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Making a difference during times of disaster

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On Friday, Nov. 8, a violent typhoon leveled the city of Tacloban in the Philippines. The death toll in Tacloban alone is estimated to be more than 10,000, and an estimated 480,000 citizens have been displaced after thousands of houses were demolished in the storm.

As the citizens of Tacloban began to negotiate life after the typhoon, other countries began to pitch in. The Huffington Post reports that the U.S. Embassy provided the city with $100,000 for “health, water and sanitation support” while Australia gave an initial $358,900 “in relief supplies.”

According to the New York Times, a U.N. “disaster assessment team” visited the city the day after the typhoon, and team leader Sebastian Rhodes Stampa called the destruction unlike anything he had seen since “the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami,” by which he meant the devastating Indonesian tsunami of 2004.

While the Philippine government continues to fly in military planes providing food, clothing and materials for shelters, and while other countries step up to the plate and help the ailing nation, the debate begins about what steps are most effective in the wake of natural disasters of this magnitude. What is the best way for students to make a difference during times of turmoil?

Is donating money the best option? In doing so, one can ensure that the local government will do with the funds what they feel is best for their people. Having intimate knowledge of the area makes them better equipped to deal with such a crisis and arguably gives them a better understanding of the situation than outside groups could have.

What about donating food or supplies necessary for rebuilding houses and other buildings decimated by the storm? In a time of need, it is most important for a people to have what they need in order to survive. While planning for the future by donating money is important, having extra supplies tomorrow rather than next week could save the lives of a family with no means of survival.

There is also the option of physically going to the city or country in need and helping in person with the rebuilding process. In order to best know what the displaced, injured and distraught people need, one has to witness it first hand and do whatever may be needed to help them get back on their feet. Volunteering with organizations like Habitat for Humanity is quite effective in terms of giving physical support of this nature.

As for what students can do, volunteering with nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity, with church-affiliated groups or with other organizations represents a way to help that is both affordable and effective. While donating money to an organization like the Red Cross or Oxfam International may make a difference, students burdened with expensive tuition and student loans may find this option less feasible.

Volunteering one’s time to help people in need serves as a rewarding alternative that has the ability to make a huge difference in the life of a person displaced by a natural disaster.

After college, joining the Peace Corps is a great option for those who want to help make a difference in the lives of people like the citizens of Tacloban. While some support may be given through organizations focused on the physical process of rebuilding houses, people who have undergone the emotional trauma of living through a catastrophic event like a typhoon or tsunami may require more than just a roof over their heads. Organizations like the Peace Corps focus on working with the people in need and helping them permanently improve their lives rather than simply going in and cleaning up the mess.

Any way you go about it, volunteering in the event of a disaster has positive effects on everyone involved. The victims of the disaster then have the ability to get back on their feet, while the volunteers are rewarded with feelings of satisfaction and pride for their ability to help.

Nina Hagen ’15 hagen@stolaf.edu is from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in English with a women’s and gender studies concentration.