FEBRUARY 18, 2014:
I am surrounded by green, leafy trees, situated atop a hill overlooking the city of Cebu. Within enclosure provided by the walls of the Betania Retreat House, everything is peaceful. The sun is shining, and I’m breathing easily. Presently in the Queen City of the South for my annual retreat, the peace and quiet allows me to look back at a different time, in a different place, and in a situation that is totally different from the one that I find myself in a little more than a hundred days ago, along with millions of other people, I suddenly found myself in the eye of the storm- a super typhoon to be exact- one which proved to be the strongest in recorded history. Ripping through the Central Philippines, it left behind a trail of death and devastation unparalleled in the history of Leyte and its towns and cities. But the terrifying and destructive forces of both wind and water which the super typhoon Haiyan (locally named Yolanda) unleashed merely served as the first act to the drama of pain and anguish that took place afterward. The terror of the violent winds and the powerful surge of water quickly gave way to the terrible aftermath of the calamity, wherein, bereft of homes and even the most basic necessities, we had to make the gargantuan effort of learning to stand up once again. To this day I clearly distinguish the experience of Yolanda from its aftermath; both were terrifying, but I believe that it was the aftermath- and coping with it- that was the hardest part. The story that I am about to share is a story of the wrath of nature at its worst. It is not my own story that I am recounting, though I have a part in it, but the story of a people. Our story is one of terror and pain, that of loss and devastation, of desolation and the temptation to lose hope. The story of the Yolanda survivor is one of what nature can do at its worst. But it is also the story of what man can do at his worst, it shows that he can be, as the Roman thinker Pautus once expressed, a wolf to his fellowman.
However, over and above all, surviving Yolanda is a story of faith, of hope, of love, and--above all--of salvation. It shows that the light does shine in the darkness, and that man could be at his noblest even in the most adverse conditions. It is a story of grace.
NOVEMBER 7, 2013:
THE LAST GOLDEN AFTERNOON
|The High School Building, November 7, 2013. Windows had been closed shut in anticipation of the typhoon|
|Sacred Heart Chapel, on the eve of super typhoon Yolanda.|
The grounds were silent and tranquil; everything seemed to be in repose. Everything seemed to be still; even nature seemed to have stopped breathing. But we all knew the reason for the calm; we all knew that it was literally the calm before the storm, Haiyan (more locally known as Yolanda). Throughout the week we have received warnings and instructions concerning the approaching storm. The bulletins and news agencies were reporting (and warning) us that this was to be an exceptionally strong typhoon, the likes of which have yet to be seen and experienced, with winds more than 200 km/p (back then I believe that the forecast only gave up to more than 200. I, like many others, didn’t place a lot of attention on these warnings. We were accustomed to strong typhoons. Nonetheless, this didn’t mean that we didn’t prepare. People were bracing themselves for the approaching storm. The queues in the groceries and stores were of people who were stocking their cupboards and fridges with food and provisions. Houses were being propped up, especially the flimsy dwellings of poorer folk. I myself in the seminary had given instructions to the high school seminarians before they left to close the windows of their dorms in anticipation. There seemed to be no special urgency that could be observed among the people prior to landfall. The week before – and in fact, the afternoon of Thursday prior to the storm – the weather was hot. The weather could never have been better.
But I myself somehow began to feel a sense of foreboding about the perfect weather and how it seemed to contrast sharply with the dire forecasts from various weather bureaus from the world over. Up until Thursday evening we were joking as to whether Yolanda would finally arrive or not, the weather being perfect. On Thursday morning people were riveted to their television sets, attuned to the news, - not because of the typhoon, which by that time had entered into the PAR (Philippine Area of Responsibility), Haiyan had become Yolanda- but because another woman was being grilled in the Senate:Janet Napoles, who was answering to charges of graft. The interrogation was well-publicized, and occupied the attention of the general public. Not much was gleaned from the hearing, at least from Napoles, who was at least consistent in her refusal to answer to the questions based to her, always invoking her right not to respond.
In the afternoon, I made one final check of the high school building, making sure that all the doors and windows were closed and locked (which proved to be a bad idea, as things would later come to show). As I had already mentioned, the afternoon was just perfect: clear, blue skies, warm afternoon light being reflected on all the panes of the closed windows of the High School building. For many of these windows, this would be the last time they would catch and reflect the light of the setting sun.
Looking back at that golden afternoon a hundred days back, there is one thought that makes me melancholic: for many people, that beautiful afternoon was to be their last. Many children who played then were not to play anymore; friends were taking their leave of each other, not knowing that it was going to be their final goodbye in this world.
By late afternoon the skies had darkened; dark ominous clouds began to cover us bringing with them the first drops of rain. With them, the final preparations for the storm were being put into place. Local and foreign media men began taking up their positions. ABS-CBN’s Golden boy Atom Araullo established himself in Tacloban City, to the delight of his fans and admirers; Jiggy Manicad and Love Anover set up camp in Palo, right outside of the Cathedral. Even CNN sent one of its own, Anderson Cooper, to provide news coverage. I remember somebody commenting on Facebook, saying that if CNN had already sent one of their very best, then this must be one heck of a storm. I confess that it gave me a sense of foreboding. Whoever said that was right.
It began to drizzle in the early evening. Many people have been compelled to go to the evacuation centers, but most preferred to stay where they were. At about 7:00 pm there was a strong gust of wind. “Yolanda has finally come” people began to say. But it was brief, and nature lapsed once more into stillness and quiet.
At dinner that evening, Fr. Rex Ramirez, the Rector, commented that the Cathedral Rector had asked him about the possibility of us sheltering some evacuees at the seminary auditorium. I responded that while it had been done various times in the past, we welcomed people as evacuees already on the aftermath, but not usually before and during any calamity, this at least in recent history. Fr. Rex was okay with that. On hindsight that decision saved many lives. While still at table I called my mom back home. Our home is situated about a stone’s throw away from the seminary walls, a bit nearer to the river. Our house was built on a higher ground level, at a safe distance from the coast; it was a place that no flood water had ever reached. On the eve of the super typhoon, there seemed to be no cause for alarm. I asked my mom on the phone whether she would like to evacuate to the seminary, and wait it out with us. I told her that she and my sister Ivy would be lodged in the guest room, which I fondly call the “Werner Suite”, because it’s where a good friend of the seminary, Fr. Werner Ludescher, an Austrian priest, would usually stay whenever he came to visit. “Is there Wi-fi and a TV there?” my mom gamely inquired. “No, it’s only a room”, I replied, “Then I would prefer to stay at home”, she said, laughing. But she assured me that both she and my sister were going to be okay.
After dinner I returned to the High School Building, to my room. Before going to bed I continued to monitor the situation from the news and via Internet. I had previously contacted the formators who had accompanied the seminarians in order to know how they were, so as to assure some of the parents who had either called or sent me text messages inquiring about the safety of their sons. I posted bulletins in Facebook concerning the seminary and the seminarians. The Napoles show over, netizens had turned their attention to Yolanda, and the social networking sites were replete with netizens wishing people well and reminding them to be safe and secure. There was plentiful info about the strength of the typhoon, and I could sense a real growing concern about it. But that night I slept well, secure in a building that had withstood all kinds of storms for more than fifty years.
NOVEMBER 8, 2013:
AT THE MERCY OF THE WINDS
I woke up at 4 in the morning, well-rested and alert. The gale was already blowing against the windows and I could see the trees swaying to it. I guess a lot of people were already up and about by that time. I turned on the TV, tuning in to the news. I was also tuned in to Facebook. After donning a pair of khaki shorts and a white jacket I went out of the room to begin my watch. At that time I wasn’t especially concerned: I had awakened to watch a strong typhoon pass through, and that was it. I made a final check of the windows in the dorms. I re-entered my room to light the oil lamp in my prayer corner, went out, and positioned myself at the head of the stone stairs, which gave a very good view of the seminary grounds and the adjacent main chapel. I noticed Fr. Rex walking through the corridors as I went down the stairs. The wind was steadily growing stronger, and for the first time I began to feel anxious. In Facebook relatives and friends began to ask me how I was. My anxiety grew as I began to make out the situation of the Chapel roof, which had started to peel away around the edges. I sent the update via Facebook. Text messages from some parents began to arrive, and I tried to contact the group in Merida, to no avail. I had lost track of time by then, and I realized that I had been up by almost more than a couple of hours already. It was already past six in the morning, and the winds had increased in the ferocity. Suddenly, the power went out; As I observed how that wind bent and shook the trees I realized that I had never remembered the wind behave so violently before. I tried calling my mom on the phone, but she didn’t answer. As I was trying to contact her, I was pacing the length of the lobby of the second floor of the building. Then, a few minutes before the clock struck seven, my phone rang. It was my mom.
“How are you two doing?” I yelled at the phone. My mom on the other end was already sobbing, and she talked as if she was running from one part of our house to another. “Mark, our roof just got blown away. I’m scared”, “Try to go to Tita Lilah!” I answered, thinking that it would be safer for them to be with more people, who lived just across the street from our place. I continued, “Get hold on something! Just hold on!”
“There’s nothing to hold on to anymore!” My mom sobbed. My heart froze. I understood at that moment that my family was in a very vulnerable decision, and there was nothing I could do to save them. Perhaps it was at this moment that everything I did began to have a sense of desperation. Everything I did, I did because it may be the last time that I might be able to do it. Not wishing to suffer an eternity of regret, I said that which may have been my last farewell to my mother “Mommy, I love you!” Barely had the words escaped from my lips when line went dead. At that moment, all cellular coverage in Leyte and Samar were cut off, and we were virtually incommunicable, not only to the rest of the world, but even to each other, Each of us felt alone, disconnected from anybody else. It was about seven o’clock in the morning.
I now found myself alone and trapped in a huge edifice being rocked by violent winds. Minutes before the power event off, I received an update that the wind velocity had increased from 260 km/h to 315 km/h, a speed unparalleled in recorded history. I was stunned to find myself in the middle of a maelstrom of wind, water and debris. The wind velocity increased all of a sudden, and Yolanda came with all her fury. The sound of the violent, rushing wind was comparable to that of a plane’s reverse engine in close range, so loud I couldn’t even hear myself shout. The air was swiftly becoming dense, such that there was absolutely zero visibility.
|November 8, 2013: The last photo that I took from my phone before I finally took cover. The chapel is barely visible.|
Leaning against the wall, I could feel the whole building shaking violently, rocked by the wind that was not just howling, but rather shouting into my ears. It felt as if the whole seminary was trapped inside one gigantic tornado. I could heat the wooden beams on the third floor crashing against each other. The sound of shattering glass was horrible. I kept on praying aloud, thinking how comforting it would have been if i had somebody with me, hear somebody else's voice other than my own. The wind's violent fury escalated and so did its implacable roar. "Please Lord make it stop!" I shouted to the wind, bringing my hands to my ears, "Husto na gad, kalooyi kami pastilan!" (Have mercy on us and make this stop).
Terrified and alone, I realized that I could be living through my last moments here on earth. I could die at any moment; the whole building could come crashing down, or I could get pinned down by the stairs above me. To be truthful, I didn’t know what might happen next. The only thing quite certain was I was staring at death in the face. So this is how it ends, I thought to myself. This is how I’m going to die, in the middle of a super typhoon. Had I been in the company of another priest, I would’ve made my confession, or asked for absolution straight away. But I was alone. Alone in dark room at the heart of a shaking edifice, drenched and cold to the bone, I crouched down and prayed, making an act of the presence of God. Looking back, I was surprised about how calm I became during those moments. It was only for a brief moment, and yet it seemed to stretch, me before God, asking for his forgiveness, seeing my life and priesthood pass before my eyes. It was as if my mind stopped paying attention to the chaos outside, and focused on the presence within and before me.
It was only like a split second, and then it was over. I became aware of the roaring winds once again, felt the trembling of the structure through the wooden post that I held on to. I clambered up on the wall onto a small opening that gave me a partial view of the chaotic world putside of my my miserable refuge. After that brief moment of surrender, I felt more purposeful, stronger, not yet totally certain that I would live through the storm, but at least calmer and more methodic. I was peering above the shoulder of an image of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, which seemed unaffected by the tumultuous wind before and beyond it. One of the doors of the second floor High School building was gone; another was still in the process of being ripped from its hinges by the relentless wind. Horrified and fascinated at the same time, I saw how the wind pulled the heavy wooden door straight up from its hinges and hurl it against the far wall by the staircase. I heaved a sigh of relief. At least that’s one less flying debris for me. But then what I saw beyond the doorpost took my breath away.
The wind had somewhat allowed for a certain visibility, and I saw something that left me a bit disoriented: where the quadrangle was, there was a raging sea. Waves were washing against the chapel walls, and had completely engulfed the base of the flagpoles, which were being mercilessly pitted against each other by the wind, which seemed to have no specific direction. I leaned out a bit more, and felt the driving rain against my face. It was like being hit with fine sand. Plus, it was salty. I kept on wiping my glasses and looked once again at the crazy scene before me. And then, my thoughts went from what was before me to my home, a few meters away from the seminary, but nearer to the sea. My mom and my sister Ivy were there the last time I talked with them.
The last time. The sea was beneath me, and with the salty rain hitting me, I turned my thoughts on them. Where are they? How are they holding on? Then a question came up: Are they still alive? As I looked on, I felt the scene before me distancing itself from me once again. You will have to accept that they are gone, I said to myself. At least it would make things bearable. Waves of regret threatened to take me down with them. I should’ve insisted on having them here with me last night…I should’ve went for them and brought them here with me.
But I chose to ignore those thoughts. What good is it for me to entertain them? If they’re gone, so be it. Regret would not bring them back to life, that is, if indeed they hadn’t survived the waves that had surely gone through our house.
But all was not yet lost. Clinging to slim hope, I began to pray for their safety. My hiding place was beginning to get flooded. Rain water was gushing down from the ceiling as the typhoon continued unabated and merciless in her fury. Things were floating on the floor. A small picture frame floating right up to the door of my hiding place. It was a picture of Blessed John Paul II, holding a telephone to his ear. I picked it up and propped it against the wall. I caressed it, feeling the smooth, slippery surface of the glass as I prayed to the saintly pope, soon to be canonized. Please take care of my family. Take care of my mom and my sister. Protect my brother and his companions. Save them from harm.
Gusts of wind continued to tear through the building. To my left, in one part of the dorm adjacent to the place where I was, the ceiling caved in, creating a waterfall, further flooding the second floor. I began to think of my brother Myko, who was in another location far from Palo, in a retreat house situated in the middle of a ricefield. If the Mommy and Ivy are dead, then I would be the only family he’s got left, I told myself. I was confident that he was still alive, compared to what I believed for my mom and sister.
The building continued to shake. I was concerned about how far the structure could take the beating of the fierce winds. Plus, I felt myself getting weaker, because of the cold. With my energy getting depleted, I needed to get something in order to replenish my waning strength. I remembered that a few days ago, I got a bag of chocolates from a stranger on my birthday, November 3. That Sunday I celebrated Mass at Robinson’s Place in Tacloban, and an appreciative person gave me those chocolates as a gift. But the bag was in my room, and I had to get out in order to get it. As I tried to get out, a really strong gust of wind propelled a long piece of tin roofing up the stairs. I rushed back to my hiding place and closed the door shut, just as the edge of the roofing clanged against it. It stayed there for some minutes, bucking like a wild bull, until another gust of wind pushed it to one side. The thing was like a wild animal, unpredictable and dangerous. When it had finally edged away, I took the chance and rushed out of the bodega, and made for my room. I was relieved to see it still intact. I reached inside my closet and found the bag of chocolates. Having made it back to my hiding place, I munched on some until I gradually felt my energy returning.
Yolanda continued to blow relentlessly, unabated in her fury. I have lost track of time, and I didn’t bother to look at my timepiece. At that time I was guessing that the structure—which had been battered by strong quakes and typhoons in her more than sixty-year existence—would have received more than it could take. I was eyeing the concrete staircase, thinking that in the eventuality of the building’s collapse, and no matter how strong the winds still are, I would run and take hold of the concrete bannisters. But the structure held on, and I stayed in the building until the typhoon run its course, and I was at last able to go out of my refuge. When I did so, I contemplate utter devastation, on a scale that was epic and truly catastrophic. It took a while before I was able to touch firm ground, since I had to walk over debris, tin roofing and wooden trusses from the building.
It is said that older generations used to make things so that they may last longer. Fortunately, that was the case of the High School building. Built under the SVD Fathers in 1957, it was meant to withstand the storms that would come hurtling through the Pacific, as well as the tremors that would shake the island. The foundations withstood the onslaught, but the winds have dealt mercilessly with the buildings. In the case of the High School building, it obliterated the whole roof, ripping its heavy wooden trusses from its walls and hurling it into the air. The surrounding area was littered with hard wooden beams. The whole third floor had its windows blasted out, its lockers and beds thrown against each other. Walls and partitions disappeared. The room of Fr. Francis Borja, just above mine, was completely obliterated. It was as if the whole floor had been one huge washing machine. I shivered to think what I would’ve seen if the seminarians had indeed been here.
|The Sacred Heart Main Chapel after the typhoon.|
|November 8, 2013, 1pm: The High School building, photo taken immediately after the typhoon,|
|Heavy wooden pews all bunched up together at one end of the chapel shows the force of the storm surge.|
I found the rest of the personnel there with the seminary fathers: Fr. Rex and Fr. Aaron Quilaneta, and Fr. Bryand Restituto. Fr. Bryand had the same solitary experience as mine, having been trapped in the College Building. There, taking refuge on the stairs, he witnessed the raging waters pass through the buildings, keeping a watchful eye on the iron chandelier as it swayed frenetically above him, and witnessing the beds and lockers as it was hurled from one dorm to another.
There were two other people there, people who loved in my own neighborhood. They had been washed into the seminary premises by the flood, and were without slippers. They looked dazed and cold. I inquired about my family, and they told me that they hadn’t seen them. Pangs of regret began to surge through me. Some theology seminarians came and asked if we were okay. They themselves had been inches away from death as the powerful surge of water went through their seminary, at the far end of the compound. Yet as soon as the waters receeded, these young men were the first to go to the aid of the neighboring houses, checking in on the people, and bringing them to the Patmos Clergy Retirement Home and to the Archdiocesan Chancery, which were instantly converted into evacuation centers. I asked them if they had by chance seen my mother and sister. They replied that they had not, but that if they ever saw them, they would inform me at once.
Going back to the High School building, I busied myself in getting supplies from my room and medical supplies from the first-aid cabinet. Without bothering to look for the key, I just smashed the glass of the case and took the supplies that I thought would be useful. I also took the bag of chocolates from my hiding place, and dry clothes from my room. Then I headed back to the refectory, which from then on would be the center of our lives for the coming weeks. I didn’t feel like going to our house to check on my family. I still wonder why it wasn’t foremost on my mind at that time, but then while I was at the refectory, a seminarian came running to tell me that Mommy and Ivy were already here. I immediately dropped everything and headed back to the High School building. When I saw then at the far end of the corridor, my heart almost burst with emotion and relief. Despite of the debris, we ran to each other’s embrace. It was an intense moment, and I held on to them both as if I would never let go.
|My mom and my sister, safe and dry in the seminary after their ordeal, |
photo taken on the afternoon of Nov. 8.