THE DAY TYPHOON YOLANDA CAME
In Iloilo City, days before Typhoon Yolanda lashed the Philippine archipelago, clouds drifted like cotton candy across a clear, sunny sky. But soon the clouds became dark, and lightning scratched the sky while thunder rumbled in the distance.
As soon as the typhoon entered Philippine waters on November 6, 2013, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGAASA) raised the Public Storm Warning Signal (PSWS) to number one in most of the Visayas and Mindanao. By the evening of November 7, the PSWS was raised to signal number four, the highest level of warning, in some areas in the Visayas and soon expanded to some parts of Luzon.
Earlier that morning, when the gray clouds began to fill the sky, I went to Iloilo City to buy a plane ticket for my uncle, Tito Bo, who had left the Philippines to find work in Dubai. After spending a few months in a foreign country, Tito Bo found nothing but homesickness and longing for his children.
I went to the malls, but they were closed. The wind had grown strong; it was rattling the stores, their signs swinging back and forth. A man repeated, “The typhoon is coming! The typhoon is coming!” as if it part of a chant. People took shelter under the canopy of buildings while others hailed cabs and waited for jeepneys to take them home.
When I got home, Mama was already fixing the damaged parts of our house: the loose hinges of the doors, the leaking roof, and the broken windows. She sighed when the radio announced that the typhoon was getting stronger. My brother Dennis and I helped with the repairs.
Mama placed scissors and knives in the space between the jalousies. In front of our house, she dug the ground and planted a bamboo stalk, its point facing the sky. She believed sharp objects would stop the gust of the wind from forming into a tornado.
I stood outside, facing our house and assessing its condition; it seemed to have bent a little, as if falling. The wind whistled around me, as if trying to scare me. Mama was standing at the window, calling me to get inside.
“Hayyy,” Mama sighed. “Being a mother and a father again.” It was not the first time I heard her say those words. They were not words of complaint; rather they were her way of saying “Challenge accepted.” The monologue became her habit since the day Papa, for a reason I did not know, did not return home.
Papa was a volunteer-fireman in a Filipino-Chinese organization in the city. He never left the house without his Kenwood two-way radio clipped to his belt; it was practically a part of him. Upon receipt of a transmission notifying him about a fire, Papa would sprint to the fire station without hesitation, even if it was in the middle of the night, leaving his family behind to help strangers.
I was proud of him; he was saving lives and homes. The morning after the fire, I would scan the newspapers for an article that featured him. His picture would often make it to the front page: he’d stand before the house with his back to the camera and his hands tightly holding the hose spraying water at the building.
When I was in Grade Two, our teacher asked us to make a house out of indigenous materials for a class project. Like my other classmates, I asked my father to make the house for me.
He promised he would find time, despite being very busy. The night before the deadline, I told my Mama that I didn’t have my project yet. She reminded my Papa, and the three of us gathered at a table to finish it. Papa cut the black and white cardboard into small squares and glued the pieces together until he formed a miniature house.
The next morning, I came to school late. I peeked through the window of the classroom; our teacher had displayed the other kids’ projects on top of the blackboard. Those houses, appearing lifelike, were made of Popsicle sticks and colored with expensive paints or coated with varnish. My classmates’ parents must have worked hard on them. I thought of mine inside my bag: black and white, as if lifeless and made of cheap materials.
My teacher called my name and asked me where my project was. I said I didn’t have it, without lifting my gaze from the floor. I felt ashamed. I brought it back to our house and asked my father to improve it. But even after several days, he hadn’t touched it. The black and white house remained in a dark corner of our home, only to be destroyed by the passing time.
Around four in the afternoon on the day of the typhoon, the cockroaches, rats, and centipedes were coming out of the walls. Despite being in my early twenties, I screamed when I saw the cockroaches flying around. “Mama!” I hid beneath a blanket and heard my Mama slap the cockroaches with a slipper.
When the rain became weak, I went out to buy a lighter, matchsticks, and candles at the nearby store to prepare for the inevitable power outage. As soon as I bought the things I needed, the wind surged in strength and the rain poured heavily, the raindrops as thick as grains of rice. I opened my umbrella but the wind snatched it away. I could feel the sharpness of the wind attempting to tear my face. Standing in the middle of the road, I realized there was nothing I could do about the rain; I could only run away from it, seek shelter, or wait for it to be over.
Our phones were running out of battery, the streetlamps flickering, and as if with the snap of a finger, the electricity went out and the city succumbed to darkness.
Afraid that the flood would enter our house, we decided to take what we could upstairs. Dennis and I helped each other carry the heavy appliances: the refrigerator, television, and radio. Mama piled up the photo albums on her crossed arms, pressing her chin on them so they wouldn’t fall as she carefully climbed the stairs.
The rain continued to hammer onto the roof. The sewer lines had been clogged because they had not been cleaned for a long time. I sat on the stairs, watching the water enter our home. “Don’t worry,” Mama assured me. “A number of typhoons have already tried to destroy our house. Yet it remains.”
Because of the years I lived away, I felt I was a stranger in this house. A decade before this night, when I was a first year High School student, I skipped classes the entire academic year. I hadn’t told my parents until the end of the school year. Instead of attending classes, I spent my time in a computer shop playing Ragnarok, an online game. My father, disappointed that his son was addicted to a computer game, clenched his fist and flew it straight into my stomach. I did not dodge the punch, believing I deserved it. As a consequence, my parents sent me to live with my aunt in Dumalag, Capiz, until I finished High School.
After four years of being away from our house, I returned home and was greeted by the unfamiliar lines etched into my Mama’s face. Like the prodigal, I came home wishing my father would be there waiting for his son who had lost his way, but my Papa did not live there anymore and there was neither celebration nor redemption.
Preparing our dinner, Mama asked me for papers that I no longer use. She lit the papers and used them as firewood in the mouth of a pot. She cooked the instant noodles that I had bought from the store.
We tried to fight the cold with the noodle soup Mama served us. We gathered around flickering candlelight while my brother studied.
My phone vibrated. It was Tito Bo.
“Boy,” he said. “What is the reference number of my ticket?”
“To, I wasn’t able to book you a flight. The malls are closed today because of the typhoon.”
“I see. I just got here at NAIA. We’re still waiting for the weather to subside. I’ll just see if I can book here.”
“Sige, To,” I said. Okay.
“Can you call your Tita? She isn’t answering my phone calls,” he said.
“I tried earlier, but the call didn’t go through.”
“I’m really worried about your Tita and your cousins. If I get there tomorrow at Iloilo Airport, I’ll just go home directly.”
“Okay, To! Halong.” Take care.
I looked around, and noticed again how there were only the three of us left living in this house: my Mama, Dennis, and I. My three older brothers had left for their own reasons. One, at a young age, decided to get married. The second one opted to spend his time with his friends. The third decided to live in the house of a relative.
My mother started telling us a story of her childhood. I was already in bed, yawning. The story was not clear. but some of the words echoed in my mind: before, if, money, study, degree, better work, better father, better husband, better mother, better house, better family, better life.
The next morning, we learned that the previous night’s typhoon had claimed thousands of lives and destroyed many homes. Our region was placed under the state of national calamity.
When the electricity returned, I charged my cell phone immediately and called my Tita in Capiz. She told me that Dumalag had been devastated. “It looks like a ghost town,” she said.
My aunt told me how Tito Bo returned home because the roads were blocked by fallen trees. He asked to rent someone’s motorcycle in one town to take him to another town until he appeared bathing in mixture of sweat and rain at their door.
On Facebook, I saw pictures of Dumalag: the rice fields looked like bodies of water; every light post on the street had fallen down; massive trees had been ripped out of the ground; the evacuation center was wrecked; and even our parochial church, Parish of St. Martin De Tours, was not spared, its dome almost blown away by the wind.
“But we are okay here. The town’s fiesta will be in a few days,” she said, taking a deep breath.
“Right. I thought it’s the feast first before the pestilence comes? It seems like it’s the other way around now.”
“Ay ambot gani,” she said. I really don’t know. “But you know what? Padre, in his homily, said that we should be thankful that we have survived another typhoon, and that the fiesta should go on.”
A few days after Typhoon Yolanda came, its aftermath was evaluated; there was a total of 6,300 dead people, 28,689 injured and about 1,000 missing. It caused looting and violence; the people in Tacloban, the hardest hit place in the country, attacked the trucks that were carrying relief goods and stole food in the city. The government was criticized because of its slow action to help. In the Visayas alone, almost two million people became homeless and thousands of people left their homes to find shelter on the neighboring islands.
The TV showed the havoc left by the typhoon. Survivors were waiting for help and searching for their loved ones. After seeing the survivors manage to put a smile on their faces, Anderson Cooper, who was in Tacloban for live coverage, thanked the Filipinos for teaching the world how to live after facing a calamity. Because of its destruction, Typhoon Yolanda was excluded in PAGASA’s typhoon-naming list.
In our house, the silence was a static sound in my ears. Mama prepared the kettle to boil some water for our coffee. The light of the sun came, sending the darkness out of our house. It was clear to me then why Dennis always buried his face in his civil engineering books. I imagined that a few years from now, he would be building houses. Sturdy ones.
I looked up my Papa’s number on my phone and called him, but heard only a robotic female voice saying The number you are calling is no longer in service. My Mama, in the kitchen, shouted that our coffee was ready, and that I should drink it before it turned cold.
On the radio, the news anchor was reporting that the families of the victims of the typhoon are still looking for their loved ones displaced by the calamity. Their hopes refuse to sink. Of course, I heard myself say. Of course.
Arnel F. Murga is a graduate of BA Literature – Management from the University of the Philippines Miag-ao. His writing has appeared in Construction Magazine, Outlook Springs, and the 55th Silliman Anthology among others. Winner of ASEAN Youth Citizen Journalism 2017, he lives and writes in Iloilo City, Philippines. He tweets: @IAmArnelMurga.