Covering disasters: In the midst of human suffering

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There were 150 of us who made up the Quezon Flood relief team headed by Minnie Portales and Boy Bersales. Jun Esteves is now in East Timor. Yes, that was me climbing a relief truck.

You aren’t allowed to be amateurish if you are in the game of saving lives. The one human right that the poor and the vulnerable should have at the very least is to be protected from incompetence.” – Jan Egeland, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination (2003-2007), quote from the book War Games

You think it’s sexy? Think again.

My first foray into serious, life-threatening disaster work was when I covered our flood relief work in 2004 spanning 3 municipalities in Quezon Province, Philippines. It took several phone calls of persuasion from my boss (then Pastor Joey Umali) to get me to fly from Maguindanao – where I also reported on the remains of the Buldon armed conflict – to Manila and proceed to Real, Quezon.

Often our imaginations ran far ahead of us. Mine was how scary and morbid it would be. Had I known it was more than I could ever imagine – being a newbie in the game – I am not sure if I proceeded. But it was a call of duty, and literally the calls didn’t stop until I boarded the plane and made it to the relief briefing room in Quezon City.

Where on earth all these logs and uprooted trees came from. It remained unanswered after so many speculations. We have to walk through all these to reach Real town where a church gladly offered a building to be our relief base.

Off we went to the point of no return (at least after 3 weeks). When the car dropped us at the area of destruction, there was no other way to go but on foot. Martin (Moron), Netnet (Morales) and me were out to survive the challenge, Amazing Race could pale in comparison. Even after we learned that a group of TV crew were swallowed by a landslide, we persisted.

For a day and one night, we walked on foot. Mud was knee-high. Much of our food we left behind so all we have was a loaf of bread which we shared for dinner.

We climbed huge, giant logs that were swept by the Quezon landslides. We were all quiet but our minds were racing how on earth those logs slugged through filling all the bridges, rivers, roads and sea shores. They almost covered everything in sight!

It was a sight at dusk I would never forget in my lifetime.

The market covered with mud and logs.

It was nature getting back at human beings’ greed through illegal logging. It was right before our very eyes – raw and unedited.

When we jumped on an available boat that would take us to the town of Real the following morning, we never even thought of life vests. There was none. Thanks God we arrived safe. There was no time to cry or complain. We plowed to work. We slept in tables and chairs of a closed school building where I pounded on my laptop for the daily situation reports and stories from Quezon’s version of ground zero. They bannered through our magazines, websites and donor updates around the world.

My first time to see 3,000 people line up for relief distribution was a shock. We ate breakfast as heavily as we can, because it was unthinkable to eat while people were lined-up and hungry. Our lunch boxes remained untouched until the last family gets their share. Usually it will be around 5pm. Late yet most of us were still in high spirits for a job accomplished – families going home with food to last for a week.

Massive work. Residents helping on the clean-up of a flooded and mud-covered school. Desks were being dried on the roof.

There were some highlights. I climbed on a dump truck with Aneesh Raman, the CNN international correspondent as they filmed the destruction. I learned later he left CNN and joined Obama’s campaign team.

I saw the Philippine military and the deployed US Marines work together in transporting relief goods from buzzing helicopters even on a heavy downpour. It was quite a sorry sight how ill-equipped our own military men were alongside the marines. But I also witnessed they worked twice as hard to serve their own countrymen.

I worked with the very generous teams of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) and Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF) who provided free telephone calls to the survivors. Imagine how small the world is when I met and worked with them again in the Asian tsunami when I got based in Thailand in 2005 and even in Laos just early this year.

An estimated 3,000 fishing boats were said to have been destroyed by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the five provinces of Thailand.

A month after the flood, I got that fateful midnight call to handle the communications coordination for the Asia tsunami – globally. Two months later, I was sent to support our Thailand office and saw for myself what was left of its southern provinces when tsunami swept without mercy.

My work took me to several countries that accorded a front-row seat to human suffering, pain and massive destruction. The cycle is endless.

It is not skepticism. It is reality. I have seen how disasters even grew on bigger and horrifying scales.

Serene yet deadly. Locals in Phang Nga province in Thailand told us of waves enveloping this beach when tsunami struck.

The only escape I have from these mysteries of life is the thought that things are sometimes beyond our comprehension. No answers to whys and hows and whens.

My stories were searing and unthinkably sad. No matter the scale, the human grief and loss were almost the same in intensity – regardless of race or country. They stay in my mind. So, I keep telling people whether they listen or not – count your blessings.

I salute my disaster-hardened colleagues who have covered much tougher assignments like the earthquakes, tsunami, volcano eruptions, civil wars and countless others. My experience nowhere comes near. I can only imagine how compelling and unbelievable their stories will be if all shared. They will fill hundreds of books. The stories continue.



Children and old people are the most vulnerable during disasters.

You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen. – Paulo Coelho

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