Typhoon Haiyan: What Can We Do?


“Within a very short time, we received 900 phone calls after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines on November 8,” Marianna Thomas, head of food and shelter for the American Red Cross in San Francisco, told me. She continued, “I’ve never seen anything like that. People want to know what they can do.” Of course, we all know that we can donate items or money, but what else can we do? This has been a very important question in the minds of those of us who have witnessed or heard about the disaster through the media during the last few days. Watching the devastating stories of this disaster elicited strong emotional reactions in all of us, such as shock, horror, grief, and the urge to help—yet without knowing how to help.

Helplessness is one of the main indicators in trauma that may predict post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),1 a condition that can manifest after a life-threatening event, such as a natural disaster. Not only do the survivors need to feel more empowered and less like victims, but we, too, as observers of the traumatic event, need to feel empowered. Being able to help and taking action in any way can give us not only a feeling of generosity, but also a sense of control over a situation that seems uncontrollable. What can we do?

Before we talk about the things we can do to help, let’s address what not to do, because the first thing that comes to mind might not be the best idea. First, don’t send inappropriate donations. Jessica Alexander, a humanitarian aid worker, urges people not to send their “hand-me-downs,” because these types of donations can create more problems than help. 2 Unneeded items wind up littering the streets and filling up planes that need to be stocked with urgent supplies. Because disaster organizations are trained to send the correct supplies, donations of money are the best thing that individuals can provide. The CNN article, “How to Help Typhoon Haiyan Survivors,” lists organizations like the American Red Cross, the Canadian Red Cross, and the British Red Cross, as well as provides specific information on where to donate money for food, medical supplies, or other specific needs. 3 But there’s more that we can do, and although the following ways to assist might seem insignificant, they are not.

Perceived support is important. Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma researcher and author, explains that moral, as well as financial, support is important.4 When survivors of any disaster know that people care about them and are thinking of them, this helps them to feel that they aren’t forgotten. So express your desire to help by informing the media, including social media networks, that you would like to do whatever you can to assist.

Provide local community support. Community support is crucial right now. Do you know anyone from the Philippines? Knowing that people want to help will build strength and comfort in the Filipino people on a personal level and also as a community. Show compassion and ask people in your local Filipino community what they need and how you may assist them. Some might need help with searching the Internet to try to locate their relatives. Contact the ICRC Restoring Family Links network, or use the Google.org Typhoon Yolanda Person Finder.5 Offer something that local Filipinos need help with and that you feel comfortable providing.

Offering social support and compassion to others can soothe their nervous systems. According to Stephen Porges,6 the vagus nerve, also called the “nerve of compassion,” receives information from the outside and the inside. Since it’s connected to the face, our vocal intonations, our facial expressions, and our gestures (information from the outside) deliver messages to the vagus nerve and our physiological systems that everything is okay. The vagus nerve then takes control of the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby inducing relaxation, rest, and sleep. Porges goes on to explain that the wonderful thing about this process is that supporting another person, taking care of someone, and offering compassion may also have a soothing effect on the vagus nerve of the caregiver. So when we help others, our stressed nervous systems can be soothed as well, which explains why many people feel that they are helping themselves when they assist others.

Take care of your own nervous system. You might have not only an emotional but also a physiological response to hearing about a natural disaster such as this. You might feel shaky, ungrounded, and irritated. Your heart might race, and you might experience headaches. These symptoms can be signs of stress and can mean that your sympathetic nervous system, a bundle of nerves that send messages to your body, is alerting your body to go into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. 7 There are different ways of soothing your activated nervous system, such as taking deep breaths, going for a walk, and listening to calming music. The Trauma Resource Institute (http://traumaresourceinstitute.com) offers free, downloadable apps offering self-help skills and soothing sounds to assist you with this task.

Provide long-term support. Immediate support is really important now, but the impact of the disaster will last for years to come. Although more donations will be needed, some of us can become volunteers, either during the initial crisis or later, to help rebuild the Philippines. According to Krzysztof Kaniasty and Fran Norris, natural disasters “are community-level events that bring harm, pain, and loss to large numbers of people simultaneously.”8 Communities might first be very driven and active, but over time grow fatigued and react with disillusionment. Survivors might not have their community there to help them grieve, because their family members and neighbors might have perished in the disaster or might be overwhelmed with grief themselves. So there might no longer be a community to help survivors build a house or to provide somewhere to sleep.

Donate blood. You can find a local opportunity to donate blood by searching online; the American Red Cross often organizes local blood drives.

Volunteer. The Trauma Resource Institute trains volunteers and prepares people for potential future disasters, and is now in the process of raising funds to set up a project for the Philippines.

Take care of the helpers and volunteers. Helpers and volunteers can return home suffering from the practical reality of lost income or physical setbacks like major fatigue and even PTSD, the latter of which may result from witnessing and being exposed to life threatening events.” 9 Let’s remember to support these courageous and compassionate people too, using similar methods to those already discussed.

Initially, it can seem as if there’s only very little that we can do to help out in a major disaster such as Typhoon Haiyan, but if we look at the larger picture, there may be many more opportunities to assist than we think.


  1. C. R. Brewin, B. Andrews, and S. Rose, “Fear, Helplessness, and Horror in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Investigating DSM-IV Criterion A2 in Victims of Violent Crime,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 13, no. 4 (2000): 499–509, doi:10.1023/A:1007741526169.

  2. J. Alexander, “Please Don’t Send Your Old Shoes to the Philippines, News Tribune (November 12, 2013), http://www.thenewstribune.com/2013/11/12/2886526/please-dont-send-your-o....

  3. C. Dawson and J. Grubb, “How to Help Typhoon Haiyan Survivors,” CNN World (November 13, 2013), http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/09/world/iyw-how-to-help-typhoon-haiyan/.

  4. B. van der Kolk, “New Frontiers in Trauma Treatment,” Institute for the Advancement of Human Behavior (IAHB) conference, March 17–18, 2011, in San Francisco, CA.

  5. See note 3 above.

  6. R. Buczynski and S. Porges, “Polyvagal Theory: Why This Changes Everything,” webinar session, National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (Mansfield Center, CT, 2012), http://files.nicabm.com/Trauma2012/Porges/NICABM-Porges-2012.pdf.

  7. P. A. Levine, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010).

  8. K. Kaniasty and F. H. Norris, “Social Support in the Aftermath of Disasters, Catastrophes, and Acts of Terrorism: Altruistic, Overwhelmed, Uncertain, Antagonistic, and Patriotic Communities,” in Bioterrorism: Psychological and Public Health Interventions, eds. R. J. Ursano, A. E. Norwood, and C. S. Fullerton (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 200–229.

  9. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), 5th ed. (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013).