Traveliries: Leyte Three Months After
The first thing I have noticed are the coconut trees.
My first absurdly hilarious thought was that they were all suffering from a terrible haircut, their leaves frozen in mid-air as if time had stopped and they are left in that state even when the world began to move around them. You can easily tell the direction of the strong winds when Yolanda came. And how everything remained the same even after she left.
Before Yolanda, my view of Leyte was through the traveler’s eyes, just like everyone else. There’s nothing in my mind but the McArthur Monument, the San Juanico Bridge, the bustling fish port, the laidback and seaside life that is so common with Visayan cities. These thoughts didn’t come to me when I landed to the typhoon-ravaged Leyte the very first time. There were no statements, just questions. Are people getting enough food? How are they recovering? How are they all coping?
What happens now?
Leyte, a simple place with beautiful pampas that stretched from miles and miles. How could a sweet place like this fell on the path of destruction that took so many lives?
But even if the coconut leaves remained frozen, the people continued living.
Shops and malls are opened. The port in Ormoc has become busy once again. The marketplace is bustling. The men are carting off construction materials for their homes. Everyone is moving on. The sky is clear, the sun is high, the clouds nowhere to be found…even the gummy tropical heat is mildly comforting because it’s familiar. Everything is normal. I could have been in any province of the Philippines.
Everywhere in Leyte bears the physical scars brought by Yolanda, even a hundred days after the Typhoon, yet people remained steadfast despite of it all, and I don’t think I could ever find a more resilient people.
I’ve been asking myself all throughout the ride. What do these people did to deserve Yolanda? Why such a high price to pay just for a ‘lesson learned’? In Leyte, there are more questions than answers. And as cheerful and steady the people are surrounding me, I still felt helpless as I ever did on the day Yolanda came to Samar and Leyte, sitting safe and sound inside my office far away in Manila while monitoring the latest updates. No powers of empathy can make you feel of the terror these people had gone through.
“It was a price we need to pay,” Juvs, our Waray host, said. “We have underestimated the storm and the surge it brought. We used to think that we were veterans when it comes to typhoons. One storm and it’s all back to normal. Until Yolanda. Now, even a tiny bit of rain can scare us all off.”
The wind was singing. One victim recounted. It was a shrill cry that would send shiver down your arms. It was the longest hour of our lives.
The memories, just like the coconut leaves, would remain frozen in their minds, haunting them when the sky begins to cry. Embedded in their lives. The fear is constant, an ever-present spirit that haunts them whenever the sky is gray and pregnant with rain.
We passed a cemetery along the road. An unpleasant smell lingered all over the place, and beside the gate, an ancient Acacia tree, the once-mighty guard of the dead, has fallen. Yolanda didn’t left a stone unturned.
“We are sending aids.” I told them in a way of slightly uplifting their spirits. I wished they could have taught us in college what should we say to people who lost so much in one day. What will you say? You were not there when the storm came. In times of grief, sometimes, words are just not enough. “The whole world is focused on you. Everywhere in the world, they are all sending aids.” But for how long?
“Good, because many of us would rely on the relief goods for a very long time.” they smiled wryly. What I noticed about Warays, or Filipinos in general, is the way they squeeze in the humor out of otherwise life-threatening experiences. Before long, the harrowing orderal is buried by laughter over the stories of fake NPA attacks and oversized shrimps that offered them a magnificent feast (“Para kaming di nabagyo!”) when the ocean retreated. In the end, It only occurred to me that they’re not laughing it out, they are merely focusing on the funny parts. The sad ones, they just kept to themselves.
They were curious on what the people outside Leyte knew about the number of people who perished that day.
“How many people died according to the news?”
“7,000” I answered. According to the latest figures from the government and the media, ’bout 6,000+ people are officially declared as fatalities of the typhoon and it was already a big estimate on its own.
They shook their heads in wonder and dismay “Not even close.”
We passed a collapsed astrodome in Palo, Leyte that had became a temporary sanctuary of those fleeing from the storm. It was its first and last service to the community.
“About 10,000 people alone died in there.” they said.
“We’re angry not because of the slow government response, or the stinky NFA rice they gave to us,” Ate Juvs continued as we neared to Tacloban city. “We understand that no country in the world is prepared for Yolanda. We’re angry because they lied with the body count. For them it’s just numbers and figures. For us, it’s family and friends….loved ones we’ll never see again.”
“I wish the dead would haunt them” another one said piously.
The destruction grew more apparent when as we go nearer to Tacloban City. Ormoc, Carigara, Palo…Tacloban. What of other provinces? How many people truly died in Samar alone? In northern Cebu? In Aklan? In Coron, Palawan?
“Why would they lie with the numbers?” I asked aloud. During the Ondoy incident in Marikina last 2009, rumors kept circulating that they lied with the number of casualties too. Why would they lie? To save face? To avoid international backlash?
But no country is prepared for Yolanda, right?
“Once they released a more accurate estimate of the dead, they said that UN will have to take over Leyte. And to be honest, we have no problem with that. For the relief distribution…the rehabilitation efforts. Until everything is back to normal, we want to be under the UN.”
And that means no more foreign and local donations to be pocketed by government officials, I thought cynically.
I said, “Oh, c’mon. You just don’t want to share all the goods with the government!”
“Waray-waray na nga, kukurakutin pa nila!” they replied back with a smile. “Waray” in Tagalog means ‘wala’, as in nothing.
We all laughed while we rode along the roofless houses, the dilapidated schools, the piles of debris, the unmoving coconut leaves.
Because we can only laugh through it all.
Because though the uncontrollable disaster, the loss of many lives, the injustice of it all…. in the end, resilience is the only thing we have it going.
Posted on March 26, 2014, in Filipino, My country, reflections and tagged After Yolanda, Haiyan, Leyte, Philippines, relief operations, Tacloban, Typhoon Yolanda, UN. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.