Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tacloban, Part IV

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.

When we finally did manage to load people at night it was almost accidental. We still had several hundred people on the tarmac. Marilee’s group had long since been overrun and surrounded and even though they had originally been first in line they were now completely enveloped by this new crowd, and this new crowd was big, and not willing to go back to their old places by the main gate. Airplanes were going to land all night starting at 10:00 PM so I rushed down to the airfield after supper and started trying to organize a night rescue. First I pleaded with the crowd through the police guards, telling them that airplanes were going to be coming and going all night, but that we were being told we could not load them if people were going to be bum rushing them. I explained that if they could all be patient and wait their turn, then we would be able to load many airplanes and get hundreds of them out. If any of them pushed or tried to run around the line, we would have to cut it off and then no one would get out until the next day.

The crazy thing is that it worked. They were still panicky, and they still begged and pleaded to be put on the airplane first, but there was very little pushing and shoving, very little trying to sneak around the group to get in. Most of those who snuck around the group to cut in line were officers and their families, who seemed to think that the rules did not apply to them.

I had a Philippines Air Force lieutenant who spoke excellent English and got the problem. He understood. There was also an Air Force corporal, a lowly corporal with crazy poofy hair, who likewise got the concept. Between them they were worth more than all the senior officers on the scene put together. They were the ones doing the actual work of setting up the police cordon around the crowd, directing police to the areas they needed to be, deciding who was going to be pulled out of the crowd first, setting them in lines of ten and keeping order among the lines. They did the work of making sure the lines were single-file, and no one cut from one line to the next. They were not afraid physically to grab people and set them down where they needed them to be.

It is remarkable how little actual work I did. A lot of running back and forth, seeing potential problems and yelling them over the engine noise, directly into the ear of the lieutenant, but they did all the actual work. Why did I get so tired then? Possibly because, once again, I had been going for about 20 hours by the time I turned in. It was worth it though. I had finally gotten a system built that allowed us to load at night. It wasn’t really me building it, I just happened to be around when a whole bunch of factors over which I had no control all came together, and I saw that the time was right and we got to it and it worked. I was able to teach it to two US Marine E-5’s (Sergeants) who took it and ran with it. I sometimes make fun of jarheads, but these two were good dudes, smart, compassionate, and squared the heck away. One of them looked like the Terminator. Even I felt small next to him.

Between them and the Filipino Air Force folks, they loaded 250 more people between the time I went to bed at about 12:30 AM and 4 AM. When I checked back in with them the following midnight, they were still going. 

That was a good night’s work.

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