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Special Features | National

RECUERDO | A panty, a napkin, and badgering a looter on the day after Typhoon Yolanda

Chaotic aftermath of the passage of the most intense tropical cyclone ever to hit land. Photographed by Bernard Testa, InterAksyon. Inset shows the author three years after surviving the monster storm.
The online news portal of TV5

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines - At the neighborhood grocery store in Tacloban City the other day, I headed to the sanitary napkin section to buy a pack of my trusted brand.

As I picked up the pack, a memory came flooding back from the depths of my being. Suddenly awash in remembrance of that overpowering rush of the monster storm Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name, Haiyan) three years back, I stood there, transfixed as though in a time warp.

Flashback: The morning after Yolanda. Oh, who could forget? How could anyone forget?

That day after the storm passed, amid the jumble of indescribable devastation, the earth had tumbled on itself; there was looting almost everywhere I looked; utter desperation in every face that I encountered.

It was so intense – the merciless scramping of the Tacloban that we knew. It was all too bad to be true.

Desperate people crashing grocery stores, hardware stores, even bakeries that have already been emptied out – scraping for food, scrambling for scraps, scrounging for wet firewood to dry in the sun, all stupefied with apprehension that their families would starve after the sky fell and the sea rose in Tacloban.

I wanted to cry. My shirt had been peeled away during the storm as I hung on to dear life for six endless hours, lashed by sharp stinging rain and buffeted by the whipping wind.

I wanted to cry. How I wished my tears would wash away the nightmare.

I hugged the steel truss on the roof of our radio station; not knowing whether or not the storm would finally yank me away toward perpetual oblivion.

When it was over, I, too, was walking around, dazed – turning here and turning there to look for my colleagues, to find food in the middle of utter destruction, looking for safe water for myself, for my buddies.

I felt something deep within in my body: It was the first day of my menstruation.

Dysmenorrhea! As if barely surviving Typhoon Yolanda was not enough.

There I was, scavenging like everybody else, and having to put up with dysmenorrhea.

Such pain, such cramps, that made it a supreme struggle to even just walk. I was bleeding, literally.

In a daze, I literally didn't know what to do. It was beyond feeling awkward and uneasy. It was a terribly, indescribably queasy state of a woman having her menstruation the day after the disaster.

I was desperately looking for something to cover the stain. I wanted to just melt away into the misery, like salt on top of warm rice. But there was no warm rice to be had, even if you held nuggets of gold in your palm to trade it with.

For women, experiencing this kind of personal travail right in the middle of a disaster is so very depressing. Such a situation makes me wonder if the disaster response authorities, DSWD, the humanitarian NGOs, truly appreciate this stark reality that unmet hygiene needs should seriously rank right up there in terms of priority with no-cook food packs and safe water.

An Americares emergency relief team packs hygiene kits that include fresh undies for distribution to disaster survivors.

Being a woman is never easy in times of disaster when it comes to looking after your personal hygiene. I had lost everything. EVERYTHING, including my spare underwear after the storm surge swamped the whole city. I could say the same for every other woman who survived Super Typhoon Yolanda.

I was hungry. Period. I was exhausted. I don't like this. I don't like this, I told myself over and over again. All weakened and spent beyond weary, still topmost on my mind in the midst of all the chaotic, scrambling was this frantic quest for one clean panty and a piece of napkin to get through my first day.

I found myself heading toward Robinson's Place, at the Marasabaras quarter.

The mall was being looted by mobs stunned by despair and hopelessness. Chaotic would be the most understated word to describe the scene.

I heard gunshots from around the corner – the security guard was trying to fend off the frenzied looters.

I ignored the stampede. All I could think of was a panty and a sanitary napkin.

There was this boy of 10, pushing away a cart loaded with assorted stuff. Lucky him, I thought. I approached, and saw, and I begged: Meada ka napkin? Oh, palihug? Please?

He paused, staring back, unmoving, surveying my state of helplessness but not speaking – I quickly surmised, in assent. His way of implicitly signaling 'Sigue, Manay, go ahead.'

I quickly plucked out one pack and muttered my thank you.

That instantly made me the most superlatively happiest woman in Tacloban. Ecstasy-cum-laude! Suddenly the gloom evaporated. It felt like everything will be all right, after all.

The supreme joy I felt at that instant made me realize how important hygiene is for a woman like me, disaster or no disaster.

I wondered what other women in the same situation must go through.

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How much does the humanitarian response movement think about personal hygiene issues as they go about packing their disaster relief packs for distribution? Do they all include panties and undies for the women, and sanitary kits for infants and children, who are the most vulnerable when disaster hits?

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I had come across a humanitarian volunteer, Teresita Usapdin, a former veteran officer of the Philippine Red Cross who has served several tours of disaster missions for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in Aceh after the tsunami, in Pakistan after that terrible earthquake, and who now assists Americares locally in its relief work.

Tessie recounted: "Kitang-kita ko, damang dama ko, ang pangangailangan ng mga babae tungkol sa hygiene dun sa mga likasan; sadyang hinding hindi matatawaran (I saw, I felt the untenable conditions regarding hygiene in the evacuation camps). It is a situation where the sight of one clean panty, even a disposable one, and replacement underwear, would make you wish you could trade in your next five Christmas Days to come."

It's true, Ma'm Tessie. I felt exactly the same way.

We are not being frivolous talking or thinking about panties and undies in responding to disasters. Aside from shouting Pagkaon! Pagkaon! More people should also be shouting Panty! Panty!

Let's hope that ALL the harbingers of disaster relief would make it a point to also pack panties and undies for distribution to the hapless survivors.

This is what comes to mind as I mark this year's anniversary of Typhoon Yolanda.