My Valentine’s Day Disaster

It is a valentine’s day like no other and it starts early. I look out the jeep window, a little bleary eyed from the 4am start. Tacloban flashes past as we drive to a relief distribution. We slow a little as we come to a roundabout – it looks a little odd, kind of lumpy with little sticks and flowers on it. I lean up against the window for a better look – my stomach drops. My sleepy mind had mistaken a mass grave for a council gardener’s mishap. Five minutes after arriving at the airport I feel walloped by reality. I guess this is what you can expect from the strongest cyclone on record to ever make landfall.


We stop at the relief distribution site.  I sit a little before getting out. There are loads of concrete slabs – the remains of the buildings that once stood here. They make me shiver as they remind me of the Boxing Day Tsunami. My eyes dance over the life around me and settle on a tiny clearing next to a palm hut. The hut has a precarious lean to it and a patch it job barely holds it together. Traffic whizzes by on the narrow road inviting calamity only to be saved at the last minute by a cacophony of horns. It is here that I am privy to a special moment.

A dad is hunched over washing a beautiful little boy.  He does it in such a caring way. I can see that a bucket bath on the roadside has become a familiar ritual for them both.  The little chap is completely lathered up and delights in the attention. He squirms and smiles as cold water runs down his back, completely oblivious to the beeping horns and chaos around him. I think….perhaps it is these constants and rituals that help people through times like this. I think…. of my precious husband and son back home, and then I can’t help it, I think…… of the fathers and sons under the roundabout. Enough thinking I jump out of the jeep.

A Philippine Red Cross volunteer hands me a box, one of 100,000 that the Red Cross has distributed to families.  A simple hygiene kit – the basics bring dignity.  I get my bureaucracy off and a sweat on. With almost every box I hand over I am offered a ‘thank you and happy Valentine’s day’ greeting in return.  I don’t want to say ‘you’re welcome’ because these brave and strong people have a right to dignity – they have a right to the basics – to be clean.  No thanks required.  So, I start to say things along the lines of ‘happy Valentine’s day and take care’.

Photo: Bob McKerrow/Swiss Red Cross

It reminds me of our distribution of winter warmer packs in Christchurch. People told us ‘we thought everyone had forgotten about us – and then you came’.  It was not only things that we distributed but care – because homes and families are broken long after the media goes home! In 10,000 different ways our volunteers said to Cantabrians ‘we care about you’.

650 kits are distributed and we head back to base camp. I drop my gear in tent number 8 and head to the kitchen.

To my delight I find that there are four Kiwi’s at base camp that night. Bob McKerrow a Red Cross legend for whom Christchurch is his home town , James Hynes our IT & Telecoms Emergency Response Unit team member and Charles Ranby who worked all hours of the day and night during the NZRC response to the Canterbury earthquakes.

From left to right:  Bob McKerrow, James Hynes, yours truly & Charles Ranby

It is a strange merging of worlds – as we Kiwis work together in the Philippines so do Filipinos in Christchurch.  They morn their loss as they tirelessly rebuild our city.  As the anniversary of February 22nd draws near we remember our loss as we see theirs.  I spoke to a Filipino official who told me how she only slept three hours a night for 47 nights following the Typhoon.  I see it on her face just as I see it on the faces of so many dedicated New Zealanders who still put life and sleep on hold to support the earthquake recovery effort.  I must say at base camp tonight Christchurch and Tacloban do not feel far apart at all.

As I turn out my wee light in tent number 8 I think back to the roundabout and all those people out there in the world tonight who don’t have their valentine this year, those who can no longer give their little boy a bath…

3 thoughts on “My Valentine’s Day Disaster

  1. Your astute observations bring the scene to life Elizabeth. I’m glad that your work is taking some of the ‘wallop’ out of these people’s reality. It’s a strange but quite beautiful exchange, the Filipinos in Christchurch and the Kiwis in the Philippines.

  2. Elizabeth this is really great. This section particularly resonated with me: “I don’t want to say ‘you’re welcome’ because these brave and strong people have a right to dignity – they have a right to the basics – to be clean. No thanks required.”
    I like the use of rights-based language to characterize humanitarian aid. It is used too rarely. Or when it is, it is often just rhetoric. You describe it in a very personal and real way: since access to the basics is a right, then there is no need for thanks.

  3. care is such an important word, and concept. It’s what makes the “stuff” we “hand” out, important. You are so right, people have a right to the basics. THis is why we pay taxes, donate money etc.

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