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Learning life’s lessons in a disaster-prone paradise

Luige del Puerto

Luige del Puerto

“We’re OK,” read the message from my brother, Richard, at 4 p.m. on Nov.7. The Philippines is 15 hours ahead, so it was already Friday there, and Typhoon Haiyan had begun its destructive hopscotching across the islands.

Fortunately, my mom and siblings live in parts of the country that were spared from the worst. Two of my brothers, a fisherman and a construction worker, reside in southern Philippines. Five other siblings live in metro Manila, which is located in the northern part of the archipelago. (Another one is on a tanker ship somewhere in the Caribbean). The city of Tacloban, which bore the brunt of Typhoon Haiyan’s wrath, lies in central Philippines and faces the Pacific Ocean on the country’s eastern seaboard.

I had nervously inquired about their situation two hours earlier, and his short response was exactly what I wanted to hear. But my relief was soon replaced by the nauseating horror of seeing images of the utter devastation that ripped through the Visayas islands and killed thousands last Friday. I can’t wrap my mind around the photos of the dead in the streets, and the comfort of our home merely heightened my anguish for those who were caught in the typhoon’s merciless onslaught. I have friends in Arizona whose families come from other central islands. Thankfully, I have yet to hear of deaths among their loved ones.

As a child growing up in a coastal town in southern Philippines, I, like everybody else, experienced the dread of facing a typhoon’s surging spiral of wind and rain, which cuts down and scoops up everything in its path, indiscriminately spraying injury or death to anyone who stands in the way.

Fortunately for my hometown, it is buffered by a mountain range to its south and a gulf to its north, so a storm is broken up or slowed before making a landing. But the dangers of a powerful typhoon remain real: an unfastened corrugated metal roof could quickly turn into a deadly blade. A downed power line could get you electrocuted. The sea, which gives life, could just as easily take it away.

Every child in the Philippines has experienced the cycle of a storm’s coming and going. In grade school, we were taught that, on the average, 19 storms visit the country each year. Once I stood in the middle of what seemed to me like utter desolation – strong winds had flattened all the trees for miles on end, debris was everywhere and amid the eerie calm, only a few souls were stirring. Additionally, the country sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, making it prone to volcanic activity and earthquakes.

So if it’s not winds raging at more than 200 kilometers per hour, it’s a massive downpour that softens the earth and causes landslides, obliterating entire villages. If it’s not landslides, it’s a volcano erupting and disrupting lives. And if it’s not an earthquake, there’s always the chance of a tsunami or a flood.

When I say I fully appreciate Arizona’s sunny weather, I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

With the Philippines’ long stretches of sparking blue beaches and white sand, its abundant marine life and its feast of tropical fruits, the country is truly a beautiful archipelago. It is also truly a disaster-prone paradise.

I remember one storm, in particular. In 1991, Typhoon Thelma dumped unimaginable amounts of water, causing a massive flood in the city of Ormoc and killing at least 5,000 people.

The storm whipped our town, which lies some 250 miles away from Ormoc. I remember the sound of strong winds and rain lashing against our rickety house’s roof. As the only adult in our household, it must have been terrifying for my mom, Estella, but our family escaped unharmed. I was 12 then, and that typhoon gave me life’s real first lessons.

My family’s poverty (it was a hand to mouth existence) was made crystal clear in the storm’s aftermath. We didn’t stock up on food because we had little to begin with. We survived only because of our mother’s restless ingenuity. When the storm cleared, she shifted through the wreckage and found, amid the debris, some fallen bananas and their unripe fruit. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get us through for a few days.

As a reporter in the Philippines, I covered several disasters. I wrote about rivers that swelled in no time, sweeping away people and houses, and reported on landslides that came like a thief in the night, burying entire families. I once wrote about a man and his very pregnant wife who were swept by a flood and survived by clinging to a water jug and a banana trunk until a boatman rescued them.

Right now, the Philippines needs a lot of help – and fast. My church is organizing a fundraiser, and I know other nonprofits are swiftly hunkering down to help. Any kind of help would go a long away, especially after the media spotlight has shifted elsewhere.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation, I’ve read descriptions of the Filipino people as resilient and unbeaten. That’s certainly true because in the end, there really isn’t a choice. In a country where storms are a fact of life, to persevere is to survive. You cling to what you have – a water jug, a banana trunk, the rooftop – because that’s all you can do.

I often wonder how the certainty of storms shapes a nation’s psyche. Disasters bring communities together. Does it explain why Filipinos, whether here in America or elsewhere, are so close-knit? Does it illuminate on Filipinos’ religiosity, knowing that the future is unknowable and it’s much more comforting to leave it to God to provide order in the universe than to claim control over life?

Does it explain the so-called Filipino diaspora, where workers endure being away from their families so they could send money back to their loved ones?

Does it explain why, under the worst of circumstances, my gut reaction is to hope?

There is hope even as a storm unleashes its rage. That hope comes from the truth that it, too, shall pass. And once it’s over, your mind is thrust forward even as you survey the wreckage. Rebuilding must start because it must, because you know that another storm is coming, sooner or later.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your personal experience and story. It helps to be able to empathize and relate, versus objectify events far away, happening to people we (I) know little about.

  2. Having spent some time earlier in my life living in the southwest of the Philippine Islands, I can appreciate the memories etched in this sensitive article and the exposure to the elements of those that live by the seas that surround them.

  3. Great story Luige and a great reminder of how lucky we are to have good weather and prosperity.

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