Saturday, June 28, 2008

Disaster Mismanagement

Published in my Roots&Wings column in the Lifestyle Section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 29 June 2008

"Grief is a journey, often perilous and without clear direction, that must be taken. The experience of grieving cannot be ordered or categorized, hurried or controlled, pushed aside or ignored indefinitely. It is inevitable as breathing, as change, as love. It may be postponed, but it will not be denied."~ Molly Fumia

The manner by which Sulpicio Lines has handled the tragedy that is MV Princess of the Stars is a classic example of what disaster management should not be.

The actions shown by this shipping company whose track record for accidents and mishaps is now perhaps the worst in the Philippines has been deplorable, to say the very least. Sulpicio has not shown an ounce of compassion to the families of those who have died, the survivors, and those who continue to be missing.

As I write this, no clear-cut measures have been made to ensure proper identification of those bodies found floating days after the tragedy. Family members of missing passengers have not been properly housed, ferried, shuttled and advised about what is going on. Yes, as one banner story in this paper announced last Friday, ‘World stops for grieving kin of missing passengers”. When tragedy strikes, especially when it concerns the life of someone whom you love, everything else in your life becomes meaningless.

I ask myself, what kind of bereavement support is being provided for these families? At least over in Cebu, through the DSWD, the local government has been offering some form of debriefing or grief support to the survivors and those whose loved ones have yet to be found. Their loss is ambiguous, the kind of grief that takes forever to heal from, one where it is very difficult to find closure.

At this point in time, the best that Sulpicio Lines can do is get their act together and provide for the families of the 800 or so passengers that have yet to be found. Thank God for organizations such as the Public Attorneys Office (PAO) and the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) for stepping in and giving the bereaved families form of direction.

Sulpicio Lines offer of 200,000 pesos per victim is not the way to go with these families. In addition to this, or even over and beyond the financial assistance, genuine compassion, care and concern towards the families waiting would have been much laudable. Instead, these family members have gotten the opposite.

Gina Virtusio who was the Public Relations Manager at WG&A Superferry (now Aboitiz Transport Group) told me that the gesture most appreciated by families affected by a tragedy of this magnitude is the support and care shown to them by the shipping line. She recalls how when in February 2004, Superferry 14 was bombed by the Abu Sayaff, the entire company involved themselves in primarily caring for the victims families. “It was really tough and as employees you are only human too and so you are prone to break down. At first you will really get yelled at, cursed, almost to the point of being beaten, but you just have to ride it out and show them that you care,” she says. In the end, Virtusio says that the families eventually became very close to them and that she even remains in touch with some of those affected by the tragedy. “You must show compassion, there is just no other way,” she stresses.

I am reminded of what former New York Governor George Pataki said after TWA 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island on July 17, 1996, he said, “It became clear to me that, as Governor, I was going to make a difference – and in more ways than one. I began to realize that even in the darkest moments on the job, I could somehow bring light to someone, somewhere… When I heard the news, everything that seemed important just minutes before, suddenly became irrelevant. It occurred to me that one of the most important functions a Governor can fulfill,is to extend a caring hand to people in despair, and give them what they need most in times of sorrow: comfort, understanding, and a shoulder to cry on.”

Days after this horrible crash, a memorial service was held at the site attended by all the family members of the crash victims. The ceremony was broadcast all over the world, allowing others as well, to show love and support for the family members who needed it so desperately. Pataki says that he has never stopped thinking of those people. “The moments I spent with them are forever etched in my mind and in my heart. Many of them told me that the service and all of the state’s efforts on their behalf, helped ease their pain…One of the most important things we can do in life is to give a piece of ourselves to lighten the burden of others.”

You would think that after a spate of tragedies that began with the MV Dona Paz, Sulpicio Lines would have mastered the art of crisis and disaster management. Apparently, this is not so. Pain and anguish cannot be swept under the rug by 200,000 pesos. Compassion and care far outweighs money in times of tragedy.

I think of the 800 families affected by such a deep and searing loss that will change their lives forever. I end this by sharing with them a poem written by Janelle Davis whose sister Rose died in an Alaska Airlines crash in January, 2000.


Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the gentle Autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush,
I am the sweet uplifting
rush of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry:
I am not there, I did not die.