Immediate Relief and Sustainable Development: An Interview with Gregg Garner after Typhoon Haiyan

The unfortunate reality that a temporary structure becomes a permanent one is part of the paradox of relief aid, and the sadness attached to the gravity of loss that families experience. Even if they want to rebuild their lives, who can afford the materials?

It’s easy to think of natural disasters in terms of the havoc they wreak on the infrastructure of the locations they strike. The media is saturated with photographs of demolished buildings, cars smashed by fallen palm trees, and flood waters everywhere. So when I asked Gregg Garner to describe to me what he saw on the ground in Tacloban City six months after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, I expected to hear about people living in tents, lots of relief organizations at work, and other images related to the recovery taking place.

His reply surprised me. “Hopelessness. Blank stares of hopelessness all over people’s faces.”

And then I remembered that at the core of all the wreckage and loss of life that took place on November 8th, 2013 and weeks after, it was people, not structures, who were most desperately affected. And they are still affected.

Long after the media came and went, after militaries and relief organizations from around the world rushed to assist in the hours and days following, the suffering continued. The Filipino people’s lives have been permanently affected by the typhoon’s destruction.

As a relief organization that works in the Philippines, G.O.D. Int’l is vested into how life is to be rebuilt in the long-term for victims of the super typhoon. How can we help the people of Tacloban and surrounding areas find hope and rebuild their lives again? We recognize that rebuilding a life is more than replacing a version of the structure that the person formerly lived in.

“I’m thankful that people are able to get relief materials, but a plastic tarp is not a replacement for a roof. At this point, we are far beyond relief. People are now getting sick if they only have relief materials,” Garner noted after having observed the inadequate living conditions of many in Tacloban.

After people survive the initial effects of the typhoon, and months pass, tents and tarps and the thousands of temporary structures that exist in the area are no longer suitable to be called home.

Lining the road are scenes like this–makeshift shelters out of the remains of former homes. We’ve discovered that the most damage, and loss, was experienced by the poor who were living in a) flood plains and b) inadequate shelters that just blew away.

In addition to these basic physical needs that people still lack, mental and emotional illnesses (such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD) are becoming a significant concern. It is difficult to predict how widespread such illnesses will be into the foreseeable future. People who have experienced loss of family members and are without security concerning their future will need intensive ongoing support.

These are not problems that exist due to the absence of relief organizations at work in areas like Tacloban. According to Garner, the presence of these organizations is actually one of the most common sights in the city to this day.

The World Health Organization, UNHCR, UNICEF, Red Cross, Compassion International and World Vision were among the more well-known aid organizations, in addition to other international agencies.

Undoubtedly, the Filipino people have benefitted from these organizations and the abundant resources they have provided to people in very desperate need. But the question remains, to what extent are these organizations concentrated on offering long-term, sustainable solutions for development?

It’s important to recognize the difference between relief organizations and development organizations. Garner explained, “People tend to donate more to relief organizations because their work looks like a quick fix. People see the results immediately. People are without a home and relief organizations can provide tents or temporary structures. But in moments like this, when Tacloban is no longer on the news, development organizations should be at work. The problem is there are very few development organizations out there. Not many people are looking to help communities have a more sustainable benefit given to them. It just takes longer. The act of a development organization necessitates continued presence with educational programs. It’s very labor intensive.”

As the director of a development organization, Garner reflected on his thoughts concerning the presence of G.O.D. Int’l in this devastated region in the coming months and years. “We are a small organization. We do not have access to the millions and millions of dollars that large relief organizations have. However, we can have a local impact, and that is what I look forward to with our organization, to carry the load and share the burden of rebuilding the lives of people in a locality.”

“We have to be humble and recognize what we can do. We can impact an elementary school, we can impact a middle school and high school, we can enhance the agricultural state of people who live nearby, we can enhance the built environment of the people who live nearby – it’s the very localized presence that we have to offer.”

We will have a small team on the ground from July 3-14 both evaluating the needs that persist in Tacloban and surrounding areas, as well as participating in various recovery projects. They will be rebuilding a home for a family that lost everything in the typhoon as well as holding various feedings for communities who are still in dire need. Look forward to more updates coming soon about projects we are participating in on the ground and opportunities we look forward to in the near future.