The aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda and a 7.2 earthquake
After travelling from Hanoi to touristy trap UNESCO historical town Hue and Ho Chi Minh/Saigon, I decided to go home back to the Philippines where my journey began and decide on a plan to recuperate.
A week after I arrived, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck my city.
Just my luck.
It began on a clear morning. My bed started to shake. I had experienced some earthquakes before in my own city and in Chile. Usually the tremors lasted for a few seconds and stop. I waited for these to subside.
It never did.
It continued to shake getting stronger and stronger. The floor was vibrating like a trampoline with hundreds of people jumping on it. My things started falling on the ground. I could hear people wailing outside.
A slight certainty of death descended on me. When you are in the middle of a monstrous natural catastrophe, there is really nothing you can do but bow to the awesome might that is Mother Nature. From womb to tomb you return to her. You can’t do anything but submit. Whatever fierce spirit and determination I had to live vanished when I see no way out. The floor was dancing so badly that I could hardly stand. Get out and things might crash on me. If I’m lucky to get out, I have to watch out for massive falling debris and toppling electrical poles.
Either way there is a chance my 29 year old life cycle was coming to an end.
Yet I felt a strange chilly calm inside me like I would gladly welcome the warm embrace of death. Strange feeling standing a few feet away from a gaping precipice of uncertainty, just waiting to leap into the dark destructive white light of the unknown. It was the calmest I’ve ever been.
I grabbed my comforter to shelter me from falling glass and tearing cracks from the ceiling. Bracing myself I made my way to the kitchen. Should I die, I’d prefer to be with my family.
I found my mother huddled under our massive century dining table. She was chanting a litany of the novena, “My God, forgive us. Jesus, save us…”
Next to our table our two maids found shelter under the kitchen counter, wailing and cowering for their lives. Our pots and pans fell on the ground, porcelain plates and seasoning jars smashed on the floor leaving behind sharp crude shards and splashes of blood red powder.
I crawled under the table and covered my blanket over my mother’s head to shield it from any debris. Like a defensive cornered cat, she swatted it away and attempted to push me out of the table. “My table!” Later I learned that when she felt she was at the brink of death, her self preservation kicked in and it was every woman for herself.
Comforting thoughts from my very own mother.
I can’t really blame her. The next few days were filled with guilty prodding of abandoning her own children to save herself with her huffing in self defense that she couldn’t help it, that it was done in the centuries old instinct of self preservation. I certainly thought of my very own mother when I was about to die. And in the moment I was about to save her, she shoed me away.
When I thought the very earth was going to swallow us, the shaking stopped. We cautiously poked our heads above to survey the situation, breaths bating. Slowly the wailing stopped, our heartbeats slowed.
My brother came out of his bedroom where he had been busy trying to save his cologne bottles and his flatscreen T.V.
Funny what some people save when their lives are threatened.
We picked up the shattered pieces of our paraphernalia, of our collective sanity and tried to put them back. The worst of the earthquake was over…. For now.
In the days that followed, my city was plagued with aftershocks. Many a sleepless night, I woke up in a sweat as my bed was rocked. Flashbacks of that terrible earthquake happened and I waited, ready to lie flat next to my bed if it continued.
I also gathered stories from people during the quake. Some people gripped the nearest support column in their houses. Like Odysseus, they lashed their wrists around them while the sirens of the earthquake left vibrating lashes on their ceilings. Some huddled on the floor, praying. Some were walking with their families in the mall when it struck. Some tried to save their T.V.s and printers as if that had more of a price than their human lives. And Instagram was flooded with pics of selfies during the quake – trying to capture the last snapshot of their self egotistical emotional moments, perhaps hoping some historian would stumble upon them for their archives.
I wouldn’t count on it.
The earthquake’s epicenter was in Bohol, an island next to ours. A few days after the earthquake, somewhere in a remote village, the ground shook and cracked. It heaved and split its seams releasing the laborious languishing fumes of sulphur from deep within. Scientists were ecstatic to find the long rumoured fault that was the source of it all. Some businessmen have now turned it into a tourist attraction – creating profits from destruction.
Three weeks after while the aftershocks were dying and a random tornado happened to bust a mall, meteorologists found the seed of a tropical depression brewing in the West Pacific.
Tropical depressions are common. Usually many typhoons are born amidst the warm azure uterus of the Pacific, sprout into full brown raging storms and die out, never unleashing its full potential onto an unwilling public.
This was not the case.
Super typhoon Haiyan, to the meteorologists’ guilty delight would gather strength and intensity, sucking in the warm waters of the Pacific like crack, feeding on them like they were steroids. It would soon embark on a growing frenzy till it was a giant beast of a storm the size of my own country.
And what do you know it was heading our way to Central Visayas, Philippines.
I kept tabs on wunderground.com, checking out the status of this storm system. On Nov 4, it was still a Category 3 storm expecting to reach Cat 4 and then Cat 5, and diminish again to Cat 4 when it reached our country.
It was expected to make landfall on Nov 6.
It didn’t. It instead slowed down, gathering more power. It was already at Cat 5 gathering more strength from our warmer waters. We’ve never had a Cat 5 typhoon and our last Cat 4 storm was 1990. If it did hit us on Nov 6, it would be slightly weaker in intensity but would linger more and dump more rainfall on us, causing flash floods. If it hit us later, it would be at maximum strength with more devastating strong winds at 305 kph but would speed past us faster and with less rainfall.
So it was damn if it does, damn if it doesn’t.
Either way we were fucked.
Still the meteorologists were having a field day with this beautiful storm system. Our towns would be ravaged but I couldn’t help marveling at the satellite images, at this enormous rare beauty – the first of its kind in years. With one perfect eye and one long continuous sprawling arm, she was a ruthless monster and with no chance of slowing down. If there was a beauty pageant of storms, she’d win with her ice cold beauty and her rising iron intensity, a force to reckon with and no chance of slowing down till she unleashes her full potential at a country of 100 million.
She was going to make landfall at peak strength.
The few days before she lands, my city went on a buying panic frenzy. Shelves and pantries were emptied. People waited in line for two hours. All emergency precaution were underway. Towns in neighboring islands of Samar and Leyte were evacuated. The days before the storm hit, we all waited in anticipation of the destruction that was to come.
We couldn’t help but wait for the destructive inevitable. Our skies were calm before she came, the typical calm before the storm.
One thing I learned Nature isn’t choosy. Regardless of wealth, race, gender she destroys whatever is in her path.
On Nov 8 Haiyan/Yolanda arrived. She cut a swathe of devastation in the east coastal towns of Samar and Leyte – the first to be hit. The town of Guian took the brunt of Yolanda at her full intensity – Cat 5. Roofs were ripped apart from their frames to be tossed aside like unwanted scraps, bus stations were eschewed into flailing flapping strips of metal, people’s belongings were swept away by the mad current of floods and in the seaside, the tides roared and rose fifty feet with unbridled long overdue rage.
The day before Yolanda came, the calm was replaced by heaps of gray. Light rainfall came, the edges of her arm. The frontline arrived teasing us. In the morning at 9am, we were hit by her army’s full brunt force. Winds roared, loudly whistling – a maddening symphony in rising crescendo. Trees were bent to their roots. Needles of incessant rain lashed at us. The walls in the interior of our house shook. The glass window vibrated noisily threatening to break into shards. We were at the bottom of her arm, thankfully not receiving full intensity but still enough to get a taste of her brutal 200 kph winds.
I saw debris fly past us. Twirling barbed wire. A flapping tarp. I kept careful watch as the storm of the century swept past us. The winds gust at full strength, shrieking like banshees in short random bursts as if Haiyan was sucking in her breath and then spewing it all out at once. Our houses bowed and bent their heads to her incessant screaming. Some random fools walked out amidst lashing rain pulling out a pole stuck in a wire of campaign posters. An old man walked out of his building and blankly surveyed the catastrophic scene.
Amidst it all, we waited out the storm. Nothing much we can do. My parents slept. I did a few tasks on my to-do lists. We did everyday normal stuff like cooking while the 4th strongest cyclone roared by. At 12 noon, she diminished in intensity. We were past her destructive arm. She was en route to Iloilo. We were done. Finished. She found better things to do. More virgin towns to ravage.
Power and water were out so my family and I hauled our stored water supplies from downstairs. We also tried to catch the remaining diminishing scraps of Yolanda’s rainfall.
After her departure, a strange eerie calm settled on things. I hurried to finish tasks before darkness descends like people used to do in the pre-electricity days. Outside I gazed at the softly moving trees, the seemingly dozing households. My city was enveloped in total peaceful comforting darkness.
The Philippines was Yolanda’s magnum opus, her chance to wreck her symphony of obliteration, to make citizens cower in humility at her might. Haiyan became the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in the annals of world history.
Both earthquake and Haiyan made us see reflections of our mortality and we are humbled by it. When these natural catastrophes happen, things like our bills, the latest season of the Walking Dead, emails and everyday anxieties seem mundane to us. When our lives are threatened what can we do except embrace our loved ones and see it through.
I felt I had a lesson on what matters after such catastrophes. Sometimes my myopic vision zoom in on unimportant superficial stuff like an unforeseen charge on my credit bill,my next paycheck, getting a Schengen visa, changing dates on my flights. They suddenly puff into gigantic proportions and I knew I shouldn’t be hyperventilating on them.
Now after being in the middle of the violent undulating heaves of an earthquake and the 250 kph gusts of the most destructive typhoon, I know better. Sometimes it takes massive doses of Nature’s wake up call to make you wake up to what matters most.
And to me it is my writing, my family and my friends. And living a life with purpose, to living life on my own terms.
On that very same day, when our lives flashed before us, our eyes closed in surrender and we don’t know if we’ll wake up after. When I look at someone in my own city, I will see in his eyes – the same fear and hope that I once had. To know that at the very end–
Read how I lost my job in Vietnam, did marketing in Thailand, visited the hobbits in New Zealand and more in the Year of Change Series
Image credit: my photos and some among the Filipino Facebook network