Tragedies happen to individuals in slow motion. When a natural disaster — such as a typhoon, happens — entire communities are involved in minute-to-minute drama. As disaster unfolds, losses start to pile up and suffering becomes the new normal. In the case of many Filipinos, who were brutally hit by Typhoon Haiyan on November 7th and 8th of this year, the suffering is continuing and will likely last for a long time.

Typhoon Haiyan was the third typhoon to hit the Philippines in the last four years, but it was one of the worst natural disasters ever recorded. Those affected endured surging waves that invaded their homes, hurricane-like winds that literally picked them up off the ground, falling debris, deafening chaos and instantaneous death and bodily harm.

After a full day of raging waves and 150-mph winds, it rained even more. Mothers watched as their children drowned. Men and women took calculated risks to save the lives of their families, as they silently contemplated the apocalyptic destruction they were facing and the depth of their personal exhaustion.  This slow-motion sensation in response to life-threatening disaster is universal. It is a normal reaction. So is the tendency for those unaffected by tragedy to view the event as a rare, statistically improbable occurrence. For many people, disasters, such as Typhoon Haiyan, are abstract.

Abstract reaction, concrete reality

Unfortunately, the concrete reality of the situation in the Philippines is quantifiably astounding. Over 15 million people — approximately 18 percent of the entire island nation — have been affected. More than 6,000 people have died in just over a month.

More than four million people are displaced, including two million newly homeless people and one-third of all the rice-growing areas are simply gone. No food, no shelter, no clean water to drink or use for bathing or cleaning, no access to healthcare, nowhere to sleep and no blanket even when there is. Add to that the fresh horror of facing typhoon-related medical problems — infections, amputated limbs, septicemia, acute gastroenteritis leading to dehydration and widespread depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s too hard to fathom in many ways, and too easy to turn away.

"No food, no shelter, no clean water to drink or use for bathing or cleaning, no access to healthcare, nowhere to sleep and no blanket even when there is."

Effective pragmatism

There are agencies whose sole mission is to confront the concrete reality of human suffering head on, including suffering due to natural disasters. Currently, CARE, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Islamic Relief USA (IRUSA) are among three of the most active agencies in the Philippines. Their actions have had a tremendously positive impact already. For example, CARE, which uses 90 percent of money raised for its program activities, has provided 42,000 people with food, including rice and canned meats. They have also provided tarps and tents for shelter, tools, supplies, mosquito nets and kitchen sets. CARE has had a presence in the Philippines since 1949 after World War II, and currently has a target goal of raising $20 million to address this latest tragedy.

In addition, USAID has pledged more than $61 million to support disaster relief after Haiyan, with an intense focus on hygiene and water supply, and IRUSA has set up emergency shelters for more than 25,000 people in Bogo City, Leyte City and northern Cebu. The work of these experienced, dedicated agencies is having a positive impact on the situation in the Philippines. While it is easy to look away, agencies such as these, facilitate the process of making a concrete difference.