Typhoon Ondoy…One Year Later

On September 26, 2009, Typhoon Ondoy struck the Philippines, wrecking unimaginable havoc that left thousands of our kababayan dead and many more displaced. It’s been considered one the worst natural catastrophes in the history of the Philippines, but the much worse catastrophe followed with the Philippine government’s lack of response to the damage. The public emergency relief fund was completely spent before the typhoon even hit, most likely spent on former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s extravagant trips to the U.S., which included a 100+ member entourage and luxurious dinners costing tens of thousands of dollars. Much of the relief efforts in response to the typhoon’s damage was left to non-governmental organizations, with little to no help at all from the government.

For us Filipina/o progressives in the U.S., our analysis of the situation in our homeland was clear. We could not and would not just leave our kababayans alone to fend for themselves, even though we are an ocean apart. We wanted to help in a way that was direct, responsible, and accountable, while at the same time being critical of the Philippine government’s inaction. A disaster relief operation of NAFCON and SanDiwa’s general program of action was always in place, but was never utilized until Typhoon Ondoy. This relief operation was thus launched, in cooperation with Bayan-USA and Gabriela-USA as BAYANihan for Philippine Disaster Relief. Gathering aid for the victims, both monetary and in-kind, became the primary focus in all of our member organizations. What soon happened in the several weeks that followed was nothing short of remarkable. Thousands of people came and donated what they could in terms of volunteer time, monetary, or goods. Hundreds of balikbayan boxes full of donated clothes, medicine, and food began piling up at the different drop-off sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York/New Jersey. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised at countless club events and fundraisers. Programming at our respective community organizations were put on hold to channel all our efforts into helping our kababayan. Filipino Americans who didn’t care about what was going on in the Philippines had a change of heart after seeing the devastation as well as the community’s efforts to get aid directly to our kababayan. I remember getting a call from one Filipino American in particular who said he never made the effort to know about his cultural roots because he felt ashamed of it, but after seeing on the news the sheer devastation, he didn’t want to be ashamed anymore. He said he’s now 33 years old, and now wants to help out as much as he can to make up for all the lost time he spent hiding from his Filipino culture. Despite our lives being disrupted and the stress of organizing the donations and events, I don’t remember anyone complaining too much, because we knew all this was for our people back home. In the end, we were able to ship 750 boxes of in-kind aid to the Philippines as well as over $50,000 in monetary aid.

I can’t believe it’s already been one year since the Typhoon Ondoy disaster, one year since our operation, BAYANihan for Philippine Disaster Relief. As I remember back to the devastation of the typhoon itself, the devastation of the government’s lack of response, and how our transnational community came together to rebuild and heal our beloved homeland, I’m always brought back to that very emotional moment one year ago, fighting to hold back the tears. This was by far the most daunting task I have ever taken up and also certainly the most rewarding in my life as a community organizer. I’ve learned and grown much from that experience, and I am still deeply inspired by our collective work as a community and the work we were able to accomplish, the breadth of work that still remains unmatched by the efforts of the Philippine government. This past summer, I was able to integrate with Migrante International, who took me to visit the communities they work with and that were hard hit by the typhoon. They did receive our donations, and sold much of the clothes to help buy beds and building materials and tools. They are still rebuilding their communities to this day, and it was truly humbling and inspiring to see them still pushing forward and surviving.

One year later, and our communities in the Philippines, though still recovering and still neglected by the Philippine government, are true survivors and still resilient as ever. It has been said that the Filipino is like bamboo, we bend but we do not break. This disaster, both natural and man-made, may have bent us over backwards to the brink of despair. But we have proven through our transnational collective effort, we are far from broken.

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