Friday, November 15, 2013

#YolandaPH: One Woman's Journey to Save Her Family

A week after Super-typhoon Yolanda devastated Eastern Visayas, people all over the world are still talking about it. The people directly affected by it are still largely suffering from its devastation.
In the midst of all this, I just want to share this uplifting story that is full of courage and filial piety. This woman’s story is about how she pulled herself out of the comfort and safety of Manila to rescue stranded relatives in her hometown, Tacloban.

Hers is a story that is meant to be shared for it is driven by personal courage that goes beyond duty. But, hers is also a request... a request for people to stop criticizing the government because it is amplifying the problem.

I have known Gigi Wong since our daughters started nursery eight years ago. I’ve always known her to be gutsy, outspoken, and full of exuberance. Even then, she has always been big-hearted, always opening up her home for playdates between both our daughters.

A few days after the typhoon made landfall, her FB wall was full of impassioned pleas about any information about the whereabouts of her relatives in Tacloban. We exchanged a few PM's as my husband also has relatives in Tacloban. I shared with her how some of our family members went to Tacloban to retrieve trapped family members also.  The next message I got from her, I found out that she hitched a plane ride to Tacloban. 

Here is her story in her own words: (I am compiling and summarizing her FB notes into one narrative)
My name is Geraldine Uy Wong and I am a private citizen who had just arrived from Tacloban after I successfully pulled out my relatives. Now safely back in Manila, I read and hear comments criticizing the DSWD and I feel that this is quite unfair. We are all guilty of judging the government, but I was there in Tacloban to see for myself how the people of DSWD work. Beside her in the command post, I witnessed how Sec. Dinky Soliman marshalled her task force to address the enormous job ahead that even my mind cannot grasp. Tirelessly, she champions everyone to keep going even as the morale is evidently low, as she herself goes through her never-ending list of to-do's, 24 hours being not enough for the enormous task that still lies ahead. Yet she is gracious, her presence is reassuring, and she has the steady look and smile that tells you one thing : we will not stop working because many people need our help. I ask everyone to please give the government a chance. If you receive a message, an email, or a post criticizing this government agency or even other departments, please think twice before you share or like. Instead, I ask you to go to the nearest DSWD relief center to deliver your donations. While you are there, you might as well volunteer to do even just an hour of volunteer repacking work. The government is really doing its best. It will be even more efficient if the private sector pools its resources to support the entire national operation - that of helping our fellow countrymen in this worst calamity ever imaginable. I hope you can share this message, even by word of mouth, so that people are not discouraged to help. I am afraid that others will tend to believe the false things that they hear and will be disheartened to help because they think it is useless.
Here is a group photo of the family members she rescued:
Gigi Wong, in the middle with outstretched hands, with all her family members safe and accounted for!
She shares her ordeal:
...14 relatives plus me and my niece who went there = 16 saved lives. It could have gone differently, and I shudder to think what would have happened if I myself got stranded as well. I look at them all, 14 happy faces, plus several happy hearts magnified as I see my uncle and auntie get reunited with them tearfully. My uncle and auntie just so happened to be in Manila for a medical check-up otherwise they would also have been stranded there and I wonder how these elderly people would have coped if they were there. Upon arrival, I had to immediately bring my cousin to the ER of makati med because he had a big wound when a heavy piece of their aluminum gate floated during the height of the typhoon and hit his leg as the whole family was swimming for their lives. Although they were already treating his wound with topical ointment during the past few days, the lack of antibiotics and proper access to doctors made his wound fester, and i noticed his leg and foot was already starting to swell. I was also worried because his wound was exposed to flood and dirty waters the days after. Thankfully, he was injected last night with the tetanus toxoid and given proper treatment. The doctor suspects that there is bone fracture so we still have to do xrays today. Finally, I slept last night after the last of our evacuees was tucked safely into bed. I woke up this morning with headache, stomachache because of hunger suffered while I was there, and pains in all parts of my body, but most of all, I also woke up with a big heartache for all the other people we left behind in Tacloban. I cry as I write this, I cannot even begin to describe all the horrors that I saw with my own eyes. I did not take any pictures, partly because I was in a wild frenzy to look for them and get them out. I did not allow myself to get distracted from my mission. But in later posts, I will try to recall what my eyes saw, so that in my own small way, I can share and then maybe I can help the others who still have relatives stuck there. I woke up and wished it was just a nightmare. But it's not. Why? Why? Why? Why did this have to happen? I cannot understand.

And she also adds an open letter addressed to Anderson Cooper:
Anderson Cooper, I Also Saw What You Saw . . .

Mr. Anderson Cooper, I want to thank you for reporting on the miserable conditions that you saw when you covered the Tacloban calamity scene 5 days after the typhoon. Your report came out on Tuesday, the day I was herding our relatives to the airport to finally get out of Tacloban. A day before, I was able to board the relief cargo plane of Air 21 Express from Manila to Tacloban when I was given the chance, getting there on Monday noon, and immediately I set out looking for my family members. On the way to the city, I saw what you saw, countless dead bodies strewn on the ground in various stages of decomposition, extensive destruction everywhere I looked, injured people walking on the streets looking like zombies - hungry, confused, desperate. The stench of death permeated all around us and sent chills down my spine. Countless times as our vehicle moved down the road, we were stopped by people in the streets begging for food. The roads were only passable by one lane, and along the way, I saw officers of the BFP (Bureau of Fire Protection) manually remove the dead bodies, along with the unbelievably massive amount of debris scattered all around. Because of this, what would normally take 40 minutes or less to traverse became an agonizing 2 hour ride. I saw what you saw, Anderson, and it angered me as much as it did you. I was also heartbroken, for this is the place where I spent some of the most wonderful summers of my childhood. I vowed to myself that I would speak up about the government's incompetence as soon as I got out. If I ever get out. . .

I arrived at the city hall tent as was part of my plan, because when I was still in Manila, I did hear that there was a command post of the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) where we can get celphone signals and internet connection. From there, I was supposed to make some inquiries before I would set out on foot to look for my relatives' houses. It was while I was there that I saw with my own eyes how this government agency led by its head, Secretary Dinky Soliman, tirelessly and heroically worked almost 24/7 to immediately bring relief not only to the city of Tacloban but also to the outlying municipalities and towns that were affected by this calamity. I could not even begin to grasp the massive amount of work that needed to be done. I wanted to know why the government action seemed to be excruciatingly slow, but I couldn't stay around long enough because my mission there was to find my relatives, and I did not want to be distracted. Thankfully, thankfully, I found them in two separate locations. They were cooped up in their houses, whispering in the dark, afraid to attract criminal elements that were reported to be going around looting. They could not believe I was there right before their eyes, and it was the first time in so long that they had a glimmer of hope that they would be rescued. We hastily fled their houses in the middle of the night, I placed all of them in one location, and then I went back to the city hall because it was a strategic point where I could get the proper celphone signals and stay connected to the outside world. I made some frenzied phone calls to my family in Manila, and it was from them that I found out that Cebu Pacific Air was offering humanitarian flights beginning Tuesday morning! All systems were in place for our eventual escape, and all I could do was pray to God that my plan would go on smoothly. After I instructed my cousin to look for 2 vehicles that could transport all 16 of us the next day to the airport, I decided to stay in the city hall overnight so that I could still keep in touch with my family in Manila. It was critical that I get all the assistance from the outside world so I could strategize better. Oh, how I proved now more than ever that communication or the lack of it could be one of the determinants for life and death!

As much as I was staying around for the rest of the night, I started going around to ask the officials why things are what they are. These are what I found out:

To read her open letter to Anderson Cooper in its entirety, please go to her Facebook page here.

And if you are still not convinced that NOW is NOT the right time to criticize the government's relief efforts, maybe this article from TIME Magazine will win you over.:)