Sora’s month in Leyte – Part 1 – Introduction

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Local children playing on the beach in San Jose, Dulag.

It’s been difficult to know how to begin to write about the month I spent volunteering at a makeshift birth center in the town of Dulag on the island of Leyte, ground zero for last November’s super-typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). This first post will be a sort of introduction / overview and I’ll write later, in more detail and with more pictures, about specific events and people.

I’ve now heard many first-person accounts from survivors and relief workers who were there in the early weeks after the disaster. I’ve seen many photos and videos of the immediate aftermath. But it is still difficult for me to wrap my mind around the sheer scale of the devastation. By the time I arrived in Tacloban airport on March 15, more than four months after Yolanda, recovery and rebuilding was well underway. Evidence of the typhoon’s damage was everywhere, events were referred to as “before Yolanda” or “after Yolanda” and many people were still living in donated tents or under tarps with the donor organization’s name emblazoned in large letters. But the area had clearly settled into a “new normal.” New construction here and there denoted those who could afford to rebuild. A brisk new trade in the manufacture and sale of concrete blocks and the recycling of bent and damaged metal roofing was evident. Roadside stands offered an ever-increasing variety of produce, heaps of sprouted coconuts waiting to be planted to replace the thousands of lost trees could be seen by the roadsides, and some of the gardens that had been replanted “after Yolanda” were ready for harvest.

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Many plants grow incredibly quickly in the tropics, but the coconut trees will take many years to replace.

The town of Dulag is about an hour’s drive south of Tacloban, down the eastern coast of Leyte island. It was in the “eye of the storm” and while the incredible winds of the strongest typhoon to make landfall in recorded history did a lot of damage, Dulag did not experience the same devastating storm surge that caused thousands of fatalities in Palo, Tanuan, and Tacloban itself. The big wave (higher than the coconut trees, according to witnesses) went north up the coast rather than directly inland.

The clinic where I was volunteering was set up in early December. Tents were erected inside the large assembly room of a local elementary school because the building had lost its roof and a solar suitcase was used for lighting. By the time I arrived, we had electricity and the roof had been repaired, but we were still using tents because they were convenient room dividers and allowed a semblance of privacy. The volunteers slept in tents at one end of the long hall. There was a tent for medical supplies, a tent with two beds in it that served as the “delivery room”, and an L-shaped three-room tent with cots in it for mothers and babies to stay postpartum. If we had more patients than room in the tents, we set up extra cots for them wherever we could.

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School canteen, battered by Yolanda and no longer in use.

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Another damaged school building, looking out from the clinic toward the highway. The ocean is barely visible between the buildings and broken coconut palms.

In addition to volunteers from the US, New Zealand, and Europe, we had a great team of Filipino staff: six lovely midwives, a nurse who ran a sort of “urgent-care clinic” six mornings a week out of a Unicef tent set up outside next to the school playground, administration and support staff who took very good care of us. Most of these (except for the project manager) were local residents. The school building is right off the Pan-Philippine highway (more of a quiet country road at that point) and the beach is just across the road.

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The Filipina midwives pose in our prenatal area (behind them is the tent for postpartum patients.)

School in the Philippines runs from June through March; April and May are the summer vacation months. So when I arrived San Jose Central school was still in session. The school administration was incredibly gracious about having a full-scale birth center on the premises and the children were charming, friendly, and extremely interested in us, peeking at us through the windows and doors from early in the morning until late in the evening. Despite the extreme damage to the school building and the surrounding community, there had been no fatalities in the student population during the typhoon (largely because the barangay of San Jose had been spared the deadly storm surge) and the students ended their year on time, having only missed a few days of school because of Yolanda.

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In the doorway are Soichi and Tricia, two of our little friends whom we saw almost every day.

During some of my free-time while in Dulag, I reread When Helping Hurts (kindle edition on my phone) and sadly I saw more than one real life violation of the principles of “helping without hurting.” Immediate disaster relief work is stressful, intense, and difficult. Navigating the transition from relief to rebuilding is complex, challenging, and fraught with opportunities for unintended consequences. I learned a lot during my time in Leyte. While preparing for my trip, I solicited donations to help with buying supplies for the birth center where I would be working, and was able to use these to fill a suitcase, out of which much (especially baby hats and blankets) was distributed to the families of some of the 87 babies born while I was there. I quickly became convinced that, helpful as it was to the families we were caring for to have a place to come for a safe, gentle birth, it was more important for the community as a whole to work on restoring the health care infrastructure that had existed before the typhoon … and that our very presence as foreigners, giving away “freebies”, in many ways created a disincentive for that to happen. I realized that in order to make the greatest positive impact during my time in Leyte, my focus needed to be on supporting and assisting the local midwives I was working with in any way I could.

To be continued…

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