Monday, August 21, 2017

‘The people are very resilient’

A BUSINESS CONVERSATION WITH DR. KENNETH WESTFIELD

‘The people are very resilient’

Having departed the Philippines just days before a devastating typhoon struck, Las Vegas opthamologist Dr. Kenneth Westfield shares his perspective on a historic disaster.

BY KIMBERLY BAILEY-TUREAUD

Dr. Kenneth Westfield (right) treats patients in the Philippines days before a typhoon struck.

How often do you travel to the Philippines?

I travel there with the Gift of Sight charity, once or twice a year, to perform cataract surgeries for indigent people who don’t have access to health care. This year we were there for almost 3 1/2 weeks.

You and your medical team were in the Philippines days before the typhoon struck the country?

Yes, we left about three days before the typhoon hit.

How was the weather a week before the typhoon landed in the Philippines?

The weather in the Philippines was great when we were there. It was calm, clear and beautiful. But we heard the reports, because they saw the typhoon coming from out in the Pacific Ocean days in advance. So, we knew that this typhoon was going to come close and we knew we were getting out. I tell you what was scary: when we took off in the plane to return to the United States, the pilot said that we are taking a detour. He wanted to go around the storm — and I could see it from my window seat on the plane.

Judging from some of the television footage of the typhoon’s aftermath, many of the survivors were remarkably composed considering the scope of the tragedy.

It’s been my experience that, in Haiti and other island nations that are subject to hurricanes and typhoons, the people are very resilient. This is not the first time they have been faced with disaster from a storm, and it won’t be the last.

Where do survivors go after such a devastating storm?

I am not sure, but they usually go to a place that is dry and on high ground. The wind and the rain is not what hurts the people; it’s the surge of water. Manila [the capital city] really didn’t get hit very hard by the storm. But all of those towns that were near the ocean and the eastern side of the country, got the worst of it. A 20-foot wall of water coming in one’s home is hard to recover from.

Does the government of the Philippines take any responsibility for preventing structural damage to homes and businesses?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, as it relates to the bigger cities such as the downtown areas. If you were in Manila, and certain suburbs of Manila, that whole metropolitan area consists of nine million people. That is the equivalent population of New York City. Once you get out into the provinces, there is not much protection.

A philippino man.

Do you have the new numbers of how many people died in the typhoon?

No, I don’t have the new numbers — but I know it’s staggering. Poor people are hit the hardest. The middle class and the rich build homes that are disaster-proof and on higher ground. The poor people use sticks and palm leaves as their roofs, which is sustainable for four or five years, and then a storm like this comes in and wipes people out. But they regroup and start over.

How are you treated as an African-American in the Philippines?

First, they thought I was a basketball player. Especially when I stood next to them — because of my height, I stand head and shoulders in height above everyone else. We were treated like kings there. The Filipino people are very appreciative of what we do, and in three weeks we performed 125 cataract surgeries.

What is your suggestion as to how people can help those in the Philippines?

I would suggest giving to the Red Cross and having the money earmarked for the Philippines. The Red Cross is a tremendous organization. The Red Cross was in the Philippines when we were there before the typhoon hit. They were setting up relief stations before they knew the storm was going to hit the Philippines.

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