One Year Later: Memories of Supertyphoon Haiyan (Yolanda)

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One year ago today, super typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded had hit the Philippines, leaving in its wake thousands of fatalities, injuries, billions of damages and many more other victims unaccounted for, who, until today, haven't been found yet.

The storm left just like that. Like a hit-and-run. The sun shone brightly afterwards, mockingly.

I write as one of the many who have witnessed the tragedy that happened in Tacloban City, Leyte. I also write as a proud witness to how I saw our city slowly rise up from the rubbles. From abnormal banking, office, and mall hours, to back-to-normal operations.

Yes, there are many things that are still to be done, but we are getting there. We have gotten better.

I thought that after a year, I am already okay. That the horrors of the past won’t affect me anymore. That I can watch documentaries without shedding a tear. But I was wrong. Looking back at my posts last year, I can’t help but blink back tears – I am touched by the people who cared, who awaited word from us if we were well.

November 8th is a day that will forever be etched in our memories.

We remember the dearly departed, the people who have sacrificed their lives, the unsung heroes, may they find eternal rest.

We pray for those who have been left behind, may they have the strength to carry on, to have hope, to find peace.

To the Almighty who is omnipresent, you heard our prayers and answered them in the most surprising and amazing ways. No words of thanks can ever express our unending gratitude for the blessings that we have received.

To family, friends, to my virtual bosses, virtual teammates, who extended financial aid, moral support, and all those extra miles, we could never thank you all enough. May you all be blessed with so much more.

To the NGOs, public and private sectors, and everyone all over the world who extended help in the best way that they know how, more blessings to each and every one of you.

Lastly, we celebrate our life; we make meaning out of it. We make the most out of this life that we have, because we only have one.

Life Lessons

What got me through those trying times were prayers, humor and the thought that “Hey, this could have been worse.” Trust me when I say it is not easy to stay positive after everything that had happened. But when you surrender your worries to a Higher Power (I say this as not to offend other religions), your burden gets lighter.

I choose to find something good in everything because it keeps me sane. I choose to move on and come into terms with the past so that I can face the present. Life is too short to be feeling sad always.

Realizations as I wrote this

  1. My pair of Ipanema slippers actually endured the long walk.
  2. I harbor no ill feelings for Mr. Businessman #2. He probably has his reasons.
  3. There are still a few good people who are willing to help you.
  4. I remembered thinking that as long as we had rice, we won’t go hungry. There’s always soy sauce and salt to go with it.
  5. Don’t believe rumors when you hear them. You’ll go gaga if you believe them right away. Verify first and weigh its validity.
  6. Writing about this has been therapeutic for me.

Hope. Don’t let it die. It’s the flicker of light during the darkest of times.

Below is a rather lengthy narration of what I experienced – of as much as I had allowed myself to remember…

Typhoon Haiyan at peak intensity and approaching the Philippines on November 7, 2013.
Typhoon Haiyan at peak intensity and approaching the Philippines on November 7, 2013. | Source

The night before

There have been warnings of the very powerful storm coming days before it hit but the weather was fine. I even joked with my cousin that if signal #4 is this sunny, we could conquer #5.

HBO was playing the movie 2012.

I was monitoring the local channel that evening because I was beginning to get scared when the rain started pouring. I listed down the possible numbers to contact (only that they weren’t of any use since communication lines are all down). I prepared a small getaway bag in case we have to run and get rescued.

My dog was restless and scared.

Our food supply:

  • 2 kilos of rice
  • A can of corned beef
  • A can of meat loaf.

We did not know about the storm surge.

No network
No network
After the storm this was what's left
After the storm this was what's left

November 8, 2013

5:00 am

There was an eerie howling of the wind that woke me up. I kept on looking outside willing for it to stop. It was all white outside. Zero visibility. Roofs were flying. I have never been that scared – apocalypse scared. I have been holding my breath all those times. My dog was shaking from fear. You know how strong their senses are. She would never leave my side.

Sometime after, power was out.

7:47 am

All communication lines were down. The last SMS I sent was to my brother telling him that this was not an ordinary storm and that he should not take it lightly. Told him to cover his books and have a getaway bag ready, just in case. Just as soon as I sent it, the last network signal went out.

Father called from downstairs saying that water is coming in. Outside, we see floodwater waist-deep. Inside our house it was ankle-deep.

We never get flooded, ever. In the 20 years of our stay in the house, floodwater never reached us.

I noticed the murky floodwater that smelled of fish, like it came from the market. But I did not mind because we attempted to save the refrigerator - with only three of us in the house – a Herculean effort. Of course, it was a poor attempt. Epic fail. Later on, we had a good laugh at it. (Oh by the way, the ref is in good working condition as of writing.)

Water suddenly rushed inside the house because a part of the main door gave in. So we left the refrigerator floating. I saved the albums first I thought, heck, we can always buy a new TV and that stereo component is due for retirement anyway. Everybody else saved whatever they can. My hands were shaking.

We feared that the water might rise higher and we might get trapped. So together with other neighbors, we went across the apartment building and hid at the second floor stairwell there.

Someone went out and saw us wet, shivering, and exclaimed about how it was already flooded downstairs, and then went back inside. I was like, okaayyy, bye.

After the storm passed, we went outside to check on things and father was shaking his head saying that the destruction to the city was definitely enormous. I went to the water station we owned to see the extent of the damage. On my way, electric wires, trees, and roofs were scattered on the street. My store sign wasn’t spared as well. I found a good hiding place for it at my brother’s friend. The accordion at the store was slightly open but the padlock was still intact.

Our household help, Mana Baying (who I fondly call Yayabel) and I walked around downtown in search of candles. It was getting dark soon and we only had a few candles at home. We saw people taking pictures of the damages (and I thought, what a waste of battery). We saw Jollibee standing at the next block. The surge probably carried it for a good few blocks. Vehicles from one block turned up at the next block. The original 2-peso candles now cost a good 10 pesos.

It was back to square one. No cellular phones, no power, no landline. If you want to find someone, walk the streets. You were likely to bump into someone you know who knows the location of the person you were looking for.

Everything after that seems like a blur – I no longer had any sense of time. We went out to try to find some supplies and saw total chaos. Everyone was getting their share of loot of non-food items to make up for what they lost during the super typhoon. Some even got those grocery carts, stuff toys, and appliances. Some of these people weren’t even from our place. Some were professional looters who took advantage of the situation.

Hurriedly typed Facebook status to send out the message that we are well.
Hurriedly typed Facebook status to send out the message that we are well.

Another day

We got wind of news that there was a cellular reception at the City Hall so we went there. What was there was a booth where you can call for a few minutes, send free SMS, and log on to the Internet and posted on Facebook that we were alive and well. It was November 10, 2013.

Twilight – I went to the nearest hospital to try my luck to get my father’s meds. He’s hypertensive and wasn’t able to take his meds for days already. The front entrance to the hospital was blocked with debris so I passed through the side entrance hoping to get to the pharmacy via the canteen. When I entered the hospital, it was spooky. The canteen was a mess and it was pitch dark and when I looked around, I saw a foot protruding from a room in one of the OPD clinics. The body was covered in blanket. Beside him / her was a smaller figure, most likely a child. It was just so very sad. I was half hoping that they were just resting.

A drugstore worth mentioning – IBT Pharmacy – they opened their doors, and patiently waited until the kilometer-long line was done before closing for the night. They did not overprice their goods. No one dared, but looters were hovering around waiting for a window of opportunity.

I was not able to sleep well that night due to earlier news of break-ins, murder, and rape. I kept on waking up every now and then because I feared for our safety.

Yet another day

We got rescued that Sunday midnight (or was it Monday, I’m not so sure) and went to my father’s hometown in Catbalogan, to supposedly get some supplies and be back to Tacloban again. There was no power there but they had a genset and there’s cellular reception as well. The entire region was powerless – literally and figuratively. The realization hit me: there was nothing to go back to in Tacloban (that time). But we went back anyway to pack our things and leave for the meantime.

I was able to sort of hitchhike back to Tacloban but the traffic was horrible. The once wide road has now become narrow because of the debris. I alighted at the area where traffic was a standstill then started the 5-hour walk to our house under the heat of the noontime sun with the stench of decaying humans and animals alike.

I had a stopover at a subdivision and saw two young adults and their mom who were planning to walk all the way to the airport. I told them they could go to the city hall instead to ride on those military trucks bound for the airport. I asked them if they want to go with me to downtown and they said yes. I needed company to make me feel somewhat safe.

We chanced upon some pedicab drivers who were about to start their drinking session. Left with no choice, we took an overpriced pedicab ride. We had to pay 150 pesos each for a 10-minute ride to the bus terminal.

The mother has a friend at the bus terminal whom she thought had a means of transportation but then there was no fuel. I told them that we could just walk because a curfew had been imposed and we have to get to our destinations before dark.

We started to walk again and then passed a gas station where we tried to ask a red-plate van marked “Senior Citizen” if we can at least get a ride to downtown and they can drop us anywhere. The guy we asked turned out to be a schoolmate, but he was years ahead of us. He was quite an achiever back in the days. We can ride with them. The “Senior Citizen” van had to gas up but the manual pump wasn’t long enough to reach the reservoir so we had to wait for this businessman who will be bringing the pump. Mr. Businessman had a companion, Mr. Businessman #2. I think they’re cousins. I asked him if we could ride back with them to downtown (which was just a good 3 minutes by car but an eternity when on foot). He just shrugged. August 2014, I met Mr. Businessman #2 at a party.

The “Senior Citizen” van was taking forever to gas up. Maybe we just weren’t meant to ride it. So we decided to just walk since it was getting dark. There were rumors of a military junta, that the government had already taken control of the city. After witnessing the civil unrest previously, the presence of the military was quite comforting.

As we continued on our walk, we tried to flag a tricycle and asked if he was taking passengers. He was finally downtown-bound and to our relief, he let us ride up to the market. From there, I parted ways with the mother and her sons and made my way home. My dog and yayabel were still at home. 5pm.

Globe Telecom’s signal was back but I had to climb the rooftop of the building beside us to get a reception. All friends were accounted for except for one who turned out safe too. Whew.

The survivor dog on her way to Cebu.
The survivor dog on her way to Cebu.

Exodus

We were supposed to leave the following day but there were no trips because diesel was scarce and the vehicles got flooded. We were all packed and nowhere to go. I felt dreadful, and helpless. I said a silent prayer, a call for help.

A little while later, my aunt from Samar was there bringing with her food supplies and survival cooking supplies – coals, firewood, matches, sacks of rice, canned goods, water. We hitchhiked up to the crossing so that we can go back to Catbalogan again and take a boat there that will bring us to Cebu.

Upon our arrival in Cebu, that was when I realized that I had been holding my breath throughout the 12-hour boat ride. It was November 16, 2014. It was a sunny day.

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