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A Great Gift: Community Fortitude in the Face of Disaster

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When I first sat down to write this piece, Typhoon Haiyan was bearing down on the Philippines, where I live and serve as the director of the disaster response office of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). At the time Haiyan was a category-2 storm, it has since been declared one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded and the UN has issued a level-3 emergency.

Every year, the Philippines is hit by about 20 big storms. I am blessed to count on a great group of volunteers, most of them college and seminary students. Each time a cyclone or typhoon turns into a disaster they show up and help me fill bright yellow bags with emergency food supplies. Then they wade with me through knee-high (or higher) floodwaters to get the bags to the families that need them.

We're happy to help. But I have to tell you, as a disaster responder, the greatest gift I have ever experienced was the time -- just last September -- when, our arms full of those bright yellow bags, the volunteers and I were actually turned away. That's right: a storm-impacted community turned us away and told us to take the supplies to another neighborhood, as they were able to care for themselves. What a gift!

A southwest monsoon had collided with a tropical storm--Trami--and hung over the northern part of the country, including the capital, for three days. The streets of Manila were under water, but in coastal towns just outside the capital, like Rosario, the water level reached ten feet high.

The volunteers and I quickly packed more than 300 emergency food bags and on the second night of the devastation, headed for Rosario. We were familiar with this town because for months before the storm, UMCOR had worked with another local partner, the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), to provide training in disaster risk reduction to community officials there.

One of those officials was Conrad Abutin, the neighborhood, or baranggay, captain, a local elected official. It was Captain Conrad who received our rain-soaked delegation. "We're thankful for the help," he said, "but there is another neighborhood that needs the food more than we do. I'll identify the area and let you know."

According to Captain Conrad, he and his community in the Muzon Uno neighborhood felt confident in their ability to respond to this particular disaster thanks to the UMCOR and IIRR trainings. "Morale among our community response team members was very high," he recalled later. "We had a contingency plan in place and an early warning system. We had already met with the community and explained how the early warning system worked and what they should do when it sounded. We were prepared."

He said that prior to the storm his community had practiced their new-found skills in response to small accidents, fires, and other local incidents. "The people were amazed," he said, "that they knew how to use these skills in first aid, triage, and dealing with patients."

When Captain Conrad turned us away, it was a great gift on so many levels. UMCOR believes that local communities are the first line of response in any emergency. The people of Muzon Uno were empowered by their training to take on that role. Who can say how many lives were saved because they knew what to do and had the confidence to do it? Plus, they were able to divert precious resources to a community that had greater needs than they.

The volunteers and I finished distributing our relief supplies and went home happy, savoring the experience of the people of Muzon Uno. Today, the people of the Philippines are showing great strength once again, even in the wake of one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded. The scale and severity of this tsunami-like storm could not be predicted or stopped. But I am more aware than ever how great a gift a community's fortitude is in the face of disaster.

Typhoon Haiyan delivered massive devastation across my country. It affected more than 11 million people. Our recovery efforts will continue in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I am currently responding with local volunteers to help those affected, while also training new volunteers in the region to meet immediate needs and planning for longer term recovery and disaster risk reduction.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2013) on December 3. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. We'll be featuring posts from InterAction members all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here. For more information about InterAction, visit here. To see whatUMCOR is doing for #GivingTuesday, click here.

And if you'd like to share your own #GivingTuesday story, please send us your 500-850-word post toimpactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.