Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tacloban, Part III

I got an incredible opportunity recently to go to the typhoon disaster zone in the Philippines to help with relief efforts. The next few posts are going to be a series, things I wrote to kind of decompress after returning to my regular mission.  This is a long post, but I felt it was worthwhile to tell the whole story.

It is rare to meet someone who is truly unselfish. It is the most humbling thing in the world, and, hopefully, once you have seen it you will never be the same.

At the end of our second day on the airfield, as we were trying to load up one of the last C-130’s that would be landing during daylight hours, we almost lost control of the crowd. In fact, we did lose control. 500 people pushed through the main gate, onto the tarmac and began moving in a vast, desperate wave, straight for the front of the airplane. The police managed to run and form a cordon around them and box them in before they came anywhere near the running engines, but it was clearly too dangerous to continue loading planes, especially once night fell and we could no longer see the people. No pilot would even land with that many people on the tarmac.

We had to do something. The police tried to push the people back, outside the main gate, but they wouldn’t go. They had been standing in line all day, most of them, with no food or water, and now, having finally reached the front, the tarmac, with freedom and safety in sight, they could not bear the thought of spending the night there. Even worse, they refused to be pushed back outside the main gate where they would lose their places in line.

A Filipino lady named Gigi stepped out of the crowd at this point, and said to me in excellent English, “Sir, I know I am just a passenger, but these people do not want to go back out into line because they are afraid of losing their places. Can you at least tell us when the next plane is going to be here? We need to manage their expectations.”

“I do not know when the next plane is going to arrive, and I do not know if we are going to be allowed to load people. It will be too dangerous in the dark.” It was not a very convincing answer, but she passed it back, and began working to try to convince the people to cooperate. Another woman, named Didit, came out of the crowd to help, along with a man whose name I did not get. Between the three of them, they did more than the police to get everyone backed up. I found a room that used to be part of the terminal complex, perhaps 40’ by 40’ and we convinced the crowd to back into it. They didn’t all fit, and it must have been stiflingly hot and claustrophobic inside, but at least they were off the tarmac.

I went to take care of a bunch of other things, and when I came back, Gigi and Didit were busy organizing the people, trying to get them to collect together by family and sit quietly. They updated me on how the people were doing, (“Hungry, tired and thirsty,”) and then introduced me to another civilian who had volunteered to help. They yelled her name over the engine noise, so I didn’t quite catch it, but it had an “M” and an “R” in it so I thought it was “Marina.”

She was a tiny Filipino lady in a red cross shirt. She had been working her way through the crowd, organizing the crowd into families and getting feedback from them on what they needed, who had family or other contacts in Manila, and so forth. She was short. When I say short, I mean she was short even for a Filipino lady. The top of her head was about on a level with my chest, and she was completely invisible until she stepped out of the crowd. She came right over to me, grabbed my sleeve and pulled me down to her level so she could yell in my ear, “Sir! These people need water right away. They are very thirsty.”

I had to laugh. I am not used to being bossed around by people half my size, but she was taking their cause so completely to heart she did not hesitate. I thought to myself, “Good Lord, Woman, you are awesome.” Little did I know just how awesome she was, but I was going to find out.

I promised to get them water, and then had to break off to help unload the Malaysian planes that had just arrived. I talked to the Malaysians about getting the people some water, and they agreed to help, but they were taking their own sweet time about it. They came up with a plan to provide biscuits for the people, but it took them fully an hour to figure out that they had not brought any water in any of the pallets they had brought. At that point I decided to take matters into my own hands. I talked to the young US Marine Sergeant who was in charge of the forklift operators, since he knew where all the supply pallets that came through the camp went and had a solid idea what was on each one. I tell you what, that was a good kid. He knew right where to find a mostly used pallet of water, and he sent his forklift operator to go get it.

I talked to Gigi and explained that water was coming, but that we could not have people charging out onto the tarmac when it arrived. I needed her to come up with a system for distributing it in an organized manner, so that everyone can get some water, all the way to the back of the room. She said she would handle it, and she did. It was a thing of beauty. After standing in the sun all day, most with no water of their own, they passed the jugs all the way to the back first, disbursing them through the crowd before anyone took any water. Then each person took one of the gallon jugs, took what he needed for himself or his family, and passed it to his neighbors.

The Malaysian planes did not take anyone. When the two American planes arrived we tried to get permission to try to load some people, but it was denied. The camp commander still felt it was too dangerous. I passed the word to the civilian volunteers and they passed it to their people, that everyone should just get some sleep. I cut a deal with the Malaysians to get them some food, and they assured me they would get it very soon. I went to sleep.

When I got back at about 6:00 in the morning, Gigi and the other volunteers were gone. I don’t know where they went, and I never saw them again, but I am grateful for their help. We could not have gotten that crowd under control without them. Only one remained. The first person to greet me was the tiny volunteer in the red cross shirt, with the words, “Sir, these people still have not gotten any food.” I told her that the planes were going to start coming in a few hours and then I bullied, coaxed and coerced the Malaysians until they got food.

All the rest of the day I was running back and forth, back and forth across the flight line, trying to find Americans and other ex-pats, triaging the sick, wounded and elderly who wanted to get priority on flights, arranging people in order to get on airplanes. Every time I ran past her and her group I just saw more and more evidence of her awesomeness. She pulled some of the older people and some ladies with breastfeeding infants out of the crowd and constructed a little awning for them to sit under. She asked me to take her family out on the next plane because her sister’s baby was vomiting, but she assured me that she would stay behind to help organize people. Sure enough, that is exactly what she did. I put her family in the priority lane, and they were on the first plane out. She put together the groups who would board the plane and sent them up by line of ten when I asked her to.

The craziest rain I have ever seen hit without warning, sometime around mid-morning. It was so thick you could not see the planes on the tarmac. She simply stuck her purse (which was her only luggage) under her shirt and kept working.

After the rain she made a deal with the parents in the crowd. If they agreed to stay behind the gate and wait patiently she would let the kids get out on the open cement where they could have some fresh air and room to stretch their legs. Have you ever seen a group of forty or fifty children sitting cross-legged in rows of ten, smiling and happy, just because they can breathe freely? Sitting in one spot and not moving, kept in check by just one tiny woman they have never met before in their lives?

As the day wore on it became obvious that she had taken those people to heart, literally. They were her family and she took responsibility for them with all her might. Every group she sent out to get on the airplane was a victory for her and somehow she made it a victory for all of them. They were no longer fighting for their own survival. They had become a family. I don’t know how she did it. She just did.

About 5:30 PM, just as the sun was going down, she had another group of 40 people all set out in front of her gates, squatting in rows of ten, waiting for their turn to board the C-130 that was idling on the tarmac. Suddenly it happened again. The people at the main gate panicked, broke through, pushed past the police and flooded the tarmac. They completely swept past her and her group, blocking them off from the airplane. I was moving in trying to find some police to help me restore order, and she came rushing out to me with tears in her eyes. “Sir!” she cried. “Sir! These people!”

It was as if that was all she could say. She eyed the huge crowd spread out between her people and the airplane they had been waiting for for days and she looked on the verge of breaking down. Looking behind her I could see her people still waiting, squatting in rows of ten, frightened looks on their faces, but still waiting patiently, trusting her to get them out.

I yelled in her ear. “I know. I am sorry but there is nothing I can do about that. There are too many of them now.”

She shook her head in desperation. “Sir, my families?”

“Marina, there is nothing more you can do tonight. I need you to find a safe place to rest for the night. We probably won’t be loading any more planes, but you have been going all day and you need some rest. I will try to find you later, and make sure these people get food and water.”

She looked at me with a wry, half amused look on her face. “My name is Marilee,” she informed me.

Well don’t I feel like a doofus!

She fell back to her people and the crowd surged around her, and I lost track of her. For the next four hours we were all busy trying to regain control and impose some sort of order on the loading process. By the time I was able to look for her and her people again the whole area was hopelessly crowded and finding one short lady in that whole crowd was impossible. I simply had to pray that she was all right and leave her to her own devices.

That was the night we finally cracked the code and figured out how to load people at night without losing control of them. There were some scary moments, but it went really well. It was almost 1:00 AM before I got to bed, and then I was up again by 5:00. I had some food and did some work around our camp, cleaning up trash, reorganizing the makeshift latrine (Oh, the glamorous life of an SF Medic!). About 6:00 AM someone came to get me to tell me there was a local woman looking for me.

Sure enough it was Marilee. She was wearing a different outfit because she had gotten the police to give her a place to stay for the night and they had lent her some sweats to replace her old clothes. She thanked me for getting so many people out last night, and asked if more planes were coming in today. I said there were and told her that she was going to be on the first one. “Go back to the flight line, and walk about a hundred yards past where you were yesterday and you will see a gate marked arrivals. That is the American passport line. You are going to be in that line.”

“What if they don’t let me?” she asked.

“Tell them Sergeant Kraeger sent you,” I told her. “I will be along in an hour or so to make sure you get in that line.”

She thanked me and headed back to the airfield.

I headed back there about an hour later, but to my surprise, before I got to the American line I saw her standing at the same spot she had been standing yesterday, with a familiar looking group of 40 people seated in rows of ten around her.

“Marilee,” I said, “I told you I could get you out in the American line? What are you doing here?”

“Sir,” she said, “I found these families.” She gestured to the people waiting expectantly behind her. “They are the ones from yesterday. Can I stay and make sure they get out?”

I tell you, my jaw nearly hit the concrete. I don’t know if I have ever felt more humbled in my entire life. Here she was after a full day and a half of taking responsibility for the well-being of strangers she had never met before, coaxing them, encouraging them, bossing them, caring about them. Now she had an opportunity to get out, free and clear. She had earned it, as far as I was concerned, but she was willing to give it up, just to stay with the people that she had adopted.

There and then I vowed to myself that she and her whole group would be on the next flight if there was anything I could do about it. I grabbed up the Marine Sergeant who was now running the operation and introduced him to her and told him, “I don’t care what it takes, this woman and this whole group with her get on the next flight. I don’t care who is in the American line. She takes priority.”

That’s what happened. I was transitioning to other missions, but I took a break to come back to the flight line when the next American C-130 landed, to make sure she got on. That was the only time she almost broke. When we loaded the first group of twenty, she was left behind with the second group and a look of panic crossed her face. She started to argue with the police, telling him that she had been promised, she was with that group. When I came over to reassure her she was staring desperately at the plane and she said, “Sir, I cannot do this another day.”

“You won’t have to,” I promised. “You will be on that plane.”

The crew chief signaled, they sent the next group, and she boarded with the last of her people.

It was strange. At one point the day prior she had said to me in bewilderment, “I am not this kind of person. I don’t like to speak up to people. I do not know how I have the nerve to do this. I don’t know why they do what I tell them to. I am a nobody.”

I wish I had had time to explain that I feel the same way. Most effective leaders do. Deep down inside we are all faking it, pretending we know what we are doing, bewildered and intimidated by the weight of expectation and trust placed on us, wondering how the hell we ended up here. Why me? Why here? Why this job? Why not someone more dynamic, someone better trained, someone more confident?

I did not have time for that. All I had time to say was, “You care about them. People follow people who care.”

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