Typhoon Bopha: A tale of two stories
The numbers are staggering.
To begin with winds up to 250 kilometres per hour. Death toll now past 900 with over 600 people still unaccounted for. Aid agencies report that over 5 million people have been affected and are in need of help. Hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed with hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
And all that in just one country.
Among others, typhoon Bopha was expected to strike Cagayan de Oro on the northern tip of Mindanao island in the southern Philippines. This was where tropical storm Washi did the most damage around the same time last year, leaving at least 1,500 people dead.
This part of the country doesn't normally get such rain but the combination of global warming and environmental degradation had turned it into a disaster zone. Was Bopha going to be a sequel?
Panicked by the weather reports, and traumatised by Washi, thousands of people along its predicted path fled to evacuation centres days in advance. Government officials had been bleating out warnings, and preparing rescue and relief operations as well.
But that Tuesday morning, December 4th, Bopha altered its course slightly and didn’t quite hit around Cagayan de Oro as strongly as expected. Evacuees sighed with relief, everyone was safe. By evening, authorities were declaring their pre-emptive measures a success. There was only one reported casualty across Mindanao an elderly woman who was struck by a falling tree. "We were better prepared this time…," Cagayan de Oro resident Marilou Navarro said.
One of her children died when Washi struck, and she wasn't around then to protect her. Still in mourning, Marilou was determined not to lose any other members of her family. "You know how they say you feel it when your child is in danger? I didn't, I was asleep my daughter was dying and I was asleep…," her voice trailed off, the grief clearly etched on her face. "But we are all safe now…."
By the early hours of Wednesday though, the story had changed. Or rather, the true story had emerged. Northern Mindanao might have escaped Bopha's fury…but the southern part of the island had not.
The scenes across Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley in particular were almost indescribable. Entire communities were wiped out. Acres and acres of banana plantations were brought down. And the sturdy coconut trees looked like battle-weary and fallen soldiers, many ripped out by their roots. The incredibly beautiful landscape of this area of the Philippines looked as if a giant had played "pick-up-sticks" over it. Trees, wood, pieces of houses, all lay scattered haphazardly like limp confetti after a horrid parade.
And everywhere you looked there was mud. Heavy, thick, dark, layers and layers of mud.
But there was no disguising the smell of death and decomposing bodies that filtered out from underneath all that, it was overwhelming.
"In my entire life, never never have I experienced anything like this…" not one but all the survivors expressed similarly. And this had truly never happened here. "We didn’t even know what the typhoon warning meant…," 52-year old banana plantation worker Evangeline Roa said. "Typhoons always happen somewhere else not here, we don’t even understand what the warning signals mean…."
Evangeline and her family survived by hiding in the irrigation ditches around the banana fields. "Those ditches saved our lives…," she said.
Aside from the falling trees, what did the most harm were the metal sheets commonly used as roofing here. Bopha ripped them off houses and they sliced through the air like giant razor blades.
But it was his entire house falling on him that caused the big scar that now marks 10 year old Gerald Panal's face.
"We started to flee only when we could suddenly hear water rushing our way…but we didn't get out in time…," his mother Elisa explained. Her sisters who lived nearby came and helped them out of their ruined home. "Then we all lay on the street clinging to each other so as not to be separated should we be carried by the flood…." She is grateful they all survived. They were injured… but they're alive. So many others were not as fortunate. Floodwaters more than a metre high swept through many other communities leaving nothing in its wake.
The first few days after Bopha struck, survivors wandered around shocked and in a daze. When they found the energy to speak, they clustered around each other and traded muted stories of horror and fear. They had had to watch helplessly as their lives were turned upside down. Bodies were washed down rivers from the mountains in the distance. One community thought they were safe having no river nearby… but water from a lake atop the mountain suddenly poured over them like a mega-force waterfall with catastrophic effects.
All around cries for help were being overpowered by the sound of the wind. Even evacuation centres were destroyed.
"It's like a terrible dream…," a stunned local journalist said.
A terrible dream that survivors didn't let paralyse them for long.
Within days, these first-time typhoon victims took matters into their own hands and refused to just wait for help. They left over-crowded evacuation sites where they had had to fight for food and space…and from the debris, they built themselves shacks on the side of the road. Then they made signs asking for food and water from anyone passing by. Others salvaged what they could from the wreckage to survive.
Seven-months pregnant Josephine Cabagwasan and her friend Inday Bernales found a burst water pipe and offered to wash other survivors' mud-soaked clothing for a fee. It took the whole day just to do two batches and their arms were rubbed raw and wounded, but that would give them $15. "This is better than sitting around an evacuation centre doing nothing…," Josephine said. "At least this way we can earn some money and help ourselves…," Inday added.
Each and every survivor has a similarly distinct tale to tell. Of courage over powerlessness. Of hope in spite of despair. Of acceptance and moving forward, of grace amidst disaster.
There is something incredibly humbling about witnessing the ugly magnificence of undressed pain.
Each and every survivor has a tale to tell.
And "by the grace of God", as Bopha victims will tell you, fortunately, their numbers too are staggering.