Twice Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III pointed at a torn piece of iron sheeting laced against a bare tree, focusing on it in a vista where everything else around him was utter loss. Aquino paid a perfunctory visit to the devastated town of Guiaun Sunday, nine days after Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) made landfall here, sitting at a briefing table with a few of his cabinet members under an awning in the noon heat beside the carcass of the town hall.
It was as if he had come here as an afterthought. Many of Guiuan’s 47,000 people have begun to slowly come out of the shock of witnessing the fury of the early morning of November 8. The town that visitors had regarded as a paradise for its surfing beaches was beyond their imagination.
As Aquino spoke, an American military helicopter pattered across the distance with its familiar whup-whup-whup, ferrying relief goods– although nothing was supposed to be moving at the airport while the president was here – in the fresh hope provided by several foreign countries that have seen in this part of the Visayas a testament of nature’s potent power.
The president was bothered by that piece of iron slung there – it might fall. It should be taken down, he said, in a message that seemed to tell people they ought to start picking up their lives. And the shorn coconut trees, perhaps those he had seen from his own helicopter looking down on a dead landscape, they could be cut and split in half for lumber, material that could be used to rebuild homes.
Empathy seemed to have been lost on him, detached as he was by the cord strung about the perimeter that kept a few dozen people at bay. He was holding back his anger, too, that he’d "just suffer through it with an acidic stomach," which we have been familiar with since Yolanda’s outcome. He was angry at local officials who had not prepared for this, what he had first seen in Tacloban City.
But here in the tiny town of Guiuan, which hangs down from a peninsula off Samar, things appeared organized thanks to the mayor. who addressed him in between details as "my beloved President." The local government here received a nod for disaster preparation, and the faster they move on, the easier it will be for rehabilitation.
If Aquino had stayed longer and walked about the ruins, he might have seen another dimension of this disaster, a collective grief deeper than his anger, and got some idea how this might alter us and the world that has come to our aid.
He would have seen that the queue to the pumping wells had more people than the small crowd that wanted a glimpse of him, their valuables reduced to plastic water jugs and jerrycans; that many more were gathered across the street, under other trees with hanging debris and broken electric wires swung in all directions, at a temporary Smart cell site where people were making free three-minute calls to their loved ones of their fate in few words.
The weather machine stopped Far off to the east, at sea, was a US aircraft carrier lending a big hand, at roughly the same spot where the weathermen had seen the gathering storm. An engineer at the weather station tower on a nearby hill had known something terrible was on its way when the machine measuring atmospheric pressure had stopped. There had been other typhoons before, but this one he sensed was going to be a monster.
The predicted landfall arrived three hours later, the winds whipping the waves into a frenzy that gave rise to what we now know as a ‘storm surge’ -- something that Engineer Edgar Gutierrez lived to tell about as an adventure that may be possible only in the movies. The parabolic antennae flew off. The building, sturdily built by the Japanese, shook as if in an earthquake. The winds were sucking away his boss, close to dying until four of his staff pulled him back. The observation room was on fire and but the wind snuffed it out.
When it was all over, "Guiuan was wiped clean," Guiterrez said. There were no trees and they couldn’t see the sea. The vista was a white haze.
Victims of 'maling akala' Just days before, Guiterrez’s neighbors were mocking him when he was sealing his louvered glass windows with coco lumber – the kind that the President said could be made out of the windswept coconut trees that had served as Guiuan’s livelihood in copra (apart from fishing). He had made one room of his house of solid concrete, like a bunker, where his family would hide in safety. His pregnant wife gave birth four days later to a healthy baby, in the one portion of the hospital that remained functional.
How could the people of Guiuan not have known this was going to happen, despite the warnings? Every year of their lives they’d known what to do, which school to evacuate to during the weather alerts. But the day before Yolanda arrived had deceived them. The sun was shining splendidly, to the point that people thought an approaching super typhoon was another ruse, as they had experienced in the past. That’s why the engineer’s neighbors thought he was being a fool.
"In my mind, I said, 'go ahead, laugh at me.' Tomorrow we shall see," Gutierrez said.
He had proof to show that he’d been wise protecting his home properly.It was the only one in his community spared from the typhoon. Others had listened to him when he told them what to pack for such an emergency, what food to keep sealed in plastic bags. Most people would say afterward that hiding in the bathroom or under the kitchen sink saved them.
"People die by thinking it might not be because they’ve got used to it. They’re victims of that, maling akala. They say prayers will do, but the time for that is over when you have this to face. What they don’t know is that this is the time of punishment," in the sense, he said, that nature was fighting back against our abuse and ignorance.
If the President had listened to the tales of the people, he could have wondered what it was like to hear the sound of the wind piercing their ears at a ferocious strength that tore off their roofs, bent the strongest steel, crushed everything in its path, sent people flying off to their deaths.
In Guiuan, he could watch them sitting outside their homes, what’s left of them in a dramatic, numbing version of nature’s apocalyptic designs.
This time, school buildings weren’t enough protection. People went there because it was the only place they’d considered a shelter, not realizing that it might just be as flimsy as their homes. Others had gone to the gym, which fell on them. Those who died couldn’t have a decent burial; they were wrapped in plastic sheets and buried in their backyards amid the rubble. The mayor’s death count was 102; during his briefing to the President, it went down to 99.
"Here’s our proof that we don’t play with nature," said a a 60-year-old elementary school principal, Baby Gaytos. For as long as she could remember, houses have never collapsed, with the exception of nipa huts built near the coast. The schools canceled classes and practiced drills and even then, "our preparation was no match to the wind," she said. In the aftermath she and her husband used up most of their savings to send search teams to Tacloban City to search for their son. He survived.
Flickering candles The foreigners have arrived, first setting up tents in what used to be the Rural Health Center. The French firemen attached covers to make a roof. Emergency doctors, psychologists, assistants from the New York Medics and Medecins Sans Frontieres began taking in patients, growing to as many as 700.
On the day the President came to town, the worst that had happened was a man who fell off his motorbike, his face badly injured, and an eight-year old girl whose head was cut by the sharp edge of a trunk, requiring sutures. Because she didn’t cry, she received pats for courage, with an American doctor remarking that "if this had been in America, she’d be bawling."
According to the police, Eastern Samar’s toll was 245 dead and 44 missing, not in a scale as large as its neighbor, Leyte province. About 120 police were sent from Central Luzon to try to restore order in the ensuing panic and mayhem, during which a supermarket security guard was stabbed to death in the looting, but people say those responsible were from other towns. A curfew was put in place from 8 pm until 5 am.
The prisoners in the police station jail – which was next door to the town hall where the President had gone to and left in no time – didn’t use the opportunity to escape. Two floors above them the new police chief superintendent sat at his desk, smoking and talking to his men in a blue PULIS t-shirt, behind him a large rectangular void of what was a window whose metal grills were snatched out by the storm.
In the breezy evenings before curfew, the station was the center of life, where electricity powered by a generator could allow people to charge their cell phones. The chattering young girls huddled together seemed to be making life after Yolanda bearable. The boys sat on broken tree trunks smoking, told to disperse by police patrols at curfew. It was strange to be saying, "go home," when home was a skeleton of one wall standing or thin scaffolding shaded by mats or tarpaulins.
At night, in the darkened streets lit only by the full moon, Guiuan appeared like the silhouette of a junkyard. There would be flickers of candles in a few hushed homes, and further out of the town you’d see an old frail man walking in a plastic raincoat.
"I tell them they’re lucky," said police superintendent Federico Castro, "they came out of this better for being religious." That somehow in God’s given way, resilience became the mark of the Filipino people in the eyes of the world outside.
They walked to the crumbled centuries-old church for the Sunday Mass, the priest celebrating it in the local Waray language, putting humor into his homily before his followers gathered outdoors in the sunset. They came in their best clothing, as good as they could find. They were in tears laughing at the priest’s jokes -- the coping mechanism of a people in a town where he grew up.
He’d never seen so much devastation, he said, but the people of Guiuan would rise. They know what it’s like in a small town where electricity came not so long ago, in the 1980s. Just to show how they can recover, the market has seen vendors selling bananas, some vegetables, chunks of pork. Behind the church, children played volleyball. Night falling, two trucks bearing fish from Maguindanao rolled through town, all for the folks to take home with them for supper.
The priest, Father Andy Egargo, didn’t believe the trauma would run deep.
“This has made all of us equal, the rich and the poor. Before it was only the poor that suffered in the typhoons.” He was being optimistic when he estimated it would take roughly five to ten years to rebuild this town. That’s about the length of time it would take for new coconut trees to grow.
Copyright Criselda Yabes