The worst typhoon that has landed Philippine soil (named “Yolanda” domestically, known as “Haiyan” internationally) principally hit the peripheries of the Visayan island and claimed 5,600 human lives. I live in the capital city of the Philippines – located in the island of Luzon – so we residents of Manila hardly felt Yolanda’s barbaric rampage, managing to escape its mission of annihilation early last month.
I listened, however, in horror as my booth operator recounted how her mother perished when a tree got uprooted by powerful winds and fell on top of their house during the relentless storm. According to my operator, her mom was carrying the newborn child she bore two months ago at the time the accident happened. In her last breaths, she managed to save her baby from getting crushed by using her own body as shield. Heartbreaking. The baby miraculously survived. My operator also said much of the province of Leyte has been wiped out by “Yolanda.”
Destructive forces of nature bulldoze their way into Philippine hemisphere one after the other: Earthquakes; typhoons; hurricanes; landslides; sudden, mysterious flooding. Resigned to our ineluctable destiny and unfavorable circumstances, we could only gasp at the total carnage following each calamity, shake our heads in disbelief upon hearing true tales of destruction and the number of casualties , send whatever assistance we could afford to a disaster fundraising organization, then try to get on with our lives. It was quite touching to witness and feel the outpour of sympathy and help we received from other nations. I have to admit, though, that in our country, phenomena resembling “the Yolanda catastrophe” do not shock us much anymore. Majority of us here have become, in a manner of speaking, numbed and deadened by crisis after crisis that do nothing but compete with each other in severity. We’ve also yielded to the reality it’s usually the have-nots who get riddled with severe losses and adversities resulting from such atmospheric assaults.
The story that follows doesn’t, in any way, compete with what has recently happened to my less fortunate fellowmen. It is, however, another testimony to what common people, like me, are vulnerable to – given our unpredictable environment.
It was barely three years ago when a bizarre tropical depression named “Ondoy” brought the heaviest rainfall in the weather history of our National Capital Region. Non-stop downpour on a Saturday morning resulted in several cities going under water. Hours earlier, my son set off for school despite discouragements from me.
It was noontime that day when the commotion I kept on hearing from the grounds all the way to the fifth floor of my apartment building made me look out the window. I was shocked to find out a deluge was unexpectedly rising fast, driving people out of their houses. It was the first time something like that had ever happened in our vicinity. A mere hour after, the water had mounted to a staggering height all that was left to see were the roofs of my neighbors’ two-storey houses. A dreadful sight still scary to recall to these days.
During those moments, I counted myself fortunate for my living conditions. It was nonetheless disheartening looking at all those people who scrambled to the top of their roofs; soaking wet from the rain, watching some of their stuff and the goods from their small merchandise stores float on the water.
Meanwhile, I was also nervously waiting for my son’s text message. But no message came from him throughout the day. The rains stopped in the late afternoon; the flood began subsiding at night time. I went down and joined my neighbors look for whatever belongings they might be able to salvage.
Yet my son didn’t come home that night. It was one of the most terrifying times of my life.
I asked assistance from my sister, who had a landline phone, to call up my son’s school. The people who responded said they didn’t have my son’s name on their list of stranded students inside. My mom and sister started crying on the phone. Rather than going crazy waiting at home for news about my son, I decided to look for him instead. As soon as daybreak came, I rode a jeepney that would bring me to his university. But it stopped midway as it could no longer go on due to the flood ahead. All of us passengers went down, and I started my two-hour journey to his school, wading through three feet of tide. When I arrived, there were still a few students walking around. I asked every junior university student I came across with for information about my son. Luckily, a classmate of his informed me she had seen him leave with another schoolmate very early that morning. It gave me some relief, which made me proceed – with hope – back home on foot once again. On my way, my sister called to say my son had already arrived in my mother’s house. Receiving that good news was one of the happiest moments of my life.
It took some time before my neighbors were able to recover from the ruins caused by “Ondoy.” They were grateful to be alive of course, but the experience wasn’t something they could look back on and smile about.
Many other unfortunate events brought about by devastating natural episodes in the Philippines remain to be told: like the unforgettable earthquake which shook the beautiful city of Baguio highlands some twenty years ago – where hundreds of schoolchildren and some vacationing tourists were killed. But there’s no need to narrate to you that disaster which broke my heart in my early 20s: It might break your heart as well.
Stark truth: With the passage of time, putting up with all this has simply become a way of life for most of us here.