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It happens to me too. In the wake of a disaster, I find myself desperate to collect the statistics and figures and make sure I’m communicating them accurately to all the different partners involved in the response and recovery effort.
Because numbers are important. They determine the size of the response, how many items are needed, where they’re needed, how we can get them to those who have been affected.
But behind every number is a person. A person with a name, with a family, with memories of yesterday and plans for tomorrow.
This was something that I was reminded of every day on my recent trip to Tamana, a small, remote island in the small, remote country of Kiribati (pronounced Ki-ri-bas), where I am posted as an Organisational Development Delegate with Kiribati Red Cross Society.
There were five of us on the visit. My role was to talk with individuals who had been affected by Tropical Cyclone Pam, to listen to and share their stories, to put a human face on the devastation, to go beyond the numbers.
Before Cyclone Pam made landfall in Vanuatu, it first sent violent storm surges crashing over four of Kiribati’s southern outer islands: Tamana, Arorae, Onotoa and Nonouti. Tamana was hit hardest.
407 people were directly affected, 65 homes were destroyed, another 42 were damaged, 51 water wells were contaminated, and there I go with numbers.
One of the things about numbers is that when they’re small, like they are on Tamana where the total population is only 857, they can seem easy to dismiss. 407 might not look like much compared to tens of thousands. That is, until you meet one of the 407.
Take Bwaren Bataua, pictured above, a grandmother of four who invited me to the home she and her family had built after sea swells flattened her old one. We shared a laugh as we were talking about music and it came out that I had a guitar but didn’t know how to play it.
“Then why do you have one?” she teased. I couldn’t help but laugh. She had a very good point.
We went for a walk, and she showed me around the remnants of her old house. She pointed out where her beloved garden used to be. Bananas, pumpkin, papaya, these were treasures in a place with no access to outside produce.
Bwaren, who had evacuated to stay with friends when the waves began, didn’t even know her home had been destroyed until her grandchildren brought her the news, “Everything is gone.”
As we walked, her granddaughter Tiberia hung around her neck, sometimes smiling, sometimes shyly burying her head, all the while playing with shells that had been washed up by the waves.
In another conversation, Tabareti Iaotarai was trying to explain to me the size of the rocks that the waves had brought onto the land. I didn’t understand until he bent down to show me a massive coral stone that the sea had hurled through his house.
These enormous things I’d been seeing all along the coast used to be in the ocean. They were simply so large and heavy that it hadn’t occurred to me they’d been brought by the swells.
Together we shuffled through the debris that used to be his home while he told me about watching from across the street as the waves got bigger and more threatening and invaded his house.
I listened to the Mayor, Tetekia Itaaka, who said the community had had no warning other than an indication that the high tide might be a bit higher than usual.
There had been no wind, no rain. Just wave after devastating wave. I met a giggling group of children, who all introduced themselves to me with names I couldn’t pronounce, though it gave them much amusement to hear me try.
They told me their ages, and I tried to remember them all (before eventually giving up and teaching them how to play Red Light Green Light using gestures and minimal English).
Each was a person, a separate, individual person. They had not suddenly turned into a number when their house was destroyed or their water well was contaminated.
We have to work with numbers after a disaster. It’s vital. It’s the only way we can get things done.But a family whose home has been destroyed is a family whose home has been destroyed, whether they are one of 65 or one of 10,065.
I will always remember Bwaren, Tabareti, Tetekia, Tiberia, all the people I met on Tamana, who reminded me, in a way that many of us often need reminding, that response and recovery are not about supporting numbers. They’re about supporting people. Numbers are just one of the tools we use to do so.