By Anthony Advincula
New America Media
I am accustomed to strong typhoons. Before I immigrated to the United States more than a decade ago, I grew up in my native Sorsogon, a coastal town about 160 miles north of Tacloban City in the Philippines. The houses in our neighborhood were very close to each other, and mostly made of old wooden planks with thatched roofs from dried coconut palm fronds. Others had corrugated metal roofs with old tires on top of them.
For every typhoon that made landfall in my hometown—we would get one or two a year that were strong enough to cause fatalities—my siblings and I would go searching for our missing roof that the wind had torn apart and blown away. My father died when I was nine and my six siblings were still very young, so it was my mother who climbed up and patched our roof, hammering rusty nails to hold it all together.
Our neighbors would do the same. The day after a storm, which is often bright and sunny with a calm and stale breeze, the only sounds I would hear in the neighborhood were the hammering of those rusty nails, and the hissing sound of brooms sweeping the fallen leaves and tree branches on the ground.
One typhoon that I will never forget as long as I live is Typhoon Sisang (Nina), which ripped through my hometown in 1987, a month before Christmas Day. Sisang spawned vast storm surges that swept away homes, destroyed ports and sea vessels along the coastline, and killed thousands, including some of my mother’s cousins and aunts.
When Sisang reached land, our relatives were gathered at a wake for an uncle at a house near Bacon Beach, in Sorsogon. Tidal waves higher than coconut trees engulfed parts of the coast, and three of our relatives who were at the wake died. Their bodies, including that of my already deceased uncle, were found a few days after the storm. Weeks later, the town folk refused to eat any fish or seafood, for fear of also consuming some of the hundreds of decomposing bodies that went missing in the ocean.
Oddly, despite our great losses, no one seemed to despair. We picked up the pieces and got back to our lives. We moved on quickly, almost mechanically. We helped one another, and found ways to survive on our own. We asked for help from our neighbors, relatives (no matter how distant they were), friends, and friends of friends.
Once, after a storm, my mother lined up outside of the Protestant church a few blocks away from our home, for canned goods. We grew up Mormons, but no one even cared to ask. Despite the devastation and the lack of food and water after each calamity, I don’t recall seeing anyone die of hunger on the streets. Like my mother, people cooked using milk cans as if they were kettles and pans, and they made fire from scraps and debris.
Now, as I watch images of the horrific devastation caused by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in Tacloban, Samar and Leyte — all of which neighbor my native town — from my apartment in Manhattan, I cannot believe my eyes. The degree of environmental and human wreckage is something I never imagined was possible when I visited Tacloban as a high school student, passing through with my teacher on our way to a national writing contest.
Yolanda was the strongest typhoon recorded in history. More than 4,000 people are now confirmed dead, about 2,000 are still missing and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. With these numbers repeating in my head, over and over again, my nights have been sleepless and my days, restless.
My American friends have showered me with affection and sympathy, and I have been empowered by their support and generosity. On subways, at the delis and bodegas, in department stores and seemingly everywhere, people have offered my fellow Filipinos and Filipino Americans their help and prayers. They ask me about my family and their situation back home. Some ask more pressing questions: Why was the destruction so bad in Tacloban? Why did the people not evacuate? How are they going to survive?
All I can do in response is offer them what I have come to know about how Filipinos react to natural disasters — we will survive Yolanda, as we have always survived. But I know that it is difficult for non-Filipinos to understand.
It was 3:45am in the Philippines last Friday, November 8, when I telephoned my 76-year-old mother on her cell phone. Yolanda had just made landfall in Sorsogon, where she still lives by herself most of the time. She picked up my call right away.
“Mama,” I asked, “are you OK?”
I was sitting on my couch in New York, and I could hear the battering wind on the other end. At times the reception got bad, and her voice broke up. My mother said the howling wind outside, along with the heavy rains, drowned out my voice, too.
“I was asleep. But the wind got stronger and stronger, and it woke me,” she said in Bicol, our native dialect. “But I’m fine.”
Luckily, she was at my sister’s house. I have not been there since I moved to the United States, but my sister’s home is built of solid concrete and situated on higher ground. It was a great relief for me to learn that they were together there, and not in our tiny, old wooden house.
“We’re staying together in the same room until this typhoon is over,” Mama said. “I’m worried, though, that the glass windows may shatter.”
She handed the phone to my sister. In the middle of our conversation, their power went out. I could hear her telling Mama to be careful about moving around the house in the dark. Before hanging up the phone, my sister told me how a piece of metal in the backyard was flapping furiously in the wind.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “we’ll just go back to sleep.”
I knew exactly what my sister meant. Filipinos are so used to typhoons that they just hunker down. Whether living in shanties or sturdier houses, Filipinos do not immediately feel a need to evacuate; instead, many stay where they live and brave the storm.
But it is also true that many Filipinos have nowhere to go for refuge. Despite the numerous typhoons – there are 10 to 20 that rip through the islands every year — the houses and even the designated evacuation centers are not built to withstand strong storms. Most people do not own cars, and fleeing is a challenge (if not an impossibility) for those who live on an island, or in remote areas where roads can easily become impassable.
In Tacloban, the hardest-hit area, thousands of those who drowned and perished were in fact at the evacuation centers. There have been reports that, as Yolanda tore through the town and storm surges engulfed the houses and buildings, people were trapped inside the schools, the public stadium, and churches that were cross-purposed as evacuation centers.
When Hurricane Sandy battered New York and New Jersey, and tidal surges destroyed many houses and apartment buildings in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island last year, victims of the storm were given financial help from the government to get their lives back on track, including those who lived in million-dollar houses along the Jersey Shore in New Jersey.
With the Philippines’ intractable poverty, exacerbated by government corruption, I, like my countrymen, have very little hope or expectation that Filipinos will receive the same government assistance to rebuild their lives.
Yet, with or without government help, I know that Filipinos will get up on their feet again. I have seen it before. Although the havoc caused by Yolanda on the lives of Filipinos is indescribable, it is not the first time for many of them.
Resilience seems innate in Filipino people. Accustomed to hardships, we are naturally self-reliant. President Obama, in his recent speech, expressed as much in saying: “I know the incredible resiliency of the Philippine people, and I am confident that the spirit of Bayanihan (community spirit) will see you through this tragedy.”
On Saturday afternoon, November 9, I telephoned my mother again. I wanted to check in with her after the storm, and wish her well on her birthday. She was cleaning up and removing fallen debris from outside my sister’s house, when I got a hold of her.
Our old house, she said, got flooded, and the roof above the kitchen was gone. Since she is no longer capable of doing repair work like she used to, a girl from the neighborhood helped her to remove water from the house and threw away some clothes and furniture that were badly damaged. She said she would ask a carpenter to replace a part of the roof, and cut the fallen trees in the yard.
“I’m going to church later today,” she said. “For now, everything here is good, until another typhoon comes.”
Anthony Advincula is a New York based writer who writes for New America Media.