Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines Expert Q&A: Doing Wonders with the Community
Athena Gepte, age 24, coordinated the first wave of food distributions after Typhoon Haiyan decimated large parts of the island of Leyte in the Philippines. She works for CARE’s local partner ACCORD. Here, she talks about the challenges of getting aid to people after massive disaster—and also the rewards.
Why did you decide to work in the disaster relief field?
I’ve been working in disaster response since 2011—several typhoons. Every emergency is very different. Every community has its own distinct features.
I’m mainly field-based. I like to learn how people live, how they think. They take you in as one of their own.
It’s about courage and getting out of the box.
I enjoy the work. It’s very tiring but very rewarding.
Can you describe the impact Typhoon Haiyan had on this part of Leyte Island, near the coastal city of Ormoc?
It took lives. It damaged agriculture and livelihoods as well as houses.
Outside the city, in the upland areas, people farm. For people who make their living from coconuts—if the trees are destroyed by the typhoon, it can take years to recover.
Some people here are landless. They are farm laborers—some harvest a rich person’s sugar cane, for example. It’s very feudal. They get paid little—70 pesos a day ($1.60). Earning 70 pesos a day won’t pay for a new house if yours was destroyed. That money might cover food, but not other needs.
Farming communities take longer to recover than fishing ones. When the churned-up water settles, people can fish again.
What motivates you to continue this work despite the enormous challenges?
The community. It amazes me that people can get back on their feet with a little help from us, but mainly through their own capacity, their hard work.
They’re humane. It’s beautiful.
And the gratefulness. The people are very grateful. During Typhoon Bopha, they always said we’ve been with them through everything. We never left them.
Some people would look around at this devastation and say it’s hopeless. What gives you hope?
This debris here—in a few months, it will be better. This isn’t permanent.
You can do wonders with the community. It’s always a team. You can never do it alone.