A California writer's dispatch from the islands hard hit by Typhoon Haiyan
On the the indomitable Filipino spirit, born too often of necessity
The road north from Mandaue is much like any other in this part of the Philippines. It’s narrow and dusty, cramped with cement and wood homes, bamboo fruit stands, shops plastered with Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew advertisements. The road winds along the coast, offering glimpses of muddy shores and ocean on one side, palms and papery banana trees on the other.
But at some point, the scenery begins to change. The palms, once stiff like soldiers, turn tilted and weary, as if broken from war. The banana trees look as if they’ve been put through a shredder. Power lines are felled like dominos, iron roofs caved in.
This is how we know we’ve entered typhoon territory.
And then the disaster zone. Groups of people gather on both sides of the street, as if onlookers in a parade. Boys in basketball jerseys, shirtless men, small girls and their mothers. “Tubig!” they shout at passing cars, scooters, buses. “Bugas!” They plead with their eyes, beg with their hands. Water. Rice.
I’m on Cebu, one of the islands hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan on November 8. It’s not Leyte, where the city of Tacloban was laid flat and thousands died. But the situation here is also dire: More than 100,000 were displaced after the typhoon ripped through the northern cities, destroying homes and killing dozens.
I was on vacation to see my family—my mom is from Cebu—when the storm hit. A few days ago I accompanied a couple of my cousins, who live in Mandaue where I’m staying, to their relatives’ home four hours away in Bogo, one of the cities hit hard by Haiyan.
When the typhoon landed, I was safe in a building near Mandaue. The area didn’t flood and businesses reopened the next day. I watched and read the same news reports as the rest of the world. Saw photos of bodies on TV and in the local paper, kept updated on the overwhelming global response. One account in particular stuck with me: a blog post for The New Yorker called “When Haiyan Struck,” by Filipino writer Jessica Zafra.
Zafra tells the story of a Manila housemaid whose parents’ house was crushed by a tree in Leyte. In a few days her father had built a new shack, secured some necessities.
“They had their homestead, a little rice, water they had collected from a spring, and a measure of calm,” Zafra writes. “The Merinos don’t have much, but they are accustomed to fending for themselves, and they take care of each other.”
Multiply this story thousands of times, she writes, and you’ll get an impression of the aftermath of Haiyan. She distills the spirit of the Filipino: a people constantly battered by disaster, from earthquakes to typhoons, yet adaptable, resilient, accustomed to struggle.
My relatives in Bogo, a city of nearly 70,000, were lucky. Windows of their sea-foam green house were blown out, parts of the metal roof carried away. But nobody was injured, and the concrete structure remains intact. When we visited, people were reattaching corrugated iron to the top of the home and chopping branches with a machete to make a cooking fire. Power in Bogo could remain out for a month or more.
Others escaped with little more than their lives. I went with my cousin Rosemarie to meet her co-worker Edna Galarion, who was traveling from Mandaue to bring food and money to her family. Galarion led us down a dirt trail into a grassy field. Whatever homes were there—and they must have been little more than shacks before the typhoon—have disappeared in a tangle of broken wood and concrete. Of the 200 residences once in the area, only three remained standing, she said.
Her mother, 60-year-old Bernada Verdida, sat at a wooden table beside her new home, built in two days by her husband with salvaged scraps. It’s one room, wooden, with no roof except for tarps and blankets draped above. Their former roof was in a tree a few hundred feet away, their toilet in pieces in the yard. Nine people will sleep here.
The family stayed in their old home as long as they could bear it, until it was clear the typhoon would rip everything away. Then they linked arms against the wind and ran to the nearby evacuation center. When they returned, little was recognizable.
“If I had money I’d build a new home,” Verdida said. “But there’s no money.”
Galarion, a bookkeeper at a manufacturing plant, is the only one of her relatives with a steady job.
I asked whether the aid was enough. Volunteers from across Cebu have been packing goods and shuttling them north. On the way up we saw a taxicab with its back seat stuffed with cardboard boxes. An Israeli medical team is providing help in everything from delivering babies to treating cataracts and removing cysts. Hand-painted signs along the road say things like “TY For Your Help.”
Verdida smiled, nodded. Each day they receive a plastic bag filled with goods like rice, sardines, corned beef. There’s a well for water, fallen bananas in the yard. They’re making do.
“They have no place to go,” Galarion explained. “They just want to die here, because this is their only land.”
That indomitable Filipino spirit, born too often of necessity.
But everyone is playing a part. Before we left, my cousin pressed a few bills, about $23 U.S., into Verdida’s hand.
Enough to keep them going just a little while longer.