Years after she survived a devastating earthquake, Maeann Keske became a humanitarian worker. As the climate crisis worsens, she shares five ways to help following natural disasters.
“There will be more unprecedented catastrophes that we cannot yet fathom. We are facing uncertainty, but there is an opportunity to strengthen and support the most vulnerable communities.”
I was 12 years old on July 16, 1990, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Northern and Central Luzon. Suddenly we felt the ground shake at our school. My classmates and I ran toward a nearby playground, taking shelter on the field.
We felt an ominous rumble beneath us as the ground moved from left to right. The earthquake continued for about a minute. “Mama!” we shouted through our frightened tears. When it ended, we felt relieved. Parents rushed to the school to fetch their kids while I searched for my cousin so we could walk home together. Still in shock, we awaited the comfort of being reunited with our family.
The earthquake caused massive damage, with more than 1,500 casualties. In the days and weeks that followed, aftershocks left us fearful and traumatized. My faith helped me get through the scariest disaster I had experienced.
Surviving the 1990 earthquake inspired me to become a humanitarian worker. In my work, I leave my comfort zone and risk my safety. The work seems more dangerous now as climate change has magnified the need for relief operations.
My country is prone to earthquakes and typhoons. Just last November, five storms struck The Philippines in the course of three weeks. These kinds of disasters aren’t new to us. What is alarming is how climate change is making storms more destructive.
The November 2020 storms resulted in flash floods, landslides, and submerged homes; 2.1 people were affected, and 517,000 were displaced. A study published in May found that hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical cyclones worldwide are becoming stronger and potentially more deadly.
Since I began my career in 2002, I’ve witnessed how organizations respond to disasters. My job as a logistician is to ensure that relief goods, equipment, and transportation are available at the right time and in the right place. During the disaster, there are many hurdles to overcome. If the road is impassable, we need to find another route. If we cannot bring it by land, we need to bring it by sea or air.
There is no time for dilly-dallying. There is no break time, save for using the toilet. Running on little sleep, you must rouse yourself to dispatch a 10-wheeler truck loaded with relief goods for distribution.
Climate change exacerbates our challenges. For example, disaster aid can become politicized, and a lack of disaster preparedness within communities can make it harder to help people. Another obstacle is the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, there’s a ground zero during a disaster. With the pandemic, there’s no safe hideaway –– we’re all vulnerable to the virus.
Amid a community's despair and fear because of these various disasters, I believe God sends hope through the help of humanitarian organizations working to save lives and bring relief. It takes donors giving and staff going beyond their regular work to make a difference.
I’ve learned that we can all be helpers in the face of disaster. All these efforts wouldn’t be successful without the help and support of local government agencies, volunteers, and partners.
As humanitarian workers, it’s important that we remember who we serve: individuals and families who had lives before disaster struck, much like my family in 1990. For me, there’s nothing like seeing children smiling and laughing after surviving a disaster. There’s nothing like mothers and fathers shedding tears as they tell their story of survival. There’s nothing like witnessing lives restored.
Climate change is here — and there will be more unprecedented catastrophes that we cannot yet fathom. We are facing uncertainty, but there is an opportunity to strengthen and support the most vulnerable communities through our work.
I encourage everyone around me to think of ways they can help survivors of disasters. If you are an individual compelled to help, you may wonder how you can support disaster victims today and into the future. Here are five of my suggestions:
- Donate money – Donating money is the most effective way to help victims and survivors. Make sure you choose a reputable organization that has its own expertise in emergency response. Here are some of the Philippines-based relief organizations I recommend: World Vision Philippines, Plan International Philippines, Unicef Philippines, Save the Children, and Samaritan Purse.
- Fundraise – You can organize a fundraiser within your community (classmates, churchmates, officemates, family, and friends). Use a crowdfunding platform to ensure your fundraising is safe and secure. You can invite your community to join fundraisers such as World Vision's Joy to Give and Save the Children.
- Contribute food or goods – If you have family members or friends affected by a disaster, ask what they need and work out the logistics of how to get items to them. If you’re donating to an organization, inquire whether they accept food, clothes, or other items before sending anything. Remember that donating goods versus money often requires sorting and storage logistics, and give items that you would feel grateful to receive. Be sure to donate items that do not degrade dignity. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and ask, “If someone receives these items, will they feel thankful, and will this be useful to them?”
- Volunteer – There are many ways to volunteer! Donate blood if you are able through the Red Cross Philippines and other affiliates. Locally, we have a list of volunteer organizations you can join. Always remember the purpose of why you are volunteering: to help and to serve. Some organizations have volunteer liability waivers. Read and understand these; your decision to volunteer is made of your free will, and you often assume full responsibility for any risk.
- Start or support a preparedness campaign – A campaign can help communities prepare for disasters and emergencies that especially affect children, women, and persons with disabilities. Campaigns are a great way to get people thinking about what to do and how to prepare, should a disaster strike.
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