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‘On Fire About Opportunities’ in the Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan. Beth Allen, Food for the Hungry’s Marketing & Communications Resource Manager, shares with us about her recent field trip to the Philippines to gather communication resources for the ongoing work of rebuilding communities in the aftermath of the devastating Typhoon …

Can you describe something of what went through your mind on your journey from the USA to the Philippines?
I was hoping that we would be able to make all the logistics work to access the communities where Integral is working. I picture relief logistics as a boa constrictor that’s just swallowed a large meal! For the first few days after the disaster, transport is at a trickle. Then once the pipeline opens up you can get this huge backlog of people and relief supplies trying to get in — the “bulge” in the snake. Then things even out after a while. I just prayed that our media team wouldn’t get trapped in the bulge. We very nearly did! The whole trip was a major prayer effort.

What were your first impressions on arrival?
As we drove into Basey from Calbayog on the first day, we saw the storm damage getting worse and worse. I kept thinking, “Surely it can’t get any worse than this.” And it would get worse. Honestly I did not know if I could bear the sadness when we finally arrived in Basey — would I be able to even function as an interviewer?  But as soon as we arrived, and I set foot on the ground, it was like the Holy Spirit blew into me and said, “Look around you. Despair does not reign here.”  I was blown away by the positive energy that the Filipinos exhibited. I could hear chain saws and hammers working as people cleaned up and rebuilt …The mood was one of “let’s do something about this.”

What was the first thing you did when you arrived in regards to your comms role?

I figured out how to get copies of the travel itinerary for the whole team printed out in a hotel without a functional business center. It took a while but we needed to get everyone on the same page as travel was going to be lengthy and complicated.  We spent a good part of the considerable travel time managing expectations among our team.

How do you go about gathering photos and stories?
In this situation we decided our primary goal was to find families in the barangays (villages) where Food for the Hungry’s volunteers and churches had done food distributions, and interview them to get their stories. In both Basey and Marabut, we worked with the head social worker to figure out where we should visit.

In Palaybay, in Basey, we started talking with an engaging family who had one wall standing in their home, and ended up with an amazing afternoon of interviews. Rather than going house to house, we stayed with this one family, and all four adults (older couple and two adult children) each told their separate stories of the day of the storm. I had not thought of that as a strategy, getting all the points of view within a family, but I think it made for what I hope will be a highly effective story. Our story gathering may have been the first time these people told their “day of the storm” story start to finish. We also got some photos of the destruction, with the idea that as time goes on we’ll be able to photograph that neighborhood as cleanup and rehab progresses. 
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What are the main challenges?
Equipment not working, lack of preparation on our end to make sure we had internet connectivity. Cell phone service was unreliable but in the end I had several (expensive) calls back to the US to get us some regional and national-level media coverage. We had many media outlets in the US wanting to do interviews and we had no way to get the stuff off our hard drives and back home, even back in Calbayog. We also nearly scuttled the whole day in Marabut when we realized all the camera batteries were dead, primarily due to heat.  We had made friends with a local TV crew the day before and they kindly allowed us to plug into their generator and boost our batteries.

Integral is the process of setting up a Hub office – do you have any reflections about what more can be done together than as individual Member Agencies?

I absolutely think a hub would be more effective. The FH Philippines office was drowning in work since they have to run their current programs. And for our little NGO to keep up with 19 Integral Members….not possible!

Can you tell us an example of effective coordination that you witnessed during your visit?

Obviously the FHUS/TFUK assessment trip was a rousing success. And I know the FH Philippines team and our Disaster Manager Israel Keys really appreciated having other Integral Members who got on the ground earlier, to get him up to speed.

What was the hardest thing about your trip?

Having to fight to get the story back home.  For example I ended up crawling under a bunch of desks in a hotel office, after midnight, looking for a live ethernet cable at one point, to meet a media deadline for a radio interview.

Can you tell us a story of hope from your time in the Philippines?

I have many stories of hope! We met a newly-elected barangay council member in San Antonio. We sat in this mostly-ruined church where he pointed out a tall crucifix on one remaining wall.  “The town is mostly ruined but the Christ was untouched,” he said. That really motivated him. He then ran through his vision for what the town might be some day, given this opportunity to rebuild.  “We shouldn’t build homes again this close to the beach. So I’m thinking, let’s make this a tourist beach and a ferry dock. The sand here is great. We have good soil, there’s no reason we can’t introduce some new crops into that field over there (making wide, sweeping gestures as he talks). With the fishing, we have the BEST TASTING milk fish in the Philippines, much better than over in Marabut where they have that rocky bay. Ours is sandy so the fish taste better. So we definitely need to get the fishing industry back up again.”  This guy was just on fire about the opportunities.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your time in the Philippines?

I’ve been in a number of post-disaster zones, most of them 1-3 months after the disaster, and none of them were as far along as the two communities I visited as far as cleanup and thinking ahead. There’s an extraordinary opportunity here to utilize some highly motivated people. I’m glad there are more of us, working in tandem, to bring in the financial and human resources  because I think we will need a large pool of resource very quickly, if we’re to properly leverage the human potential and spirit in Western Samar.

Read stories about Food for the Hungry’s Typhoon Haiyan response