Life With and Through Disaster
As a child, I looked at traversing rough roads and floodwaters as a wonderful adventure for explorers and heroes. In my young mind, I treasure the thought of being able to go through that kind of experience. I held part of those thoughts when I went to work for Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan as a program officer for disaster response and management.
When I began working though, it did not take long for me to realize that responding to disasters takes much more than an explorer’s adventurous spirit. In truth, a lot of times I realized that I was even no capable explorer or adventurer. But then, it was in the face of those realities that I was given the chance to dig deep for the courage, love, and faith that I never knew I had.
I can still clearly remember the time we had an assessment in Sorsogon. To reach the community we had to assess, we had to brave our way through the chest-deep mud. That moment, everything that I had written in my resume – my JVP experience, my social action background, and my passion to help others – was not enough to quell my fear of drowning in mud. Knowing the urgent need to cross and realizing no other way to go about the task, I made my way through the mud with tears in my eyes.
There was also the time when we hiked up a mountain in Buhi, Camarines Sur to evaluate our water system project. We needed to hike for more than two hours to reach the area and in order to gather the needed data. More than being an uphill climb, we worked our way through an alarming vertical slope. During the hike, my heart pounded whenever I would try to look back or down. At one point, I almost lost my footing. Looking back, I could only thank God for helping me pushed through with that task.
With the adverse devastation that Ondoy has brought, I needed to be in the covered courts almost round the clock to oversee the relief operations. I never thought I could become more generous with my time. I needed to be ready for deployment any time of day. Likewise, when we do relief operations outside Metro Manila or Luzon, we leave at 12 midnight so we can be in the assigned area by early morning of the next day to deliver and distribute loads of packed goods. The service van that we use becomes a dressing room, bedroom, and even a dining area. There is no more time to take a bath because once we are in the area, our immediate thought and action is to respond. We would have to settle for a spray of alcohol. To be able to respond to another area, our relief operations for one area needed to be done within a day. We would travel from Manila to any area and then back again to another. In the course of the operations, it is almost inevitable to experience hunger, lack of sleep, and body pains. The reality of the work becomes not only physically, but emotionally draining as well.
And that would not be the last time I would ask why these things have to supernaturally happen at the same time. It is not easy to be challenged by something greater than oneself. My “adventures” had become less exciting than how I thought they would be when I was younger.
During typhoon Pepeng, we responded to Benguet and brought the usual packed goods. The residents however, told us that they would really appreciate it if we give them monggo beans instead. I never thought I could exert more initiative in asking hard questions about calamity-hit communities and their needs. From this, I learned that you also need to check and respect the culture of one’s area in determining the kind of help to extend that, which is more appropriate.
I have had low and disheartening experiences to make the adventure get vague as well. I experienced feeling isolated – being the only female in a usually all-male group. I have experienced sacrificing precious time with my family and friends. I have felt helplessness at being prevented by rules and protocols to relieve those in need. I have felt hopelessness at the immensity of calamity-stricken families’ needs compared to the limited aid that we bring.
I have thought of giving up many times. I have thought that I am extremely unworthy. I have thought that maybe, working with disaster was not for someone like me. However, I have also realized that despite my doubts, I am still alive. I have been able to help many people, and I have made it to shore. This job has revealed to me so many of my shortcomings but I am at peace with the way this work has enriched my life. Somehow, working with disaster has taught me to look beyond myself, my weaknesses, and my fears.
I never thought I would be so ready as to have a deployment backpack up for grab at any time. I never thought I would learn to adjust to a plethora of personalities, from the strict to the very lax. I never thought I would learn to value people and their contribution in helping to make other people’s lives better. I never thought I would learn to become obedient to my superior and to take responsibility for my actions. I never thought I would agree to become accountable for the welfare of others. When my help is asked, running counter to my survival instincts – I have learned to answer or say YES.
Through and with it all, I have seen with my eyes that where darkness abounds, there grace abounds also. Because disasters destroy properties and lives at such a large scale, working with disaster has opened my eyes to great need, great inadequacy, and great grace. After being disillusioned of being superwoman enough to help superbly, I have eventually come to accept that I can only be myself. My sacrifices, labor, and skill will always run short of what is needed, but the mere attempt to open my life up to and for others is worth it.
I am grateful for my co-workers who value my well-being more than they value my output. Their affirmation, assurance, and readiness to help me have encouraged me to move forward and grow. My friends have also contributed to my staying in Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan. I feel happy whenever they tell me that I look happy and content, and that they too were inspired to apply for vocations similar to mine. I am happy to have inspired others. I am also grateful to have parents who have supported me by never demanding to find a less risky and a more financially rewarding profession. Naturally, they ask me if I am content with where I am – to which again, I answer and say YES.
Working with disaster has to date not only been my greatest gift to my country and fellowmen but also, my greatest gift to myself. I have never thanked God as meaningfully as I do now.
Over time, I have learned that choosing to work with disaster is in no way an adventure yet no big disaster after all.
by Love Dorero
Ms. Dorero was the former Program Manager for Disaster Response of SLB. She was with SLB for more than 3 years and has coordinated more than a dozen relief operations of SLB. She is now finishing her master's degree on Community Development at the University of the Philippines.
*This article was published on The Windhover, Year XIII, Vol. 1 / March-May 2011.