Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Surviving Yolanda

It's been forty days since Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) washed away the city of Tacloban and some of the towns in the Eastern Visayas region. Having grown up in a city where we dealt with typhoons as part of our daily grind, it was a typhoon so strong and fierce like we never experienced before. And I never thought I'd see the day when a disaster I feared as a kid (something akin to tidal wave) would eventually happen almost thirty years later.

Prelude: The Calm Before the Storm

It was a beautiful Thursday morning. The sun was up shining so brightly. By midday, you could feel the gentle breezes. Light rains came in the afternoon. But not a hint of wind. This was how Tacloban was at the time when PAG-ASA placed the city and the Eastern Visayas region under Signal 4.

D-Day: November 8, 2013

I woke up a little before 5 o'clock in the morning to the winds and rains. The radio was on as I left it playing overnight. By 5:00 A.M., electricity was cut off. For a while, I laid in bed, telling myself this will be just like the past Signal No. 4 typhoons and that it will be over in three hours. 

An hour later, as I peeped outside, I saw that our laundry area collapsed and the mango tree fell. I managed to send a text message to my friend Sherren at around 6:30 A.M., informing her of our situation. I didn't notice that the floor was wet from the rainwater that seeped through the windows and so I slipped on the floor. Not wanting to land on my back, I used my left foot to somehow break the fall. I fell on my butt and in the process sprained my left foot. I limped my way towards the other parts of the house. The winds were definitely strong because some of the windows were now open and leaves were blown inside the house. We had to reinforce the locking of the windows by tying ropes and twines around the levers and window grills. At around this time, the winds continued to pick up its strength. The surroundings went dark and all I saw was this white gust of wind raging in our backyard. It howled angrily and pounded on our house.Then down came the roof of our front porch, some were blown away by the wind. 

At 8:00 A.M., our living and dining areas were now filled with water. We started scooping it and flushed it in the bathroom. I went back to my mother's bedroom to get rolls of electrical tape and a pair of scissors so I could seal off the outlets in the house. On my way there, I heard a shattering sound and true enough, portions of the windows were broken. I got what I needed and then looked out again and saw that our backyard was already like one big swimming pool. I rushed back to the living and dining areas and was  greeted by my Mom's disheartened look.  I was shocked by what I saw. Murky waters filled our house which continued to rise. Water was likewise dripping from every part of the ceiling. We were totally drenched. I started working on the outlets before the waters reached it. Meanwhile, my mom and two other relatives staying with us started raising whatever items they could to higher ground. And then I remembered the water that I saved in the big Orocan plastic container located inside the bathroom. I called my mom and with one swoop, we lifted the water-filled container onto a  Monobloc chair without spilling its contents (we would use it for cooking and later on drinking). What I forgot to save was the plastic of rice which we later found out was likewise drenched from the drippings from the ceiling (good thing we had another container of rice in the kitchen). And then we are all so worried because we couldn't find our dog who was just standing in the dining area a few minutes ago. We kept on calling out our dog's name but not a whimper or a bark. Finally, when the water started to subside, that was when our dog, who was somehow traumatized by rise of the water, finally emerged. In all the typhoons and endless rains for days that we experienced in the past, it was the first time that our house was flooded. The strong winds and what I thought were torrents of rain (I would later on learn that was already part of the storm surge) continued to batter our house and our neighbourhood. As we went around the house trying to move whatever items we could to a drier spot, we simultaneously said prayers and called out to God for help.

It was almost one o'clock in the afternoon when the typhoon stopped and it was safe to venture outside. All the trees in our backyard were uprooted. Some of the rooms in the house didn't have roofs over it. Everywhere, it was such a disarray. We took out our wet clothes and all our other stuff which were drenched by the flood and rains. The uprooted trees now served as our clothes hanger. Mom took charge in clearing the backyard, my uncle tried to recover the corrugated sheets, another relative started cleaning our library which was also filled with mud while I took charge in cleaning the bedrooms one at a time.

By dusk, we stopped working and when I looked up, I saw the steady illumination of a heavenly body. Next to it was a bright half moon. And the night sky was filled with so many stars, you could immediately identify the constellations. You wouldn't even think that a storm has just passed over the city. After our dinner by candlelight, we tried to find our own sleeping spot inside the house where we won't get wet.  We went to bed early and managed to pray all twenty mysteries of the rosary. Several times in the night, I would be jolted from my sleep by the flapping and scraping sounds of the corrugated sheets. I was afraid that the typhoon would make a U-turn just like one typhoon in the past.

The Morning After and Thereafter

We woke up to the sound of helicopters overhead.  That gave me hope because it meant relief was on its way. However, third day came and there was not even a bandillo to inform the community of the situation in the barangay.

Our routine was pretty much the same. We took advantage of the sunlight and so we hung most of our wet stuff on the branches, trunks and roots of the uprooted trees. We also had to clean up the mud (although it looked like a mix of the black sand from the beach and the sediments from the sewers) all over the floor. I realized that it was best to let the mud dry up rather than washing it down with water. It was easier to scrape it off and the same time, more volumes of water could be saved. And just like in the typhoons past, we were waiting for the stores to open by the third day (not knowing the magnitude of the destruction brought by the typhoon). We were also anticipating the dwindling supply of drinking water in the coming days.  I was still limping so I asked my Mom for my old bicycle so I could go out and scout for potable water. But then she told me that she gave my bike away and that of my Dad's, too. So I stayed put while Mom went out in the mid-afternoon to check the neighbourhood and to search for possible source of water. When she returned at night, she relayed to  us that so many trees were uprooted, many electric posts fell, there were dead bodies and debris everywhere and even the house of our barangay captain was not spared from the destruction. The people (as far as Tanauan, Leyte) barged into the Robinsons Place and took whatever they could carry and put it inside the luggage which they got from the stores inside the mall. Even the electrical appliances and furniture were carted away. The Coca-Cola plant rationed out water while the next-door San Miguel Brewery gave out cases of beer. 

The power of prayers. Prayer is such a powerful weapon and every day was a miracle. When we were worried that we might not have enough water supply, we prayed and the next day it would rain and our drinking water would be replenished. And the heavy downpour came usually at the ungodly hours of 1:00 to 3:00 A.M. So I'd lined up whatever available containers and pots we had around the house to catch rainwater. And because it rained, there would be water leaks all over the house so finding a dry spot where we can sleep was another problem we had to deal with. And when we prayed for sunlight, the next day or the day thereafter would be sunny. They say that when we pray, sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no and at other times, it would be not this time. But in that one week after the typhoon, the prayers came answered at an instant.

By day five, we were already down to the last few handfuls of rice. To maximize it, we had "lugaw" and seasoned it with onions. The next day, we heard the squealing of our neighbour's pigs. We later on learned that they had no more food to feed the pigs so they decided to butcher it and sell it to the neighbours. Another neighbour also came and provided us with food and water. Just when we thought we would have no more food to eat and water drink, reinforcements came.

Communication was nil. It was only on the fourth day when we would finally have telco signal on our cellphones. But even with two to three bars, our messages never got through. But there was that one message for my brother that managed to get through.  

The biggest surprise was when my brother showed up at our house on Day 6. He was asking as to pack and leave the city with him before sunset. However, we said that we were okay and we would manage just as long as we had steady supply of food. But by afternoon, we changed our minds and decided to join my brother. 

We hitched a ride with a telco to the airport. As we left our neighbourhood, that was when I saw the extent of the damage made by the typhoon. As we exited the rotunda on the way to the airport, that was when my heart was filled with grief as I saw the debris, the dead bodies of humans and animals on the highway, vehicles turned upside down, damaged houses. I was fighting my tears when I saw the Fisherman's village and the other residential areas near the airport flattened to the ground. The trees lining the lanes to the airport were bare. I just can't imagine that the city would become ground zero. The sight of the tattered Philippine flag waving at the entrance of what was then the tree-lined roads leading to the airport all the more made me emotional.

We reached near the edge of the runway. The light plane that would carry us out of the city was already full and there were only two seats allotted for my brother. We later on learned that we were supposed to take the morning flight of the same plane but we never received the message containing such advice so we failed to show up at the airport. After some discussion, my brother decided to stay behind while my Mom and I joined the Ayala group back to Manila. Because of the bad weather conditions, my brother was only able to leave two nights later, thanks to the PSG.

It was only when we reached Manila when we saw the devastation that was Yolanda. Looking back on that one week, I realized that we were like in a Big Brother house wherein the whole world was watching and we had no idea as to what was happening with the rest of the city except with that in our own neighbourhood.

My college barkada, friends I made in Cebu who are now in Manila and relatives welcomed us and provided us with what we would need for the next few days. We were all in tears when we finally saw and hugged each other. Now that I already had cellphone signal, I also received calls from friends in Manila, Cebu and Davao. I learned the ordeal that my brother and close friends had to go through during the 1st week, not knowing how we were doing since they haven't received word from us, how they tried to be the command centre just to give updates on our status and whereabouts, how they tried to pool resources in case there would be a need to rent a plane or chopper that would take us out of the city or sending out the NBI and some people to check on us. I know how difficult it was for them because that was also how I felt, worried when my brother was left behind at the airport. 

We checked on relatives and close friends of the family and we were grateful that all of us survived the typhoon. We also learned that we all made the temporary exodus at around the same time. Some went to Cebu while the others made their way to Manila. We learned that some people we knew perished and that our ancestral houses were washed away, including a couple we knew who was staying in one of the old houses. 

I also joined in the relief operations of the Operation Tulong Bayan. I even had to make suggestions as to their manner of repacking the goods. I saw how they mixed the bottled water with the bag of rice and packs of viand in one bag. I suggested that they remove the bottled water from the pack. There is the likelihood that in the handling and delivery of relief goods, the bottled water might break and and spoil the rice in the process because it was already wet with water and thus no longer fit for consumption.

This typhoon and all that we had to go through was something that would be etched in our memories. As they say, it was the best of times, the worst of times. It was the worst typhoon ever to hit our place, our country and the world. But it also brought the best in everyone else as each one, from the big nations to the kids, lent their helping hands.

Allow me to repost my thank you message on FB which I posted after my brother finally reached Manila. 

"My family and I are overwhelmed by your concern, support and prayers. Thank you very much. Communication signal was hard to come by and that lone SMS message that was successfully sent to my brother was a miracle considering that we were already down to our last batch of food supply by Day 6. Allow me to thank some people: to the Mga Diwata ng Planeta 148 and their respective families and friends who, together with my brother, served as a command centre, touched base with our friends and relatives and thought of trying to raise funds and secure a chopper for us, my USC - Center for Legal Aid Work (CLAW) family who sent out people including the NBI and pleaded 'te Che to locate us, to our neighbours Danilo Ramos, Jr. and Loksi for the food reinforcement, Ms. Ruby Chiong of ALI, GM Jimmy Villegas, his staff and the pilots of the Ayala Aviation, Major Clavecilla (for keeping watch over my brother), Major Ram Tolentino of the PAF, Gilbert Sta. Maria, Jeff Managbanag of Globe-Tacloban, the PSG and most especially to my brother for all his efforts to make sure that we will all be safe. Once again, our deepest gratitude to all of you. To our Welcome Committee: Thank you, Sherren Manaois, Karen and Pocholo del Rosario, Angel and Debbie Gomez ToledoDolly Jill Cuevas and Roselyn Banez. And for all of God's answered prayers, we are very much humbled and grateful. To God be the Glory!"

To everyone, thank you! And to my fellow Warays and all those who had to go through the ordeal brought by typhoon Yolanda, we will all bounce back and rebuild our beloved hometowns. Mabalik pagtindog it Tacloban. Mga Leyteño ngan Samaraño, may paglaum pa.

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