SPRING, 2014


FIRST PERSON // SPRING 2014

Ryan Whisnant, MBA / Erb '10

As a native of the Midwest, my decision to attend Michigan was driven in part by a desire to move closer to home. Little did I know that meeting my wife, Aileen Payumo, MBA ’10, at Ross would dramatically change and expand what I define as home. And neither of us could have predicted the events that would unfold upon returning to her native Philippines. After school, we moved to New York City, and were married in Bohol, Philippines, in 2012. We decided that we wanted to experience the tremendous growth occurring in Asia, and all the opportunities and challenges that come with it, so in late 2013 we moved to Manila. Building on my studies at the Erb Institute, I maintain a consulting practice focused on sustainable development, and Aileen manages several digital strategy projects and is helping to build an ecotourism business.

Two months after arriving, a powerful 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Bohol, severely damaging several centuries-old churches — including the one where we were married. Not one month later, Typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Yolanda), rolled across the country as the strongest storm ever recorded to make landfall. Sources estimate that the storm affected more than 14 million people and cost the Philippine economy a potential $13 billion. In a country where 45 percent of the population earns less than $2 a day, a calamity like this hits especially hard. Aileen and I had the opportunity to join the staff of the Presidential Advisor for Environmental Protection to visit the most heavily damaged area in and around Tacloban, Leyte, three weeks after the storm to help deliver relief goods and assess recovery efforts. Approaching the area from the air by military plane, it was hard to comprehend the damage — as if something had practically steamrolled the landscape. Some say 80 percent of the coconut trees were lost. Most were knocked down; many were snapped in half like matchsticks. Driving through towns, families were waiting along the sides of the road, holding signs reading "Food" and "Help." After nightfall, it became strangely dark, since there was no power. We could only see along the road in the path of our headlights, but we could immediately tell when we entered the area hit by the storm surge, with piles of debris lining the roads.

Daylight the following morning revealed the full extent of the damage, particularly as we drove into Tacloban. Many structures were still standing, but few had intact roofs, and debris was absolutely everywhere. People were moving about, building makeshift shelters, mending rooftops, salvaging what they could. Cars and boats lodged in the second story of houses, and even an upended semi-truck resting nose-down on the side of the road, hinted at the power of the water that had surged from the ocean. In an effort to help in some small way, Aileen and I converted a crowdfunding site that she had set up to gather donations for the churches damaged by the earthquake in Bohol, and asked friends and family to also help typhoon victims. We were blown away by the response – the site raised over $18,000 to help victims of the earthquake and Haiyan. The money went to buy immediate relief packs with food, water, and sanitation items, addressed longer term needs through purchase of building materials, and even helped a few affected families to relocate.

While we were able to raise some funds, the real work we saw firsthand was done by the local community and members of Santuario de San Antonio Parish Church in Makati City. Volunteers collected relief goods, packaged them, and sent them by arranging truck, boat, and plane freight through trusted channels to ensure the goods made it into the hands of those in need. The mobilization of volunteer effort by the church was amazing, with dozens more showing up every night. We returned to Tacloban in January to assess progress. The good news was that certain things were improving: There was electrification along some of the main roadways; a lot of the vegetation was returning; and there was activity in the markets along the main thoroughfares in the larger municipalities. It was heartening to see the resilience in people — salvaging coconut lumber from the downed trees for rebuilding, planting rice again, smiling and laughing with each other. They are grateful for the help from the international community. We saw multiple signs painted on the road and banners saying "Thank You" to the world.

But this should not belie the tremendous challenges that lay ahead for the region. Basic goods are expensive and difficult to come by. A tremendous amount of infrastructure needs to be replaced. The loss of coconut and fishing grounds has disrupted livelihoods, and many men are leaving the region in search of work. How can communities in the Philippines, and elsewhere in the world, think about climate resilience — infrastructure, livelihoods, environmental integrity, community relationships — in the face of future storms?

Aileen and I were overwhelmed by the generosity of donors, and the resolve of the volunteers we saw at the church and other relief centers — moving swiftly and with purpose, as if it were their own families they were helping. In the wake of such a terrible tragedy, perhaps one silver lining is being reminded that there are so many good people in the world.

HOW TO HELP

There is a long and difficult road to recovery ahead. The story of Typhoon Haiyan has faded from the headlines, but support is still very much needed. If you would like to help the people of the Philippines affected by the typhoon, we suggest supporting the efforts of Gawad Kalinga, a wellrespected community development organization. Donations can be made by visiting their website: gk1world.com/typhoon-yolanda


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