Two weeks ago, Anthony Smith ’11 received an unexpected phone call from his family in Manila, Phillippines—not only had his birthplace been flooded entirely, but his aunt was still stuck in her office and it was unclear whether or not she would survive. His aunt was one of 92 million Filipinos in peril after a devastating typhoon season this year.
In September, Ketsana and Parma, a pair of typhoons equivalent to Atlantic hurricanes, battered the Philippines, leaving the capital city, Manila, entirely inundated. Over 80 percent of the city remains underwater following the heaviest rainfall the country has seen in 40 years, with flood water levels reaching 20 feet at their highest. With over 288 dead and nearly two million people affected, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared a state of calamity on September 26. Although the country remains partway covered in water, it is beginning a long mending process. With nearly 6 billion Filipino pesos (129 million US dollars) in damages, however, the end seems increasingly far away.
Bea Paterno ’11, a Manila native, remembered the first phone call she received after the storm.
“My family hadn’t told me about the storm at first, not to worry me…” Paterno said. “I was heading to class when my dad called, told me ‘It’s bad. If you look on the news you’re going to be scared.’… There were just these images of my city and my people drowning. It was awful. I stayed in that day.”
Joey Florento ’13 was up all night talking to friends whose homes had been submerged.
“After Ketsana, I was up on the phone until four in the morning, my friends’ houses were entirely under water,” Florento said. “So many people lost everything. They were housing the poor in their attics. Everything was gone. And there’s another storm on the way.”
What has unfolded in the wake of the flood is equally catastrophic. According to Paterno and Smith, the city’s approximately 730,000 homeless are now crammed together in schools and other makeshift shelters.
“It’s awful to see people suffer so much,” Smith said. “To sit in a shelter with hundreds of other people, in a time with Swine Flu and at the height of dengue season, it’s so dangerous. The Philippines are still very classist. The storms aren’t the great equalizer people claim them to be. The rich have the means to get through okay. Everyone else, frankly, doesn’t.”
Dengue, a febrile, highly contagious disease present in the urban tropics, is especially prevalent in the rainiest months of the year. Despite the government’s sheltering attempts, all three students are angered at the administration’s handling of the typhoons.
“We’re in desperate need of aid,” Florento said. “The government isn’t doing enough, and what they are doing, they’ve done too late.”
“Our government is too corrupt and inept to do enough for the people at home,” Paterno said. “It angered me a lot.”
Other world powers have noted the Philippines’ struggle; both China and the U.S. have pledged thousands of dollars of aid. Yet, a lack of government transparency places much doubt on how much, if any, of the relief money will reach those in the most desperate need. The storms have shed light on the ineffectual, secretive government of the Philippines, a country with an already precipitous divide between the rich and poor, a government that, according to Paterno, “doesn’t represent the people, only a select few.”
“If property damage is the worst of it, it’s a blessing.” Smith said. “Manila is decimated, the economy’s lost, and they’re not planning for the long term. [The Philippines] is a very generous country, but it’s not a short-term problem. There’s no incentive to help the poor.”
The University’s Filipino population is now attempting to help those devastated by the storms—those often overlooked by the government—with both short and long term plans. The Pinoy group on campus is working along side Filipino groups at Yale and UConn to raise awareness and funds for those trying to rebuild.
Paterno and Smith acknowledge that this plan, while vital, will only act as a band-aid for a far deeper wound. With a feeble government trying to put the pieces of the shattered country back together, the pair see this as an opportunity for change, a chance to rebound from this trauma as the country it once was: vibrant, united, and prosperous.
“We’re planning to lead a youth movement of students here in the states and back home. We’ve been talking to bank leaders, ex-presidents, American and Filipino professors,” attests Paterno, adding with a chuckle, “and basketball stars. We’re trying to convince them to get behind us.”
The pair plans to lobby for political candidates who boast transparency and political honesty as well as raise awareness through a writing campaign. Paterno and Smith are also working to obtain a grant to travel back to their home country over fall break. As the 2010 presidential elections draw closer, the pair acknowledges the great potential for change.
With determination and grit, the Wesleyan Pinoy population carries on with their education here, but will continue to aid their friends, families, and fellow Filipinos back home.
“There’s almost a feeling of survivor’s guilt,” Smith said. “Yet, there is so much we can do to help. I know we can.”