Helping out abroad

Grand Haven Township resident Lee Baas recently returned from three weeks in the Philippines, where he counseled caregivers and victims of a typhoon that ripped through the region Nov. 8.
Marie Havenga
Dec 20, 2013

Baas said the scenes he witnessed were surreal, like a harshly painted watercolor oozing human pain and anguish, shadows of lives lost and dreams swallowed by surging floodwaters.

According to numbers released by the Filipino government, close to 2 million families and 9 million people were traumatized and left homeless by Typhoon Haiyan. The damage is estimated at more than $8 billion.

Baas — who previously counseled those affected by tsunamis in Japan, Indonesia and Thailand — said this storm outdid them all, leaving many victims with no place to go.

“This one has affected people deeper mainly because so many people have been displaced,” said Baas, a licensed psychologist who has worked in disaster counseling for 15 years. “When everything is destroyed and you still have the dirt path and palm trees, that’s one thing. When you’re sitting in a relocation camp, you’ve lost your identity.”

Baas, who is part of the nonprofit group Walking in Their Shoes, said the biggest part of his role is to listen. He said it’s important not to pity the people or talk about how bad things are. The best path out of a storm’s path is a positive attitude, he said.

“I’m basically doing psychological first aid,” he said. “You have to keep it positive and show them the future. You show them that there is a tomorrow and the sun is going to shine. That seems to have worked over the years trying to move people away from ending up with post-trauma stress.”

Baas stayed a week longer in the Philippines than he had planned because there was so much need, he said.

Baas recalled a man who lost all four of his children in the storm. In other case, a woman who was away from home when the storm surged was not allowed to return.

“She was stopped and told she couldn’t go there,” Baas said. “She just wanted to get home to her children. As far as she knows, her whole family is gone. That kind of stuff is gut-wrenching.”

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