Post-Typhoon Recovery: One Aid Worker’s Experience in the Philippines

Dr. Michelle Wang is a psychologist specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She recently returned from a two-week trip to the Philippines to train psychology students and conduct fieldwork in communities that are still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the island nation in November, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving more than 4 million homeless—twice the number displaced by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the 2010 Haiti earthquake. 

In its wake, the typhoon left behind a path of destruction wider than the state of Rhode Island. Along with thousands of homes, schools and businesses, the storm destroyed fishing boats, harbors and miles of coconut plantations, leaving millions of people without their livelihoods.  Less than four months have passed since Typhoon Haiyan, and the world’s gaze has largely turned elsewhere. 

Below in her own words, Dr. Wang narrates some of the photos she took on her trip and the encounters she had with families and children who survived one of the most violent storms on record.

“This is not an unusual or uncommon sight. During my trip, I would often find former residents squatting in piles of debris, trying to sift through and find items that might still be useful or valuable. Everyone on the streets seemed focused on the practical situation at hand, which was to re-build their lives. At least in public, no one seemed to be shedding tears.

The absolute destruction is shocking. There’s just no other way to say it. Even when I  was still on the plane, especially from the plane, it was insane. Just stretches of land with no structure but one single boat. Such desolation.

Because there were so many bodies to bury so quickly, the graves are very shallow. So dogs have dug up some of the bodies and children have reported seeing dogs with body parts in their mouths. The smell of death still lingers in the breeze. It will catch you in your tracks, you don’t even want to wonder what it is or where it’s coming from.”

“This is from my last day in Candahug baranguay (village) with these children. Many of them have lost their parents, siblings, best friends and others close to them. One of the first words they taught me wasmatay, meaning “death” in the Waray dialect. 

One of the challenges of treating childhood trauma is that they don’t have the verbal capacity to talk about their feelings or identify them. So the treatment is not cerebral at all, it’s not traditional talk-therapy. It’s all body-based, incorporating play, theater and movement.

After days and days of games and theater and play, the kids you see in the pictures actually started using what verbal capacity they did have to talk about how they were feeling. Many of them even started raising their hands as if they were in a classroom, mimicking the school experience they missed so much.

At one point during my trip, I called on the children to ask who in their family had died in the storm. It suddenly became almost like a game like, “Ooh-ooh! Call on me! My brother! My sister! My best friend!” To some, that might have seemed disrespectful, but it was just another way for these children to express themselves and process their feelings.

Psychologically, they’re still so fragile. Many of the children I met would wake up throughout the night from nightmares. Even the feeling or sound of rain will remind these children of the devastation they witnessed. During my trip, it rained every day, which triggered symptoms of post-traumatic stress.” 

 

“These two children ran out to greet me when they saw I had a camera. They were eating breakfast and the boy was showing me that what he was eating was tasty. From what I saw, this type of housing—with actual doors and even a lock— indicates relatively good conditions compared to the rest of the coastal villages. Most of the temporary living quarters are not tall enough to fit a stool or hang clothes.

Many of the survivors were all talking about relief and the humiliation of standing in line every morning waiting for food. They’d rather have nets to fish.

They were all telling me that the cameras are now gone, and they’re not getting the coverage they used to be.In terms of the psychological phase, many of the typhoon’s survivors are in the disillusionment phase: ‘Where is the help we were promised? We’re hearing about all of these money coming in, but it’s not trickling down to us.’

When PTSD develops, this disillusionment phase is very vulnerable. You could see it in the survivors’ posture and the way they walk. Heartbreaking, how the body betrays the mind.

The antidote to disillusionment is empowerment.”

“This is the school in Candahug. It is one of the few buildings still standing and the village seems grateful for this. When I asked the children if they enjoy being back in school, they yelled emphatically without any hesitation that they loved it because they got to play and be around their friends.

I spoke to some parents in Tacloban city who actually discouraged their children from returning to school, saying they felt anxious and scared about sending them back after only two  months post-typhoon. Many relatives are still very scared and protective. There’s a desire to shelter their children from the outside world, which is itself a symptom of trauma. So every day these children are home, absorbing their parent’s fear and anxiety.”

“What remains of a living room in a coastal village in Leyte. Although infrastructure may have been weakened in Tacloban and the surrounding villages, the community is coming together to rebuild using the still-limited resources at their disposal. One of the more helpful endeavors has been spearheaded by a grassroots organization that donated thousands of chainsaws to typhoon survivors. Now, the residents are able to break down the coconut trees, clear the land, unblock their rice paddies and use the leftover lumber to rebuild homes.”

“This is Nonoy Mondragon of the municipality of Lapaz Leyte. I ran into Nonoy on my way back to the hotel. He was in the middle of pumping water to wash his clothes:  ‘So many people come to help us. So many people give money for Yolanda. But where is the money? We do not see it.’  Nonoy wanted me to understand that Filipinos are very humorous people, but while they might ‘joke and laugh’ on the outside, it does not mean they are not without suffering and grief.”

“A young boy brushing his teeth while balancing on a narrow wooden ledge. This area of Leyte directly faces the Pacific Ocean and was one of the most devastated areas.”

 

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