One day of Yolanda

I will huff and puff and blow your house down.

We are all familiar with the Big Bad Wolf’s threat in that all-time favorite childhood story.  The imagery is amusing, cute even, and has been told and retold to the delight of children for many years now.

But the people of Leyte now know there is nothing happy about it when it happens in real life.  The day before the very wicked Yolanda came and went, until about 10 p.m., the weather was dry and sunny.  Too dry, in fact, and remarkably hot, with almost no wind to make a leaf even so much as quiver.  While it is true that people here in Ormoc City were bracing for what promised to be a terrible storm, the fear of it was not the strongest prevailing feeling.  After all, Ormoc had already weathered the onslaught of Typhoon Uring in November 1991, where about 8,000 people died in the flashflood.  Nothing could probably come close to that.  We had our quota of natural disasters already.

Nov. 8, 2013.  The sun did not shine.  The day was consistently gray and the strong rains that started before midnight poured relentlessly.  The cloudless sky went on crying, and soon enough the people under it, too.  Because at around 8 a.m., the howling of the wind heightened to a very frightening level.  They say it sounded like a woman wailing, and if I were to pick a singular image of its fury, based on accounts it would be that of a dentist trying to pull out a very stubborn tooth.  In this case, the dentist was the wind and the tooth, each and every house.

If in Tacloban City it was the storm surge that wreaked havoc, here in Ormoc it was the angry wind that seemed to move in a singular path, like a comet, before it changed its furious dance into a twisting motion.  It is safe to say that the most damage happened between 8 and 10 a.m., with only 15 minutes of calm that everybody says, in hindsight, just feels like a betrayal because it actually came in two waves, the last being the most destructive.

Glass doors and windows shattered into sharp shards, rooftops flew off the walls they were attached to, wooden houses collapsed like balikbayan boxes. My brother Jules and his wife Rica and their 11-month-old baby girl Julia moved from one room to another in our parent’s home, running away from destruction as it chased them like a bully.

My sister prayed Psalm 91 over and over again as she breastfed her three-year old son to keep him calm while all the helpers, crying silent tears of fear, used their body weight to push the door closed because the wind wanted very much to open it.  Outside, popping sounds of things being battered and broken taunted them.  At that point when even the ground shook and the walls cracked, and the roof started to pull away from the wall, my sister saw her husband Vince bow his head in resignation, as if to say that was it, there was nothing they could do and nowhere else to go.  Upon seeing his face, she shifted her prayer from Psalm 91.

And then, after what seemed like forever, it stopped.  But by that time Yolanda left, no standing structure was without damage.  Even trees and crops lay flat in surrender.  Steel sheets were crumpled like paper or curled like ribbons; metal trusses were either dented, bent, twisted, or all of the above all at once.  The image that surfaced for the whole world to see was one of massive destruction.

 

Ormoc City and many parts of Leyte now look like a refugee camp — thousands of people are homeless, there is no electricity, and for the two days that immediately followed the storm there were no cell sites even.  The latter was especially torturous, imagine the added agony of not being able to send out an S.O.S and on the other side, of loved ones, family and friends not being able to check on each other.  All that not knowing and wondering imposes a kind of pain that is nothing short of heart wrenching.  The same situation is echoed in the other municipalities of the 4th District of Leyte — Albuera, Kananga, Merida, Isabel, Palompon, Matagob.

The loss is painful and unimaginable, especially in Tacloban and other parts of Leyte where thousands are confirmed dead.  In Ormoc where not as many lives were lost (about 30 as of last count) the situation is not necessarily easier to swallow.  While it is true that the people here are endlessly thankful that so many lives have been spared, the many questions running through everybody’s mind include  ‘What will tomorrow bring?’ “Where will my family live?” “How do I rebuild my home?” “Where do I buy food?” “Where will I find money to buy food?”

Buildings and homes now are but skeletons and shadows of what they once were.  The main source of livelihood is agriculture, or should I say, was agriculture  There is almost none of that to speak of, no harvest to look forward to.  A heavy burden has slumped the shoulders of whoever stands as the patriarch of each home, regardless of social standing.  There is no rich or poor here in this place, each one has lost just as much as the next — 90 percent of whatever they owned.  It’s ground zero, starting from almost the very beginning.  When the weather calmed down, a young man rushed to his decent-sized poultry farm, eager to check on its condition.  After all, he had poured his life savings into it.  Sadly, there was no farm to speak of, it had folded entirely to the ground. He could not help but cry quiet tears, he had a young wife and child to take care of.  There are many more stories like that, each as poignant as the rest.

There are 8,600 hectares of sugar land, but until the sugar mill is rehabilitated, thousands of manunubos(farm hands) have no jobs to look forward to.  How will they survive?  How will their families survive?  It will take at least three months for the sugar mill to get up and running.

But life goes on.  It has to.  Besides, the greatest asset is human capital and there still is that.  With that, we can rebuild. The relief operations will continue for months, but after that, everyone must pick up whatever pieces are left and move forward decisively.  How that will happen, only God knows.  For now, faith is good enough a weapon to carry.

The most pressing concern now is that of survival.  People are homeless, and the rains continue.  They need food, fuel, sanitation, medicines.  They need to stay warm and dry, especially at night.  The hospitals have also been badly damaged.  Relief goods are not pouring in abundance just yet, not because there aren’t any but because it is primarily a problem of logistics.  The desire to help is overwhelming, but the structure and machinery to deliver is not quite there.  As a country, we do not have enough sea and air assets so when land transportation became a problem we had to do with what was available.  The desire of our national government to help is overwhelming, but the infrastructure and the machinery to deliver is not sufficient — after all, government hands in the affected areas were as much a victims as the rest of the population.  Under very abnormal circumstances, it is very difficult for the victims to understand that just because help is not getting to them just yet, doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all.  Ormoc and many parts of Leyte went for four days without any relief goods.  On the fifth day, help finally started to come in.  I have every hope it will get even better in a few days.  It has to.  Because for relief efforts to be felt it has to be massive, with every household in every barangay receiving goods — no color-coding, no politicizing.  It has to be for one and all.

I go around and I see destruction alongside the glazed and dazed looks in the eyes of even the bravest men I know.  But I also see smiles, and thumbs-up signs.  As a toothless old man in a red shirt told me as I passed him on the road “Okay Pa Inday Lucy pero Lord, usto na!” (I’m okay but please Lord, this should be enough!).  Once again, it is the brave, resilient, trusting and happy heart of the Filipino that shines through for the world to see.

In elementary school we were taught that man has three basic needs — food, clothing, protection.  All in one day, a typhoon named Yolanda tried to take that all away. Time will tell that she did not succeed.

 

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