It’s been nearly a week since the Philippines faced the ravages of Typhoon Haiyan — and already there are reports of shooting from rebel forces, deadly stampedes concerning the lack of food and increasing concerns for survivor safety, particularly women and children.
And as these reports continue to stream from across the Pacific Ocean, many of our minds have simply become numb to the continuously unfolding tragedy.
As is so easy to do.
Our day-to-day lives were not interrupted, and there are other things to do.
But for the people of the Philippines — their lives were not only interrupted.
Thousands feared dead.
Thousands more without homes.
Geography doesn’t change the fact that thousands upon thousands of the Philippine people have been devastated by this hiccup with Mother Nature. But so often, overseas tragedy snags headlines for a few days or weeks, and then the excitement dwindles down into boredom.
It happened with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
It happened with the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
It happened with the 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Indonesia.
And it’s unfortunately going to happen with the Philippines.
But the collective amnesia just doesn’t stop with overseas disasters.
We forget right here at home too.
Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Hugo. The San Francisco earthquake in 1989. Those are the first three biggies I can think of that snagged the country’s attention, albeit briefly.
But for anyone directly affected by a natural disaster — whether losing property, friends, family or relatives — the nightmare continues for days, weeks, years — and sometimes forever.
The year I was born was a banner year for natural disasters — at least, it certainly was for my mother’s family.
Hurricane Agnes slammed into Florida and swept up the eastern seaboard. It then weakened, finally stalling as a tropical system over the northeast in June 1972, dumping several inches of rain across a wide stretch. Fuel to that fire was rains dumped from a previous hurricane already left rivers and streams swollen.
The Susquehanna River crested its banks the last week of June, and in its day was the costliest natural disaster in the United States.
My aunt and uncle, with two small children, lost their entire home when it was washed from its foundation.
My grandparents’ home was flooded on both levels of the home.
My two great-aunts’ home was flooded.
Businesses were destroyed. Even an entire cemetery in Forty Fort, Pa. was unearthed, scattering the coffins and remains of loved ones over huge area. There were even reports that bodies were washing up in Harrisburg, Pa. — 110 miles away from the cemetery.
And lives were lost.
Of course, the TV, radio and newspaper reports were constant during and immediately after the disaster. Then-vice president Spiro Agnew and Pennsylvania governor Nelson Rockefeller both visited the area, inspiring more headlines.
But soon after, the families and victims were left alone to continue dealing with the disaster.
News reports faded, and day by day became more sporadic.
And while the flood survivors continued to shovel mud from their homes, toss once-valuable family heirlooms to the trash, and salvage what family photos could be saved, the bulk of the nation forgot because of new headlines and new disasters.
The truth is, when it comes to national sympathy and empathy for natural disaster victims, it exists but unfortunately is short-lived.
Many have the attitude that “as long as it didn’t have an effect on me it’s no big deal.”
But I can tell you that for my family, after the news folks took off and the governor and vice-president returned to their lives, the mess still lived on. My grandmother very often regretted taking the old family photos from the attic. Stories of how life was for my family after the flood while my mother was pregnant with her first child continue to be told to this day. In fact, while researching some facts about Agnes, I came across a Facebook page dedicated to the 1972 flood. I saw several pictures, many in black and white, of photos from that devastating flood.
What I ask is this: Let’s try not to forget these people. We may not know them.
But when you’re sitting in a drive-through lane fussing about the wait time; when you’re standing in line at the grocery store debating on chicken or fish for dinner; when you’re angry the boss has thrown another assignment in your direction — take a minute to think about the Philippine people.
And let’s hope and pray together— even for that one little moment — that the Philippine people can become more than victims.
Let’s pray they can become survivors.
John Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org