This was my experience of supertyphoon Yolanda aka Haiyan.
The night before the storm, which was projected to hit Ormoc City at seven am, I posted one last message on Facebook to my friend Billy Ray in San Diego. It had been raining, and then the rain suddenly stopped. There was an eerie silence in the city, except for the occasional vroom of a motorcycle driven by a foolhardy idiot.
The rain stopping that way worried me, I told Billy Ray. Then I went to sleep. I woke up around six o’clock AM and noticed that the wind had started to rise. I looked out the window. Strong gusts of wind were making short work of the tarpaulin roof of the used-clothes flea market (ukay-ukay) below me. I chuckled.
“Here we go,” I said to myself. It looked like a normal tropical cyclone, like the numerous ones I went through in the past both here and abroad (hurricanes in Florida!) Fun, but nothing to worry about.
At seven, the brunt of the storm descended and started really shaking the trees. The wind was so strong that it drove the rain almost horizontally. Still no need to panic, I thought. But I already felt that there was something different about this particular typhoon. The wind made too much noise and blew too many crumpled sheets of roofing across the streets like so much flimsy cardboard. The roofs of the tile store across from me were starting to shed like the scales of a skeletal insect. The house shuddered, something it never used to do before.
After an hour of this caterwauling, the wind suddenly died. The sun tried to peep through an opening in the clouds. It was so eerily quiet.
“The eye of the storm is passing above us,” was our universal opinion.
“So that was it?” I remarked.
I went outside to survey the damage. There were pieces of roofing everywhere. Posts leaned from the shock of the wind. Roofs lost their sheathing, but not a whole lot. I walked down to the bridge to see if the river had risen. It was frisky, but not by much. I had a tete-a-tete with my friend Godillo who lived beside the dike. His house bore little damage.
Then, as quickly as the wind died, the wind rose again and brought fresh drops of rain. It had changed direction, from the Northeast.
“I’m off,” I yelled at Godillo. “ This is the second round!”
I hurried back to the safety of my house and with the rest of family tried to plug in the nooks and holes and crannies that the wind and the rain seemed to find, exploit , and point out to us ruthlessly. The kitchen took on water. The wind slammed against the glass jalousies like a sledgehammer. I did not realize it at the time, but it was already smashing down plate glass windows all over the city.
The wind rose, and rose and at a certain point, it did not shriek anymore. It hummed at a high pitch. This was something new and terrifying to me. I went up to my room and looked out the window. The flea-market was totally roofless, and the tile and hardware store across from the house as well. This storm ate roofs like munchies. A tall leafy caimito (star apple) tree had toppled on the street. Another one on the other side that I had grown up with had been bodily snatched and thrown down to the ground, roots and all by the wind. Later , I saw for myself that the wind had blasted trees , some ages-old, like kindling. Yolanda: Roof muncher. Tree-totaller. And over on the other side of the island of the unfortunate island of Leyte, a tidal wave of gross and obscene proportions, something that we in Ormoc were spared from, but not the poor people over there.
In my room, I listened to the wind rise and rise and hum like a macabre, celestial spindle. And then I heard something even more terrifying: the sound of our roof being peeled back. I felt that I was living in a scene from the movie “Twister.” That was fiction. This was real life.
I rushed downstairs.
“The typhoon is peeling back the roof!” I announced. What had happened was the wind had already blown away most of the roofs in Ormoc. Ours were harder to blow away because the roof was made of old-fashioned high grade iron, as opposed to the flimsy ones sold nowadays. The iron sheets were fixed to solid wooden trusses that were tied together with a combination of bolts, umbrella nails and iron clamps. Try as she might, Yolanda could only manage to peel back two side-panels. She could not destroy the roof system of the house that my late father Uldarico Sr. built back in the 70’s. What she did manage to do was to dislodge all the gutters, break the PVC pipes through which the rain coursed and cause the collapse of the eaves on the east side of the house. On the looks of it, compared to the rest of the houses, our house got off relatively undamaged. Two weeks later, I had the roof examined and fixed for damage. The carpenter told me that only six umbrella nails remained. The rest had been pulled out by the force of the wind. One single nail held on to a line of corrugated iron roofing.
"The typhoon stopped just in time, " said the carpenter. "If that nail went, you would have lost your roof".
"The typhoon stopped just in time, " said the carpenter. "If that nail went, you would have lost your roof".
When does a typhoon really live up to its billing as a super-duper feak?
When you look out the square window of the kitchen, staring horrified in the surreal darkness (remember, this was morning) at a branch of our backyard jackfruit tree being seized and grappled and thrown against the wall, with the noise rising as if there was a bombing raid consisting of shrieking steel and loud crashes and collapsing trees, and the wind shakes the house as if a giant is shaking a glass of wet rags with you in it, and the bile starts to rise from your stomach and suddenly you start hating this typhoon and you yell : “Enough already!” and nobody hears you because the wind is too strong and too noisy for that. And for a moment, you are afraid that this typhoon was an actual personality bent on making a point by wrecking your house, as if to say:” You think you’ve seen a typhoon? You ‘aint seen nothing yet, dahlink!.”
One storm is bad. Two storms is the worst. Two high winds occurring from two different directions in less than half a day. Plus a devastating storm surge. And do you want fried tin roofs with that?
And that’s all I can say about supertyphoon Yolanda. The aftermath had/has its own miseries, but at least she’s gone.
My grandnephew Aaron, who is seven years old, is a funny fellow. Her older sister Annika, three years her senior, who cares for him as much as a put-upon sister of a hyperactive PSP-addled addict can, reported to us amused adults that at the height of typhoon Yolanda, when the rafters were shaking and the walls threatening to tumble down, he had cried melodramatically : “ I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!”
“Didn’t he say ‘We?’” I asked.
“No,” Annika answered, “ just him.”
He had of course heard these same words on countless Hollywood films, so for a Filipino kid like him to utter such a typical movie line is both amusing and not too far from the truth. Yolanda, at the height of her fury, terrified me as well into nearly thinking that we were really all gonna die, or at least suffer grievous bodily harm.
My grandnephew Mark , 19 years of age, a culinary student and as much an addict of games and the internet, came visiting today from Valencia where they lived. In that family estate, all the fruit trees that had so abundantly borne fruit last summer had all been felled by the typhoon. We would have no limes, mangoes, avocados, santol, rambutan, lanzones, or coconuts next summer and in the years to come. Mark had been helping cut the downed trees into firewood.
“I’ve been doing a lot of reading!” he announced excitedly as if it was a new experience for him. Before this blackout, I would always see his nose before the computer, playing internet games or doing Facebook stuff. I was not aware that he read books until today.
“What have you been reading?” I asked.
“Something about artists, by this Gor, or Ba something.”
“The Lives of Artists, Giorgio Vasari,” I said.
“That’s it!” he said.
“You know, it has a second volume,”
“Would you like to read it? It’s in my library above. Let’s go find it.”
We went up to my library, a whole wall of shelves lined with books. I easily found the book because I had cleaned up this long-neglected, unloved corner of my house and re-organized the books.
“Take any book you want,” told him. “I recommend “Spycatcher”).
On the seventh night after supertyphoon Yolanda’s onslaught on Ormoc City, I had a Kafkaesque nightmare. I dreamt I was trying to get into a McDonald’s in downtown San Diego. However, instead of entering a welcoming space where you went in, made your order at the counter and sit down at one of the formica tables to wolf down your burger and fries, I now had to enter through a narrow turnstile, much like a TSA gauntlet, and eventually ended up in front of a high counter from which an unfriendly looking cashier looked down disdainfully on me. The cashier surprisingly looked like Charice Pempengco in her current lesbian-butch incarnation.
“Whaddaya want?” she barked down at me.
Appalled, I was going to say “ An Angus beef burger with mushrooms and Swiss cheese and a large Coke,” but what came out from my lips were: “This used to be a welcoming place. What happened?”
The cashier eyed me coldly and like a military drill sergeant snarled: “ What is your order, sir?” She was not going to give me the time of day.
I turned around and walked away. I found another McDonald’s nearby and found the same set-up and the same attitude from the employees. It seemed that McDonald’s had re-arranged the furniture to guard against terrorists and undesirables and instructed its employees be correct but cold, ruthless and unfriendly.
The families Lastimada and Batucan stayed at my house today.
This man came knocking on the door. He had seen the sign “Room for Rent” and asked if he could rent it. They came from Tacloban and were on their way to Cebu, but they needed time to get tickets on the ferry. I asked him how many people were in his party.
He replied nine: himself, his wife, his mother, two daughters, a one year old infant, two teen-age boys and a little girl. I explained to him that the room was basically good only for one person and they would not all fit in.
“We don’t mind”, said the man. “Just give us five hours till we get our tickets for Cebu. “We don’t care for ourselves, it’s the baby we’re worried about and my mother. She’s having some bleeding and we need to get her to Cebu as soon as possible.”
I agreed to let them stay for the five hours they needed. The five hours stretched to an overnight stay because there was absolutely no way they could just show up to get tickets on any of the fastcraft that went to Cebu. The port was jampacked with people from Tacloban and surrounding areas desperate to get out of Leyte. I had heard of rumors and reports earlier of some bad things happening in Tacloban, but could not confirm anything because we had no TV, newspapers or internet whatsoever. The presence of this family was my first inkling that something terrible was happening in Tacloban and that people were in full flight from it. True, Ormoc was devastated as well, but water was plentiful, order was swiftly restored, and the people, used to having a calamity of this magnitude before, did not panic and commit mayhem. There were tempers at the gas station and bread lines but in general everyone queued in an orderly manner. Tacloban, however, seemed to be a different story.
After I had ushered the family ito their small room, the relief on their faces at being able to just sit and rest on a bed and on the floor was palpable. After mulling it a little bit, I had the spare room that was reserved for guests and family members from Australia cleared and cleaned up and gave the family to use it as well.
‘Oh,” the matron informed me, “My sister and her family are arriving from Tacloban later this evening. Can they stay here as well for the night?”
I said yes.
I asked the young man, the father of the infant , what was going on in Tacloban.
The young man looked at me with a slightly dazed expression on his face, as if he had just seen some unmentionably horrible things, which he probably did, and replied: “ The people in Tacloban are not normal anymore.”
The little girl’s name was Sophia, just like my sister.
Sophia was a hyperactive kid of six. She became the ad hoc playmate of my grandniece Lorez, who was three years her senior. They played LEGO and Pirates of the Caribbean cards. She was a very talkative and communicative girl. When our househelp Veny asked her what happened to her home, she replied in Waray: “Nagbaha” ( It flooded.) “Kutob dida,” (Up to there), she said, indicating an area near the ceiling. “May-ada gin-rape,” (Somebody got raped). “Damo an patay” (There are many dead people).
Then she pranced off to join Lorez in a game of tag.
They lived outside Tacloban proper, near the San Juanico bridge, said the young man. After the storm he and his brother went to explore the effects of the storm. The road to Tacloban was impassable due to debris and fallen powerlines, so they found a route over the hills into the city. Downtown Tacloban was a dead zone, a city that nature seemed to have wiped clean from the face of the earth. A two-storey McDonald’s beside the wharf still stood, but all its contents were washed out into the sea.
“I have a story to tell,” he told me, “about a friend of mine who survived the tidal wave. He was a trucker. He and other truckers normally parked their trucks at the Tacloban pier. He told me that he saw the big wave come in. He said the wind did not seem to strike the sea as much as suck it out. After the sea receded, the giant wave came crashing in to the pier and swept all his trucker friends out to sea except for one, who was clinging to his feet. For himself, he had managed to cling by two fingers to two nails on the roof of a building. He kicked his friend who was clinging to his feet for fear that he would be swept out as well. The friend let go and disappeared into the sea.”
He paused, then confessed that he had stood outside Robinson’s Mall as it was being looted. He was tempted to join in, but he did not. People were going crazy and smashing into stores, emptying them of their contents. A San Miguel Brewery warehouse was ransacked. He could see people trundling carts of stolen beer on their carts. At first, he and his family were able to fly out to Manila on a private jet owned by Willie “Wowowee” Nepumoceno through the intercession of a connected aunt who lived in Manila. They stayed for a while in her condo in Manila. When her sister, who worked for Mercury Drug was called back to work, she decided to return to Leyte, choosing Ormoc City as her temporary base. I asked him why she did not stay in Manila instead?
“She’s afraid of the big city,” he replied. He accompanied her back to Tacloban , together with their parents. His other family members, including a baby, remained behind in Manila.
It was already dark, around 7 PM, when the Batucans arrived. The elderly Batucans worked at the department of Agrarian Reform. The matron looked weary and apologetic.
‘Pasensya ka na han pagmerhuwisyo,” (So sorry for imposing on you), she said. I eased them to their room. They seemed as relieved as their other relatives to have been able to make it this far away from Tacloban city, within the relative comfort and safety of a rented room.
Afterwards they went to the plaza to get a bite to eat. They came back an hour later.
‘We just bought barbeque chicken to go,” she said. “There was no room to sit. There are so many people.”
I gathered that they were eventually going to Danao City in Cebu. That was where the elderly Batucan was from. They were going back to Tacloban City only when the situation had normalized.
“That’s where my home and work is,” she said wistfully, almost in a bittersweet voice. . “ I don’t know where else I would work.” They lived in the V&G housing subdivision, a community that was relatively unscathed from the storm surge but was now under the grip of fear from marauding criminals and home invaders. She told me that, aside from their home in the subdivision, they had an apartment in the city. They were there when the storm started. A nurse who roomed with them rescued them and guided them to safety. Her daughters who were with her were both nurses as well. The future for them was not very clear.
After a prolonged relay by family members queuing at the fastcraft offices through the night, the Lastimadas and Batucans were finally able to leave for Cebu at ten in the morning. Sophia came running down the stairs and gaily announced: “We’re leaving! We’re leaving!”
I never saw such gratitude expressed in not so many words but with looks and smiles on their faces as they left to join their ship for Cebu. Sure, they paid me for the accommodations, but their thank-you’s were priceless.
On the same day, in the afternoon, after the two families had left, there was a knock at the gate.
A gentleman and a young man, presumably his son, stood outside. I noticed the line of people outside queueing to withdraw from the ATM at the Land Bank. There were no functioning banks in Tacloban city and its environs. The ATM’s there were smashed and looted. Just round the corner, in the same building beside my house, there was another queue in front of the Mercury Drug store. There are two Mercury Drug store branches in Ormoc City. There were five or six in Tacloban City. All of them were ransacked and looted. An apologist for the looters was quoted in the newspapers as saying that desperately hungry people were justified in looting the stores. Looting for food, I can understand, but baby diapers and 40-inch flat screen TV’s? Without a doubt, greed, not desperation, was at work there. Without effective police or military protection, the result was anarchy. I heard that the military was now starting to assert itself in Tacloban City, effectively putting it under martial law.
“Can we please rent a room for the night,” said the man. “We need a place to rest. We are priority number 1500 in the hydrofoil to Cebu.”
“How did you learn about me?” I asked.
“A woman told us about your place, the house with the red gate behind Land Bank. They stayed with you last night.”
Naturally I agreed. He left to fetch his family and half an hour later I showed them to their room. They had a son and a daughter.
“I was going to send my family to Manila and stay behind and watch the house in baras but they wouldn’t let me,” explained the gentleman. Are we safe here?”
I assured him that it was. ”My children have become anxious about noises ouside,” he said.
Slowly I pieced the family’s story.
The man was originally from Guian and now lived with his family in Baras, in Tacloban city, an area that was smack in the path of the storm surge. He was in Manila when the storm happened. In Baras, his wife and two kids, a boy and a girl, were nearly caught in the floodwaters and managed to escape to the roof. The girl fell into the water but was urged up into the roof by her mother and brother. She suffered deep cuts and bruises. After the storm, they went to escape to the town of Alang-alang. There they were terrified of reports that some armed men were knocking on doors and looking for well-to-do people from which to extort money or otherwise do harm upon. Meanwhile, in Manila, the husband wangled a seat on a C-130 flight from Manila and proceeded immediately to Alang Alang. He was intending to stay behind to watch after their house, but his family nixed the idea, so they rented a van and went to Ormoc instead . From there they would take a hydrofoil to Cebu and eventually Manila.
Once inside their room, the wife and kids stayed inside all day. When the hm husband would go out for a while, th kids would call out to him in concern, if not panic: “Dad? Dad?”
A van driven by the husband of the wife’s sister was supposed to fetch them in Ormo and bring them to Davao. It turned out that the brother-in-law had family stranded in Tacloban City whom he was going to rescue as well and bring to Davao. That meant that my guests would have to return to Tacloban City, a city they had just escaped from, back to the dragon’s lair, so to speak. They would then take the route to Southern Leyte via the decimated towns of Palo and Tanauan.
From the jaws of hell and back again. Just like in the movies.
Not long after my Davao-bound guests had made themselves confortable in my home, there was another knock on the gate. My househelp Veny opened it, listened to whoever was there and came back to me.
“These girls want to rent a room….for seventeen people,” she announced.
“Just talk to them,” said Veny.
I went out. A young woman who had obviously done some travelling looked me with anxious eyes.
“Sir,” can we please rent a room in your house?” she asked.
“And how many would you be in your party?” I asked.
“Seventeen,” she replied. We have four kids, sir, please for their sake, rent us the room.”
“Why don’t you go to a hotel?” I asked.
“We would if there was any room available. There’s none. Please sir.”
“ I have two rooms that could hold ten people, but seventeen…” I replied doubtfully. “You’re too many.”
“We just need rooms for the kids and their nannies, sir. We don’t care about ourselves.”
Her pleas felt so heartfelt and desperate that I answered: “Come back later, I’ll see what I can do.”
I talked to my niece-in-law Erma about the seventeen people wanting to stay the night with us.
“That’s a lot of people,” she said.
Later, I talked to my nephew Butch about the situation. He had the same reservation. I knew they were leery about taking in guests in to the house, basically strangers. There had been a rumor that brigands disguised as beggars or destitute were knocking on doors in Tacloban. Once the door was opened, they would stage a home invasion and rob, if not kill, the occupants of the house.
I took a pause and sat down on the sofa facing the gilded wooden bust of the Enlightened Buddha that I had bought and laboriously shipped from Koh Samui, Thailand here to my hometown. My mind turned back to one of the shocking revelations I heard about the storm surge in the Palo-Tacloban area.
During the course of my conversations with the first guests in my house, the Lastimadas and the Batucans, they noted my fluency in the Waray dialect. I explained to them that I studied at theSacred Heart Seminary in Palo for eight years, hence my familiarity with Waray. Despite barely speaking a word of it in the years after I left the seminary, the knowledge never left me. They asked me if I knew the late Monsignor Estanislao Abarca. Of course I did, I said. And Avestruz? Years below me, I replied. The sisters it turned out were from Barugo, a town I had occasion to visit many times as a seminariwan.
“And how is the seminary in Palo? Was it affected by the typhoon?” I asked quite disingenuously.
They looked at me with stricken faces.
“It’s totally destroyed,” said one. “ The waves went over it. Bodies were seen on the rooftop.”
If I remember rightly, the seminary had three floors. The first floor housed the classrooms and the two upper floors housed the dormitories.
“On the roofop?” I uttered incredulously. “Were there students there at the time?”
“There must have been,” said a woman. “They had classes, or they were staying there since it was the start of the semester.”
I fell silent. An institution which was practically my home for eights years studying Latin, music, philosophy and theology: gone, its scholars dead, perhaps those bloated corpses reportedly on rooftops. The sea was distant enough from the school to discount any storm surge reaching it. But evidently, a tidal wave did reach it, as well as most of Palo. What kind of providence was at work here, divine or demonic?
I decided to accommodate the troupe of seventeen in my home. I dedicated this act to any dead seminarian from my former alma mater.
Somehow they fit into three rooms. I had given up my room and slept in my studio downstairs. When I agreed to let them in, the girls clasped their hands in gratitude. I never saw such desperation in their eyes followed by gratitude for my willingness to accommodate. Ironically, I was housing an old man who was a retired seaman. His three sons were working on ships and were abroad at the moment, probably out their mind with worry. You see these were their kids and wives who I was giving shelter to. Back in Tacloban they all lived in a compound that the storm had destroyed.
Whatever it was they were fleeing was to horrible for me to imagine. Ormoc has painful memories of the 1991 flood where thousands were killed as well. Now, although house were destroyed, few lives were lost. Not so in Tacloban. This is something I wish I never had to deal with, ever, in my life.
This morning I served coffee to a group of travelers who had come in the night from Davao and intended to drive to Tacloban to fetch family members of Armand Dacuycuy of Davao. Armand was the brother in law of the wife , a Mrs. Yu, of Alang Alang, He had driven in a two car Toyota Grandia caravan for eight hours from Davao City to the ferry point in Matina.. They had intended to do the crossing over the Surigao strait and into Leyte at 10 AM and arrive in Ormoc by noon, but the relief trucks bearing food and and supplies for the stricken people of Leyte and Samar were given priority on the ferries. They were only able to load their vans at 2 in the afternoon. By the time they arrived in Ormoc, it was already 7 PM and quite dark.I had a discussion earlier with Enrique and his wife. They were hesitant to go back to Tacloban, but they had no choice as they were just riding along. Armand had an important mission, and that was to save his own kin and bring them to Davao.
At the very least, I said, try to tell him not to travel tonight but at dawn or early morning. Better safe than sorry.
They would try, they said.
As it turned out, Armand had decided to stay for the night and drive in the early dawn because the drivers were exhausted from the long drive.
So I gave them a room to stay in the house free of charge.
In the early morning I boiled water for coffee at 3 AM.
Armand came down and I offered him and the rest coffee which he accepted.
They had decided to go early, Armand said.
We got to talking. It transpired that he used to be a member of the Kalipayan dance troupe. This was a famous and internationally well-travelled dance troupe based in Tanauan, Leyte, one of the hardest-hit in the storm surge.
“Does it still exist?’ I asked him, meaning the Kalipayan Dance Troupe, not Tanauan.
“Yes, but the director is already old,” he replied.
He knew a few of the same people I knew: Tex Almeria, Fr. Aguilos, the late Fr. Ben Bacierra.
“We had the same kind of typhoon in Davao, Typhoon Goring,” he said. “My business suffered a lot. But Yolanda was definitely stronger. “
Later they left in a convoy of two Grandia Toyotas. I bade them bon voyage and not to stop for anybody on the road.
Mang Pilang Arradaza lived in Tondo, Bagong Buhay, outside Ormoc City proper. This is near our family rice farm. She was seventy years old and sold native rice cakes for a living. She lived in a ramshackle house made of cement blocks and wood. She was fond of her house, even if it was not soundly constructed. Before the storm hit, her children urged her to move out of the house and seek shelter in a safer building. She refused. She considered the house strong enough for her. Besides, at seventy, she had seen her fair share of typhoons and not one managed to injure her. Her home had gone through unscathed. What was different about this one?
After the storm, they looked for her. They found her lifeless body crushed, pinned down by the rafters of her home that had collapsed on her.
Here’s one thing that our no-electric power situation after typhoon Yolanda has taught me:
Books I’ve read during this month of no electricity: “Doctor Sleep” by Stephen King, “The Blue Hour” by Jefferson T. Parker, “A Tidewater Morning” by William Styron, “The Alchemist”, by Paolo Coelho, the volume on The Renaissance by Will Durant. Currently halfway through Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”…an amazing achievement by my reckoning. Reading it is not nearly the chore that I thought it would be. It helps that I have been to its main location, St. Petersburg, Russia. Simultaneously reading “The Age of Napoleon” by Will Durant on my iPad. The Napoleonic age seen from two different sides: the Russian and the French. Illuminating. In the days of complete darkness (we have streetlights now), I studied the stars. Ask me what those stars are now and I’ll tell you what they are: Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Sirius, Jupiter, Andromeda etc… I am inching towards the concluding chapters of my third novel, "The Time Breathers". I am also working on a symphonic piece for chorus and orchestra, a Requiem for the people who died in this storm and the 1991 Ormoc floods. In my own way I will remember those who lost their lives needlessly and are now buried in anonymous mass graves. Strange how having been deprived of power and the internet, I now have all this free time to read, contemplate and create.