First Person

Struggling to comprehend Typhoon Haiyan from afar

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Though I live in Boston, this week my mind has almost entirely been in the Philippines. It has constantly cycled through the latest information and images from Typhoon Haiyan as I’ve worked with my colleagues to share the latest news about the storm and Oxfam’s recovery efforts.

When I do have time and space to reflect on my own feelings and response to this disaster, there is one image that keeps returning to my mind. It came from two sentences in a New York Times article I read earlier in the week: “In Mabolo, another town on the northern flank of Cebu, the winds toppled a locally famous tree with a trunk roughly a yard in diameter. The tree had withstood every typhoon for more than a century.”

I keep coming back to that image and I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s because imagining thousands of people who were swept up and killed in this storm is just too difficult. With every gruesome image and video clip I see, it only becomes harder to imagine. Instead, during this autumn season in New England, as I look out in amazement at so many majestic trees shedding their colorful leaves, I pause and think about the one tree at the center of that town in the Philippines.

The tree has patiently stood for over a century. Imagine all that it has seen. Imagine the countless people who have gathered near and around that tree. Imagine the children who climbed its branches–because that’s what children everywhere do.

On November 9, while the winds carried our New England leaves gently to the ground, a ferocious wind ripped down that tree and countless others. It tore through homes and took thousands of lives in the Philippines. That is a hard reality to fathom.

Two young boys stand in Tacloban City, Leyte, Philippines, looking at the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images
Two young boys stand in Tacloban City, Leyte, Philippines, looking at the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

Someone said to me the other day, “I know this is bad but I can’t help but think that any contribution I make would be so tiny and can’t possibly change anything.” She captured how a lot of people are feeling right now. Watching, reading, and listening to this natural disaster unfold has a numbing effect. To truly take it all in would likely mean breaking down entirely, retreating from our everyday lives and sobbing for each and every person the world has lost and for every family hanging on the brink.

That was not my recommendation. Rather, I tried to convey to her that in these situations doing something is better than doing nothing. Hardly profound advice. But the reality is that right now, what feel like small contributions add up in a big way. People are in urgent need of the basics: clean water, food, and sanitation facilities. Your donation in this moment will support those efforts where and when they are needed most.

There is no one right way to feel or respond to this disaster. It’s just important that we give ourselves the space to feel something real, and the chance to respond in a meaningful way.

As you’ve watched the news coverage of Typhoon Haiyan, what images have stuck with you? What have you been feeling during the recent days of this emergency? Let us know in the comments below. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+