It was just an accident that I was able to come to know the existence of Oplan Salubong in Villamor Air Base three days after the operation have been started by the Philippine Air Force Ladies Club and concerned private citizens. We originally planned to go to DSWD National Resource Operation Center (NROC) to help repackaging relief goods but since its Saturday, volunteers are just overwhelming. We were advised to try the DSWD Satellite Resource Operation Center (SROC) at PAF Gym in Villamor Air Base. In about thirty-minutes, we arrived at the air base. To our surprise, the same scenario in NROC is going on. We decided to leave. While looking for the exit gate, I figured out that the other people leaving the gym are going out of the base as well. So we followed them until we ended right at the Philippine Air Force Grandstand.
My inquisitive mind tried to know what was happening there. We immediately went through the volunteer registration booth. Without knowing what’s in there, we signed-up for volunteer marshals. We were given name tags and then allowed to be seated in the nearby stairs. Went through orientation and that’s when I learned that the operation happening there is aimed towards giving an immediate help of physiological and psychological processing for all individuals displaced in areas battered by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). I felt mix emotions. I am so happy that I came to know this operation. It gives you the opportunity to interact directly with the survivors. Felt sad at the same time because I am uncertain on what life is waiting for those people here in Manila and other parts of Luzon. But what is important right now is the immediate relief we could give to them as they arrive.
Arrival of Displaced Individuals
The adrenaline pumped action starts every time a PAF C-130 Hercules or a US Globemaster III cargo planes arrive at the air base. A C-130 has at least 150 pax capacity and the Globemaster can carry at least 600 pax. So imagine the influx of passengers when this cargo planes arrive just a minute after the other. Most flights are coming in during the wee hours of the night and early in the morning.
Shortly after the plane stops at the tarmac, volunteer’s starts lining to cordon the area to easily lead the passengers going to the appropriate block area in the grandstand where they will be seated temporarily and take a much needed rest before processing further their needs. As the passengers approached the cordon, volunteers starts clapping and greeting them to help at least ease their doubts and fears on what will happen to them in Manila. Flashing a great smile is a must! Volunteers also help carry huge and heavy baggage of the passengers and bring it to their resting sit at the grandstand.
Some ailing passengers and senior citizens are being met right at the C-130 or Globemaster III cargo planes with a wheel chair and brought at the medical tent for immediate medical attention. Serious cases are being carried through a stretcher and are transported directly to the hospital via an ambulance on standby.
Babies arriving are being brought to the Nanay Bayanihan tent where they are being breastfed and diaper as well as clothing changed.
When the rain pours, volunteers with umbrella rushes to meet the passengers at the C-130 or Globemaster III planes and help protect the babies, children, elderly and sick passengers from the rain. It should be noted however that civilians are not allowed to go at the tarmac near the planes. Only certain circumstances such as the need for umbrella, wheel chair and stretcher where no men in uniform is available to do it, civilian volunteers are allowed to go. I am one of the few to have this privilege and I can’t express how grateful I am that I was able to help yet fulfilling a dream to go near one of those aircraft.
At the Grandstand
As the cargo plane passengers arrive and have taken their sit at the designated block at the grandstand, food and water are being distributed to them. Most of the arriving passengers have been waiting for days to get their chance to be airlifted and brought to Manila. They have not eaten a good meal since then. Food marshals starts to take charge after the security marshals have settled all the individuals in their seat. Sometimes a cargo plane while unloading passengers can take its tail fronting the grandstand. Strong turbulent winds will get through the survivors. Volunteer marshals will spot any children or babies and help them shield against the impact of the wind by covering them with clothes, umbrella or volunteers even use their own body to lessen the winds impact going through those little babies and innocent children. Aside from food, they are also given extra clothes, towel, blankets and mats including some food packs or grocery items.
Soon after the displaced individuals have taken their meals, DSWD social workers and other qualified volunteer counsellors starts to interview each family and or individuals. The interview will become the profiling to get data about relatives where they could go. Passengers with relatives are being handed to Operation Hatid and or relatives waiting in the air base. Survivors who have nowhere to go are temporarily housed in a nearby Tent City or any institution that can give them care. Oplan Hatid is an initiative ran by volunteers to freely transport passengers in various points within or outside Metro Manila.
Despite the flaws and glitches of the operation, volunteers still come in rushing to offer their time and efforts. It is heart-warming to know that we Filipinos even if our government does not ask as to do so, we are always there and willing to extend a helping hand. Volunteers and donors (Filipinos and foreigners alike) are the unpaid hands and unsung heroes graciously giving in this operation. Despite the chaos and confusion, we never let our passion to serve die down. Instead, the fire just keeps on blazing. I salute the original group who brain-child this activity. Without you we are also not here. I just had the chance to experience Nicole Gamo’s brilliant take on volunteer management. When I say brilliant, it’s really brilliant. Nicole has been there I think since Day 01. To think, she’s not even part of PAF nor DSWD. She remained calm and humble despite of the many reasons in front and behind her to break down. In one of the volunteers meeting I was able to attend, she showed humility when somebody tried to butt and break what Nicole is saying and took the floor from her. Despite that, she just smile and did not do nor say anything to interrupt that guy. I salute you for that.
The Bittersweet Experience
Being a volunteer of Oplan Salubong gives you the opportunity to interact with people who brave the odds. As they approached the holding area, various faces can be seen. Some can already smile but some still looks sad and bewildered. Sea of unknown faces that could give hurt or joy to anyone’s heart present in the operation. Even though we are hurting for them, the least we could do is to show them a cheerful face.
Talking to the survivors and them voluntarily speaking out their ordeal is priceless. I was able to have some chat with the few families I escorted and assisted as they come to the grandstand and go on to their respective destinations.
This grandfather and his grandchild survived the storm surge in Tacloban. According to him, they have to break in the ceiling and eventually the roof of their house just for them to escape the fast growing sea water level engulfing their house. After they were able to manage on top of the roof, the water still continued to rise. God willing, they were able to escape their way out of raging water by climbing on their neighbour’s house with a second floor. On their way to Manila, they were separated with his wife and son who were given priority to be airlifted since she was bedridden. Shortly after arriving in Manila, he feels so uneasy thinking of his wife and where they are. He keeps on telling he needs to get to his wife but doesn’t know how and where to go. Volunteer counsellors were able to manage the situation. They were able to contact his son and swift his way back to the grandstand to fetch them. As soon as this young boy saw his uncle, his face glowed, a sign of relief. It was precious seeing that moment, where the boy’s eye shined once more.
I was also able to talk with a grandmother where her family was able to escape the wrath of Yolanda but all their belongings including their house has been robbed away from them by the typhoon. She was with her granddaughter and his son. According to her, after Yolanda struck their house, they are staying in a neighbour’s house though without a roof. Food aid comes but not enough. That’s when they have decided to come to Manila. Fortunately, his son is working in a bank somewhere in Roxas Blvd., so he went out for days through a Ro-Ro to get to their place in the Visayas just to take his mother and his daughter with him back to Manila.
I was also able to assist a father who came from Bulacan looking for his son. He was so happy telling me stories about how his son was able to get through the storm. The C-130 Hercules plane has not put on full-stop yet so I decided to bring him together with his own father who came to the base with him at the back of the grandstand to protect them from the planes strong wind and avoid them from getting dizzy due to fuel stink emanating from the cargo plane. I gave them some food and water while waiting for the grandstand to settle. I briefed him that we will wait for his son to be released by an appropriate DSWD social worker in compliance with the oplan’s rule. As soon as the cargo plane left the tarmac, I accompanied him on the block where the new arrivals are seated. He was able to see fast and straight forward his son. He went down the grandstand, called his sons name loud and the next scene I was able to witness is something that I really cannot bear so long. They hug each other tight and noticed that they really wanted to cry but they have to halt it. After that, I went off my way and took some fresh air and gain my smile back ready to help other families coming in.
These are just part of the many stories of reunited displaced families arriving in the air base. Hearing straight from the survivors of their accounts of their distress is just too much to endure. Salute to all volunteer counsellors who are doing their job to process the trauma and emotional needs of the survivors.
Aside from the simple tasks of carrying the survivors baggage going to Oplan Hatid booth or just helping to attend on what they need for relief; there are a lot of other help myself and other volunteers have done which we do not need to say about it. We didn’t even care giving our names to them so they could remember us. Their simple thank you is more than enough.
It is with great pleasure that I am given the opportunity to be part of this endeavour as one of the regular volunteers. Thanks to the super volunteers who despite being civilians have taken their way to lead one committee of the initiative.
Any interested volunteers are provided with food and water too. You can just go any of the booths at the parking lot and all you need to do is choose what you want. All these booths are being managed by benevolent donors too.
As of this writing, DSWD has already taken the lead role and is ensuring the smooth flow of the operation. Interested volunteers should walk-in at the registration booth located on the right side of the entrance gate going to the grandstand. Let’s keep the fire burning! Don’t let your passion to help goes down the drain. No matter what is happening around us, we should keep in mind our one main goal: “TO HELP OUR DISPLACED KABABAYAN” in any way we can!
TO GOD BE THE GREATER GLORY…
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