A typhoon Haiyan survivor arrives on a C-130 aircraft at Villamor Airbase. Photo from weather.com.
Our friend Tina was at the Villamor airbase relief center from 1 to 6pm last Sunday. She sent us her report.
Organized volunteers are accepting relief goods, sorting, packing. Food is provided for all, including the volunteers. The place is orderly and calm despite this being a constantly morphing effort coordinated by total strangers, the Philippine military, and the Department of Social Welfare. Clothes, soap, water, food items are sorted. Volunteers fret that more people don’t give tabo, the staple of Pinoy survival in emergencies.
Across the tarmac, Yolanda refugees disembark from the C-130—old people in wheelchairs, little children hopping off. Soldiers help them with their baggage. The volunteers wait in the Villamor grandstand, straining and quiet. As the refugees approach the gauntlet of waiting “marshals” (also called usherettes—the grandstand is a sort of theater) a cheer arises and people applaud.
The refugees are given a hot meal first, then debriefed and given medical attention, free calls on Smart, aid packages. They’re asked if they have someone coming for them, or if they need transport. The process takes about an hour. Outside, in the parking lot, volunteer dispatchers (known only by their first names—one gets the impression that some of them are lawyers, one reluctantly admits she works for a multinational) announce those who would need rides.
“O, sino diyan ang puwedeng maghatid ng apat sa Imus, Cavite?”
“Special passenger, buntis na kailangang ihatid sa Fabella.”
“Tatlo lang, pero yung isa naka-wheelchair, papuntang Batasan Hills.”
The rule: You have to bring people to their relatives. If no relatives are waiting, you bring them back and turn them over to DSWD. (The lawyers are adamant about this.)
It’s brisk like an auction, with volunteer drivers holding up numbers they’d been given as they arrived. Priority is given to the lowest number, as it means the driver has been waiting the longest. “O, 63, wala bang mas mababa? Okay, yan, 45, awarded!” Palakpakan at tawanan. Parang bingo.
One driver has made three round-trips to Batangas in three days. One arrival needs to get to Baguio. Silence falls, then a driver says, “Sige, ihatid ko sila nang balikan.” The other drivers pitch in for gas. I estimate that at least 250 arrivals will have been dispatched by 8 p.m. “Dito lang ho sa Pilipinas nagkukumpitensya para makatulong.” One Chinese Pinoy takes 14 people off in the family van.
Flights (plane, helicopter, PH, US) are scheduled every three hours or so but are often delayed, but unscheduled flights show up out of nowhere. This being the Philipppines, dispatchers joke with the crowd in the lull between flights. “Yung U.S. plane, 100 passengers, pero Pinoy plane, 200! Siksikan, nakasabit sa wing!” Tawanan.
Refugees are already matched by the time they get to the tent, where they wait a bit—refugees on one side, drivers on the other, like boys and girls at a high school dance. Volunteers ebb and flow, so people can call to schedule their assignments for the next two to three weeks—especially for graveyard shifts, as the planes arrive well into the night.
The refugees look sun- and wind-burned. Exhausted. But some are smiling. A little boy, maybe 18 months, his feet totally black and cracked, wriggles on a chair. Dispatchers say not to pressure them with too many questions, to treat them gently. “Help make this the best day of their lives.” Some look middle class, but some of them have never even ridden a jeep in their lives, the dispatcher says. Most had lined up in Tacloban for three to five days to get on a flight.
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To register as a volunteer, visit Operation Hatid on Facebook.