RP'S  TYPHOON  BELT:  THE  LONG  JOURNEY  HOME

MANILA
, DECEMBER 19, 2006 (STAR) By Eden E. Estopace - The camera does not lie but it is also an editor. Its view is encompassing but its gaze is selective, focusing on human drama where it is most intense.

And so when tons of volcanic ash and boulders cascaded down the slopes of Mayon Volcano at the height of typhoon Reming and met the rampaging current from a swolen river as wind and rain lashed at towns and cities, lenses recorded the devastation, affirming through images the master narratives of disaster reportage–corpses washed away or crushed by tumbling concrete, bodies and belongings tossed out of homes by a tempestuous wind or pinned to the ground by a vengeful earth.

What the professional lens couldn’t fit in its viewfinder or grasp with its high-tech filters is the much larger grief of being a victim of nature’s wrath way too often. Besides hosting one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the region is also situated at the southernmost tip of Luzon and right in the middle of the country’s typhoon belt.

How Bicolanos survive the Remings and Milenyos year after year, each time sustaining heavy loss even in the age accurate weather forecasts, is something for the experts to ponder. But in this most recent catastrophe, coming as it did in the era of global communications, the outside world has become a voyeur to a very private, though routine, grief.

When we started packing for a trip to Sorsogon on the morning of Nov. 29, the weather bureau had already spotted a brewing typhoon 270 kilometers east of Virac, Catanduanes, moving northwest at 190 kilometers per hour with maximum sustained winds of 225 kph. Technically, it is stronger than typhoon Milenyo, which battered Metro Manila in October with winds of up to 165 kph.

Having been away from the old hometown for such a long time, the weather bulletin has ceased to be a factor in our daily routine. The old folks at home used to take storm signals very seriously, as if it were a matter of life and death, which it really is.

When the all the bags were packed and the van was ready to leave at around 9 p.m. in Manila, a text message from a cousin warned us not to push through with the trip as typhoon Reming (international code name: Durian) was about to make landfall in Catanduanes, then to Albay and the Camarines provinces. We’d be directly in the path of the storm.

But this was not a leisure trip. My mother, who lives 600 kilometers south of Manila, collapsed due to congestive heart failure with complications of pneumonia earlier that day. She was 79 years old, bedridden for months and was barely recovering from a hip fracture. Every second counts. If we start out at 9 pm, we’d be lucky to reach Sorsogon City at 9 or 10 am the following day. Postponing the trip means spending the night in agony in the close embrace of friends and relatives while my mom fights for her life alone.

By 11 pm all communications were cut off. We booked flights for the following day, but all were cancelled as the super typhoon hit Catanduanes and Albay. We waited as Reming battered the region the whole day, roaming throughout Bicolandia with intense winds and heavy rains. By the time the howler subsided in late afternoon, all the roads to Sorsogon were declared not passable and even the bus trips were cancelled.

Without television footage or newspaper reports, one can’t begin to imagine the devastation wrought by a super typhoon, although years of experience tell us what to expect as we drove south on the morning of Dec. 1. Collapsed bridges, fallen trees and electric posts scattered along the highway, trucks and cars thrown into rice fields and houses flattened to the ground are the norm after a typhoon.

But when we reached the boundary of Quezon province and Camarines Sur in Tagkawayan town shortly before dusk, we knew that we were in for the worst journey we’ve ever made. Upon entering Del Gallego town in Camarines Sur, the cellphone signal went out; like the rest of Bicolandia, we were incommunicado.

From Del Gallego to Sorsogon is a seven-hour drive along the Maharlika and Andaya (formerly Quirino) highways on a normal day. On a dark, windy evening right after a storm, it may take forever.

On an uphill climb towards Ragay, the rain started to pour. The assault on the windshield, exacerbated by a thick fog, reduced visibility to almost zero. It was only 5:30 in the afternoon but the forbidding gloom and darkness made it seem like close to midnight. Through 100 kilometers of bad roads with no sign of life or other vehicles, we crept along until Tara town in Sipocot, which is the end of the Andaya highway, three hours later.

It was only the beginning. From Sipocot all the way to Naga City, no restaurants or gasoline stations were open, not even a faint glimmer of candles inside badly battered houses and buildings. The road, as we expected, was littered with debris. Electric posts littered the highway, still entangled in loops of power cables and wires.

Vehicles negotiated the roads with the aid of young men and older children guiding each vehicle out of the mess in exchange for a few coins. In the absence of early warning devices, fires were lit to warn motorists of road blocks or detours.

We left Manila in a hurry and in a messy state of mind, so we had few coins to spare. It was like an obstacle course and after each hurdle, we could only drop a one-peso or five-peso coin in the bucket for those who were shivering in the rain in the dead of night to help us pass. Yet even the clink of the lonely coin in an almost empty bucket drew loud cheers and profuse thanks from the road volunteers.

Somewhere in Camarines Sur on the way to Albay, we passed by an open gasoline station. The gasoline boy lost no time in telling the tale. In rapid, almost breathless Bicolnon (the local dialect) he said there were 500 people dead in Albay due to landslides but bulldozers were already on the highway clearing roadblocks so that small vehicles like ours can pass, but trucks and buses had to wait.

Just before entering Albay, we had to queue for half an hour as a fire truck lifted an uprooted tree clogging an intersection. Moving on, the roadblocks were increasingly more difficult to negotiate until we reached Camalig town where huge piles of soil, big boulders, tree trunks and other debris were piled like little hills on both sides of the highway. Houses were buried in mud and there were no signs of life except for road repairmen and citizens managing the traffic flow.

On a normal day, that particular stretch of road is abuzz with activity even towards midnight, famous for the stalls that sell pinangat na gabi and other pasalubongs. You can buy pili nut candy, pastillas and mazapan de pili and other Bicolano sweets elsewhere but it is only in this part of town where you can buy take-home pinangat, cooked abundantly in coconut milk, hot and spicy to warm your heart.

That little store we used to frequent was no more, windows were broken, roof blown away and the roll-up door badly twisted. We drove slowly through dried mud and boulders, staring in disbelief at the massive destruction.

At the intersection in Daraga where the road divides–one going to Legazpi City and the other one going to Sorsogon province–the super typhoon not only battered buildings and structures but totally sucked the spirit out of the place. What was once a thriving crossroads is blanketed by an eerie stillness with a only few men passing the night on the road. We reached Sorsogon City past midnight and collapsed in exhaustion.

In the next few days as we camped out in the hospital watching over my mom, the news of what really happened came in, first in trickles then in successive spurts, all unverified–fact and fiction, real news and rumor intermingling in the absence of any professional media report. The region was entirely cut off from the rest of the country as power and communications lines were down.

While the whole world watched in synchronized horror at this latest tragedy to hit the region, majority of Bicolanos were unaware of the magnitude of the disaster, nor the breadth of the international aid pouring in in the first few days after the storm.

But the tragedy is in the heart because both the dead and the survivors have names and faces–they are neighbors’ sons and daughters, friends of friends, relatives of relatives and co-workers, past acquaintances. In the traditional matrix of provincial life, the ties that bind are deep and everybody is connected to everybody, even better than Friendster.

While the attention is focused on the province of Albay, the rest of the region also bore the brunt of the rampage. Sorsogon itself was still recovering from typhoon Milenyo. In fact, electricity was fully restored only a few weeks back. In Catanduanes, which received the first salvo of Reming’s fury, thousands were homeless and in need of food aid.

But the people were too busy trying to rebuild their lives, worrying about where their next meal would come from, trying to find their dead or lost kin, and picking up the pieces as best as they could to even find the time to mourn yet another loss.

On the morning of the first working day after the disaster struck (which happened to be a payday), people made a beeline to the nearest ATM machine, only to be turned away because there was no electricity to power the machines and computers, the networks were down, the banks and remittance centers did not have cash. The other half of humanity lined up at the few establishments with generators to charge their phones for a fee even though cellphone signals had yet to be restored. Others lined up to avail of free calls or to ask for help.

On the way back to Manila after my mom was discharged from the hospital, we drove through the areas worst hit by the disaster, lengthening our travel time to more than 15 hours, losing our way once in Camalig where familiar landmarks had disappeared and passable roads were more chaotic than when we arrived.

Five days after the typhoon, rescue workers were still down at the Yawa River in Legazpi City digging among collapsed dormitories and boarding houses where hundreds of college students perished; the stench of decomposing bodies was all over town. I cannot bear to take photos of the ruins, ask questions or watch the rescue teams made a grim, last-ditch effort to find bodies. I’ve seen enough, more than enough to grieve a long time for my birthplace, probably the only place I’ll ever call home.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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