When super typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms in recorded history, hit the Philippines in November 2013, the damage was catastrophic. An estimated 6,000 people died and 3.6 million were displaced or otherwise affected.
More than a year has passed, but I haven’t forgotten. My father was born and raised in the Philippines, and I have family and friends there. My connection to the country and culture inspired me to apply to my current MA program in international studies, focused on the Philippines.
For me, the effects of the disaster weren’t wholly abstract. Shortly after typhoon Haiyan hit, I was privileged to travel to Leyte, Philippines and do some relief work. My language skills and my community of friends from the region helped me to meet typhoon survivors and record their experiences in both words and photos.
So of course I remember, even though it happened in 2013. But we all should, for a couple of reasons. Disaster amnesia, as it’s sometime called, is a luxury for the privileged—myself included.
That’s why I wanted to bring some of their stories back to the United States. In many ways, our countries are highly linked. Not only does the Philippines still feel the cultural and economic effects of US colonialism from the early 20th century, but our continued impact on climate change, even if we aren’t confronted with it on a daily basis, is linked to the natural disasters that are ravaging the southern hemisphere.
A month after typhoon Haiyan, I spent a few days in my friends’ community, a coastal city called Ormoc that received the storm’s strongest winds, at an astounding 235 mph. People had fashioned bright blue tarps into makeshift roofs throughout the small city. In Ormoc and elsewhere, volunteers from all over the world and all over the Philippines arrived to offer direct aid, many taking unpaid vacations from work or diverting their allocated vacation time to volunteer.
In the second town, Tanauan, I helped a grass-roots Filipino organization to deliver mosquito-netted hammocks and basic needs to families living in typhoon-devastated areas near the coast. Tsunami-like waves pounded Tanuan during the typhoon, and a village of temporary U.N. tents had sprung up in place of the village of small houses that had populated the beach before the storm. A month after the storm, trash still stood in piles two stories high in the middle of the streets.
For weeks after my trip I was haunted by the stories I was told, and the pervasive sense of loss that tinted even the smallest daily actions in Tanauan. Eventually though, the sharp edges of these images were worn smooth, and people’s stories, while still deeply moving, became ever so slightly less potent. News of the typhoon, as it were, became history.
So no surprise that now, if I mention typhoon Haiyan, people only hazily recollect it. People are, with good reason, highly focused on Nepal and its two recent devastating earthquakes.
I’m not immune. Losing track of calamities and disasters—and their corresponding political implications—shows that we, or at least I, am insulated from the loss—that my daily life goes on in the United States, relatively unaffected.
After that trip and attentively watching the Philippines attempt to rebuild, I’ve become increasingly interested in studying disaster. How does disaster amnesia function for the international community? Why does anyone only care about the Philippines when a typhoon hits, even though their situation surrounding poverty, corruption, and hunger is pretty dire the rest of the time too? I’m using my MA thesis to engage these and other important questions of Filipino natural disaster risk reduction and its relationship to development.
As we move on from these “natural” disasters, we should keep in mind that we have an effect on the severity of typhoons. Many respected studies argue that tropical storms are increasing in strength as a result of climate change and variability.
If this is true, don’t we have a responsibility to try to mitigate and limit our impact on climate change, even though we aren’t lying in the direct path of these increasingly strong storms? This obligation, it seems, is as much moral as it is environmental. Shouldn’t we do all that we can?
While we have the luxury of pondering this question, back in the Philippines, Nepal, Haiti, and elsewhere disasters have struck—now out of sight and out of mind—those devastated communities are only slowly recovering.