Storms Before Christmas

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

There is another storm coming, and its name is Hagupit. Funny, Hagupit is its international name, but the Philippines will be calling it Ruby. It looks a bit ironic that Hagupit is also a native Filipino word although not popularly used as a name, while Rudy is a foreign word but is a familiar name in the Philippines.

So much for names of typhoons. They become material only when the typhoon is particularly disastrous and attracts international attention and action. In relating globally, we have to keep using the international name so it is easily identified. I hope, though, that will not be the case with Hagupit alias Ruby.

Christmas is the most powerful season in the Philippines in more ways than one. It is a magnificent celebration, the longest-running national fiesta in a country that strings town and barrio fiestas all-year round.

Christmas is triggered by a religious belief whose essence is so culturally embedded as well. It must also be the longest-running drama in our history and shows no sign of tapering off at all. In fact, its power is so intense that economic and commercial interests are dictated by it. It is not only family affairs like weddings and reunions that revolve around Christmas, but so many businesses themselves.

The Christmas season, though, is most powerful in another way. It has hosted among the most deadly of typhoons and floods in Philippine history. When Christmas songs start to be played in radio and in malls, it is also a signal to watch out for those great off-season storms. Many of them have been quite personal to me. Their impact jolted my life and managed to create work and schedules that were unplanned, or simply so different from what normal is.

I still remember Typhoon Amy of December, 1951. As a very young boy, I experienced having to leave our seashore home then because the storm destroyed the whole roof and made the house unlivable. The family began renting elsewhere and finally built a new house that was further away from the seashore.

In November, 1991, Typhoon Uring unleashed flash floods that killed more than 5,000 in Ormoc City, Leyte, alone. My wife flew to Ormoc a day or two after the disaster and she cannot forget the stench of dead bodies, concentrated only in one large area in the city. Her story made an indelible mark in my memory and prepared me for things to come when the stories would be coming from my own witnessing and participation.

Let me jump to December, 2003, to Southern Leyte. I was already a regular volunteer of a new movement then called Gawad Kalinga (GK). From fellow volunteers in Southern Leyte, we heard about the tragedies that had just befell four municipalities of the small province. Heavy rains loosened the earth and caused more than 30 landslides, but four of these caused human deaths aside from property damage. I remember flying there after the New Year to give support to what must have been the first disaster response of Gawad Kalinga. That first one, though, established a trajectory that keeps manifesting itself as climate change sets out an emerging new normal.

In my first personal experience with intervening after a disaster that involved so many deaths, I was made to face a reality I had only heard of before but never really understood. I was able to reach three towns, Liloan, San Francisco, and San Ricardo. I saw the affected areas, and knew a few hundred had been buried there. I especially remember riding a banca in rough sea waters so we could reach Barangay Pin-utnan, San Ricardo, in nearby Panaon Island. I was shocked at what I saw, the whole main street of the town became one big canal. The waters, and the reported tornado that aggravated the destruction, acted like a giant backhoe that dug more than ten feet deep – the whole main street.

In San Ricardo and Liloan, we began our rehabilitation work, our first “building back better” experience, as GK constructed homes in a village setting and rolled out its community development program. Little did I know that disasters would be about the most powerful external driving force influencing the future GK work and template.

It was not the last deadly calamity for Southern Leyte, of course, because another landslide buried several hundreds (others estimate more than one thousand) of residents of Barangay Guinsaugon, Saint Bernard, in February, 2006.

In Luzon, from late November to early December in 2004, four typhoons struck, affecting Bicolandia, Mindoro, Central and North Luzon. I think it was like Yolanda in the span of affected areas, except these were four separate typhoons in a three-week period.

Of course, we then had the more recent Typhoons Ondoy, Sendon and Pablo before the monstrous Yolanda, all these happening from October to December, all these within the Christmas season and out of the regular typhoon season.

After Yolanda, 2014 has been relatively quiet, typhoon-wise. But the year is not over, the season is not over. And now comes Hagupit, soon-to-be Ruby. It had built itself up so quietly, so innocently. But as it nears Philippine territory, the prognosis keeps getting more serious. More so because it can hit many areas that Yolanda battered a year ago.

I can only join many who have started to pray for those threatened directly by Hagupit. They will be mostly poor, of course, and the most helpless among us. Our seashores host millions of them because our seas are still able to feed most of them. And they have nowhere to go. With my prayer will be a deep wish that the powerful in our nation will be able to appreciate quickly the extreme dangers of poor Filipinos living in coastal areas. It is time we stop offering them as sacrificial lambs to the gods of disasters.

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