She came, expected.
Even before she made landfall, we knew her by name. She is Yolanda, forecasted to be the strongest cyclone to hit the country this year. Days before she arrived, we braced ourselves for impact – nine areas in the Visayas were immediately placed under signal no. 4, classes were suspended, forced evacuations enforced . Three C130s, 32 airplanes and helicopters from the Air Force and 20 Philippine Navy vessels were on stand by. Philippine Red Cross was on high alert and has started packing relief goods for 15,000 families expected to be affected by the typhoon. Rescue equipment, rubber boats, generator sets, fuel, and vehicles were at the ready for possible operation or deployment. On November 7, President Aquino issued a statement aired on national television, emphasizing the seriousness of Yolanda and urging the people not to take chances. He asked for cooperation from everyone and called on that age-old Filipino tradition of ‘bayanihan’ saying: “Alam nating walang bagyong maaaring magpaluhod sa Pilipino kung tayo’y magbabayanihan,” (No storm can bring the Filipino to his knees as long as we help each other.)
Had those words been uttered by another leader in another country, they would have sounded more ominous and would have carried more weight. But this is the Philippines, where we eat typhoons for breakfast and drink floodwater for tea. Each year, we are host to an average of nine tropical storms on land, with ten more entering our waters. In 1993 alone, a record of 19 cyclones battered our coastlines. We have survived Ruping (1990), Uring (1991), Frank (2008), Ondoy (2009), Juan (2010), Sendong (2011), and Pablo (2012). And through it all, we manage to smile. We wave at the cameras from the top of our roofs while the rest of our house is submerged in water. We flash the ‘OK’ sign even as we are waist-deep in flood. We have, dare I say, acquired an almost charming cockiness towards typhoons. Signal no. 4, you say, Yolanda? Bring it on!
Yolanda made initial landfall on Eastern Samar on November 8, 2013 at 4:40am and did she bring it on. Sustained winds of 315 kph (195 mph) and gusts as strong as 380 kph (235 mph) made it the strongest recorded cyclone in the history of the world. The aftermath was heartbreaking: thousands, nay, ten thousands feared dead or missing, millions displaced, millions more left without a means of livelihood. Children snatched from their parents’ arms, coastal towns erased from the face of the earth, cities trampled to pieces like blocks of Lego. A government crippled, a people in despair. By the time Yolanda finished with us, we were on our knees, weeping.
In the face of such calamity, we expressed grief in different ways. Some organised relief operations in silence, others harnessed – perhaps a little too enthusiastically – the power of social media to spur people to action. Some donated under the cloak of anonymity, others announced every donation and solicitation for the world to hear. Some raised funds, others volunteered precious time and effort. And then, there are those who ranted.
They ranted when Korina Sanchez dared to contradict CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s reportage on the apparent lack of government presence in Tacloban five days after Yolanda hit (a statement he later denied making). They criticised the government’s perceived unpreparedness for the typhoon and complained about its slow response to the crisis. They ranted some more about Korina Sanchez’ Rated K slippers, Jejomar Binay’s marked relief goods bags, politicians advancing their own political agendas in the guise of helping others. They ranted against news of imported relief goods allegedly being switched to local ones before distribution to the needy. But most of all, they ranted about President Aquino, his perceived ineptness, insensitivity, and weakness. Oh, how they ranted and complained and criticised. How they raged.
In different circumstances, I would have raged with the best of them. Some of these, after all, are important issues that have plagued our country for so long. But in the aftermath of Yolanda, in the midst of such horrific destruction, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t muster an ounce of anger towards these self-serving politicians, our corruption-ridden government, our perceived incompetent President. I couldn’t even care less about Korina’s slippers or Jejomar Binay’s conspicuous relief goods bags. To me, it seemed inconsiderate- selfish, even- to indulge one’s ire when so many lives have been lost, when so many are suffering, when the whole world is mourning.
And so, I decided to seek out the positive and uplifting- quite unusual for a realist like me. I watched as the the world opened its arms and cradled our ravaged country in its embrace. I listened to stories of hope from my friends who had the privilege of physically helping our kasimanwas in the battered towns of Batad, Balasan, Ajuy, Estancia, and Capiz. I laughed at anecdotes that exemplify our resilience and humor, such as the lady who coyly asks a volunteer:’Ma’am kon pwede tani, tama na nga sardinas? Luncheon meat naman…’ (‘Ma’am, can we have a break from sardines? Maybe luncheon meat next time?). I chuckled when I saw plackards with the words “We need house and lot and car and swimming pool” replace those with the more desperate “We need food and water”. I knew then that somehow, in some way, we will rise above this tragedy. Somehow, the Filipino people will come through. And for the first time, I feel a patriotic tingle course down my spine- quite unusual for an avowed expatriot like me.
And this, I believe, is what Typhoon Yolanda really left behind, more than the destruction and grief, the suffering and mourning. She left a nation in tatters and its people in despair. But she also left them stronger, more resilient, with a clearer awareness of who they are as a nation. I fervently hope that such new-found knowledge and strength would one day push them to reach for something they so deserve – a transparent government that exists for all and not just the chosen few.