of 100,000 that the Red Cross has distributed to families. A simple hygiene kit – the basics bring dignity. I get my bureaucracy off and a sweat on. With almost every box I hand over I am offered a ‘thank you and happy Valentine’s Day’ greeting in return. I don’t want to say ‘you’re welcome’ because these brave and strong people have a right to dignity - they have a right to the basics - to be clean. No thanks required. So, I start to say things along the lines of ‘Happy Valentine’s Day and take care’.
It reminds me of our distribution of winter warmer packs in Christchurch. People told us ‘we thought everyone had forgotten about us - and then you came’.  It was not only things that we distributed but care - because homes and families are broken long after the media goes home! In 10,000 different ways our volunteers said to Cantabrians ‘we care about you’.
650 kits are distributed and we head back to base camp. I drop my gear in tent number 8 and head to the kitchen.
To my delight I find that there are four Kiwis at base camp that night. Bob McKerrow a Red Cross legend whose home town is Christchurch, James Hynes our IT & Telecommunications Emergency Response Unit team member and Charles Ranby who worked all hours of the day and night during the New Zealand Red Cross response to the Canterbury earthquakes.
It is a strange merging of worlds - as we Kiwis work together in the Philippines so do Filipinos in Christchurch.  They mourn their loss as they tirelessly rebuild our city.  As the anniversary of February 22nd draws near we remember our loss as we see theirs.  I spoke to a Filipino official who told me how she only slept three hours a night for 47 nights following the Typhoon.  I see it on her face just as I see it on the faces of so many dedicated New Zealanders who still put life and sleep on hold to support the earthquake recovery effort.  I must say at base camp tonight Christchurch and Tacloban do not feel far apart at all.
As I turn out my wee light in tent number 8 I think back to the roundabout and all those people out there in the world tonight who don’t have their Valentine this year, and those who can no longer give their little boy a bath.
Photo credit: Bob McKerrow/Swiss Red Cross


New Zealand Red Cross aid worker Elizabeth  McNaughton
Elizabeth McNaughton
Writing from Philippines
Elizabeth is an experienced aid worker who is currently in the Philippines as the IFRC’s Interim Recovery Coordinator. She has previously worked in south Asia after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and was the New Zealand Red Cross national recovery manager after the Canterbury earthquakes. She is currently the Principal Advisor, Strategy and Planning, to New Zealand Red Cross secretary general Tony Paine.

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