Green Shoots in Typhoon Wasteland

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THE place was lifeless. All I see were ruins, flattened banana trees, uprooted coconut trees and a highway of rocks. What once was a quiet community where the houses stood, commerce flourished and a church gathered people weekly, is now empty with remnants of the darkest hours of the survivors of the flood. This is Andap, New Bataan. I asked residents of the area what they experienced that early morning of the 4th of December. They said the earth shook and they heard a loud grumbling sound. Soon, water rose to their houses.

The survivors described surging waters that rose as high as a four-story building. I was in disbelief. I pondered and realized it must have been possible because I could see boulders as big as a bungalow brought down to the now tranquil valley by the tremendous force of rushing water. They described a raging torrent that curled upwards, its crest reaching as high as the coconuts hanging from the trees.

Closing my eyes, I could not imagine anyone surviving a deluge of such biblical proportions. More than 300 people died in New Bataan alone with hundreds more missing. More than 20,000 families are displaced and majority of them can no longer go back to their places of origin now categorized highly hazardous. The place is now barren as far as your eyes can see. Nothing blocks your view. No building or tree was left standing. For the tens of kilometers stretch, uprooted or broken in the middle coconut trees are scattered like matchsticks on hectares of land. Small makeshift shelters with blue sheet roofing as low as five feet welcome you on the side of the highway.

Upon reaching Cateel, I felt emptied, devastated by seeing ruins of concrete buildings: collapsed walls, roofless, and steel bars bent like pretzels. Wooden houses are flattened to the ground. Posts downed like pins in a bowling alley. The eye of the Category 5 storm made landfall in this place. It surely left an indelible mark to the hearts and minds of the people here. The survivors described a huge swirl of wind with fire in it destroying everything. They stayed flat on the ground with their children or took refuge beside any concrete wall or under a truck to survive. In the aftermath, they stood hungry and drenched in rain for days. There was no roof to shelter them from the rain and nothing to eat but strewn food in the mud or fallen coconut fruits good enough to eat. Already three months later, food is still not enough.

I went to these two distinct places where casualties were high, buildings and shelters left in shambles, and livelihood gone. Most of the people here rely on copra and banana plantation. Discreet mining has halted in some areas. When food assistance comes to an end at the end of this month, I wonder how these people will cope. How can they make a living and buy food on their own when they do not even have a livelihood anymore?

A farmer of 40 years cannot easily be taught to fish in the vast Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of farmers and merchants cannot altogether turn into hundreds of fishermen or carpenters. But they will try to do so rather than leave their families behind who still live under plastic sheets. One of the debris-to-shelter beneficiaries of IOM, Joan de la Cerna, shared in restraint voice that until his family will be settled in a permanent shelter, he will not leave them for the city to earn a living. He used to be a furniture-maker but he learned to be a carpenter benefiting from “Cash-For-Work” programme to make ends meet for his pregnant wife and young daughter.

Three months after the storm, the affected areas are far from recovery. Due to the collapsed bridges, logistical challenges and inadequate resources, the areas of Davao Oriental particularly in Boston, Cateel and Baganga are still in the worst. I cannot find it in my heart to leave these people still shocked, lost and helpless when the emergency response ends this month. For the damage brought to them, physically, emotionally and psychologically, it will take years for them to recover. If parts of New York affected by Hurricane Sandy which happened a little earlier than Typhoon Pablo, have not recovered yet from the disaster, how much more for the almost one million left homeless and without livelihood in a country with limited resources? I am humbled.