We hope our readers will enjoy this vivid account of life during and after super typhoon Yolanda struck their home on Biliran Island. The writer includes lessons he drew from his Yolanda experiences, which should be absorbed and acted on by anyone living in the Philippines, so that they may be better prepared to face the worst that nature can deal out. Biliran is a beautiful island province just north of Leyte Island. The post is written by “Joe America” who writes about life in the Philippines. His writing is frank, insightful and a pleasure to read. You can visit Joe’s blog “The Society of Honor” at http://joeam.com/ You’ll be glad you did.
Our friend, photographer Gary Randorf is a former resident of Naval on Biliran Island. You can see his Biliran Island gallery HERE.
THE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING A NATURAL DISASTER
Some would say we are idiots for choosing to live in the most dangerous land in the world, where nature’s delights, from screaming winds to hot rocks, and mankind’s lunacy, from murder to motorized mayhem, make it more fatal in the Philippines.
Nature’s delights are typhoons and tropical storms that ram wind and water at our homes and businesses, the tectonic plate we ride like cowboys on a bucking bronc as the Philippines slip-slides toward Los Angeles, and that blasted Ring of Fire, belching lava and stones and poisonous gray gas and ash across the gorgeous green landscape.
We Biliraners had to deal with one of those creatures recently, code-named Yolanda, a monster typhoon that ripped through the Visayas like a very grim reaper, with over 6,000 dead and more roofs cast to the wind than birds in the sky on that particular day.
What did we learn?
We learned that dynastic barons of Tacloban fiddled over the years and left the city totally unprepared. Plus, said barons were too dense to comprehend a fairly simple typhoon concept called storm surge. The City apparently summoned 2,000 hill folk down the mountain to the safety of a civic evacuation center located just a few paces from the crashing, cresting ocean. Most died in the crush of sea water. But the tragedy there was really President Aquino’s fault, if I read the Mayor’s tear-streaked senatorial complaint correctly.
- Lesson 1. Philippine civic leaders ought to get accountable. They ought to study what wind and water do so they never again evacuate people to their deaths. Then they should get busy putting stringent zoning and building codes in place, building sea-walls and river levees, and getting homes off the slippery slopes.
- Lesson 2. Climate change is real. It is tangible. It will get worse. It is about to become a way of life. We should get better at dealing with it.
Anyone who has driven past that dirty brown snake of a river that plows through Palo and Tacloban knows it is a disaster waiting to happen. So only NOW we understand? Slow learners, eh?
Our local gymnasium in Naval, Biliran would make an exceptionally fine evacuation center except the contractor had to cut costs to afford to pay all the kickbacks to the government officials controlling permits. So rather than a strong roof, he put up cheap tin, with small steel trusses, and the sheets flew through Yolanda’s crashing winds like so many giant guillotine blades.
- Lesson 3: Corruption and the trade of favors, including the selling of a vote, has a price. We just don’t see it right away. The corrupt gain, we lose. In very tangible, real ways.
Here locally, we knew a monster storm was coming several days ahead of time. And people who were clearly not idiots climbed up into their trees and started hacking down the limbs that threatened their houses, packing outdoor things indoors, and tying some things down. This storm was a beaut, loud and hard and fast moving, and things flew horizontally. Trees went flat to the ground but shed some small limbs which became arrows whistling. Tin from this roof or that ripped through the air and clattered about, cymbals to God’s orchestral frenzy.
- Lesson 4. Cut it down, tie it down, and stay on the leeward side of hollow-block walls. Even big limbs launch sideways, so don’t be shy at chopping even those trees some distance from the house.
Our neighbors are clearly not idiots, either. They lost their tin roof and are now replacing it with a flat cement roof. We’ll do the same thing if we lose our roof in a future storm. A new Philippine architectural style is coming: on solid ground, hunkered down, climate-change ready and tin-less.
- Lesson 5. If you are building a new home, make that roof heavy. The aerodynamics of a peaked tin roof are much like that of an airplane wing, and at 250 KPH, you are approaching takeoff.
- Lesson 6. Get serious about planning for storms, quakes and volcanic eruptions.
Typhoons have big winds and, near the center, they circle as the storm passes. Yolanda hit us first from the west then circled around to the heaviest blast from the southeast. At the height of the typhoon, a period lasting about an hour, the roaring shriek was like a dozen jet liners revving up their engines right next door. Every thing is noise and vibrations, a window shattering, tin rattling, and rain thundering on the roof. One is inclined to shriek back.
We stayed busy mopping water that was being drilled high-pressure through the window and roof seams. That kept us from going crazy with impotence and noise. We thought we had lost the roof because of all the water pouring down through the ceiling. But the water was simply being pressure-blasted UP the roof and under the tin that capped the peak. A bevy of fire hoses couldn’t have matched that deluge.
- Lesson 7. Forget gravity at 250KPH. The dominant force is sideways. You can’t run if your house flies off. You can only hide. Which is what a lot of people were doing during Yolanda.
Next time we will have some 3/4 inch plywood panels in the garage, along with some cement nails, in the event we lose a full window panel. One of our glass doors almost popped out from the pressure. We will also have buckets and towels at the ready.
Actually, we did a reasonably good job of preparing for Yolanda. We stocked up on bottled water, reservoir water, and food – the pantry was full and we had two bags of rice in the storage closet. Candles and flashlights were ready. Vehicles were gassed up, cell phone batteries were charged, and we withdrew some cash from the bank. Outdoor chairs and gear were crammed into the garage. We tied down or put sandbags on anything that might blow away.
- Lesson 8: Have a checklist so you don’t forget anything. We need to get a decent first aid kit. We missed that one. We do have a generator now, so are better set for the next event.
What we were totally unprepared for was the aftermath of the storm. And I remain perplexed about that.
The aftermath is one of grim realization that we now are isolated and without services. It is strange. It is quiet, peaceful at first but building in anxiety with each passing day. No fuel, no electricity, no cell service, no internet, no banks, no money transfer services. The radio works so we can get news of looting and riots next door in Tacloban. Will we get that, too?
It was getting stressful. We had a major robbery (a grocery store) and a rumor swept through that three men were going house to house, knocking on doors, robbing and raping.
But most people just got busy with the clean-up and leaned on friends and family if they had to. We made a number of small denomination loans as ATM’s were down and banks were shuttered. A lot of people evacuated to Cebu by ferry and presumably many went on to Manila. Food was also scarce in Cebu.
The aftermath was troublesome because each day that passes brings a bigger threat of violence. I was wishing for weapons and a small army. We had not stocked up on arms or security staff.
I found the attitude of the large corporations that provide lifeline services to be very lackadaisical, very passive. All it took was one gasoline truck delivery by Petron to change the whole attitude of the community from negative to positive, from concerned to optimistic. Why did it take seven days for Petron to send that truck? Why was there no cell service for two weeks? No bank services for 10 days, other than passbook withdrawals at PNB? No internet for two months? There was no sense of corporations riding to the rescue after this huge storm. They were hanging back.
- Lesson 9: Consider what you will do for security if the storm closes roads and shuts down all services. Consider it very seriously. Security turned out to be our biggest concern from this storm. If the sole bridge to the island had been taken out . . . I dread to think . . . we’d probably be in Cebu, too.
- Lesson 10: Advocate for reconfiguration of the national disaster response effort to better motivate large companies that provide lifeline services to come to the rescue. Recovery is best achieved by returning markets to normal absolutely as fast as possible. (See prior blog: A New Model for Disaster Recovery: “The Lifeline Services Act”)
Our electricity was plugged back in 10 weeks after the storm. Electrical workers, especially the pole-climbers who work even during rain and wind, deserve the highest praise. The storm tossed poles across the countryside like they were little matchsticks.
The executives at Petron, Shell, Metrobank, Land Bank, Smart and Globe deserve a big “phlbbbbbbt”. They played it safe.
The destruction in Leyte is absolutely mind-boggling.
- Lesson 11: Don’t think it won’t happen to you.
Reader Mariano posed a number of pertinent questions a few weeks after the storm. I neglected to respond, and this might be a good place to do that:
Here is what I wanted to know from Joe:
1. Why he did not run to Manila or safer provinces away from Yolanda’s path … Our house is strong and who knows where the storm will have an effect, or how it will affect transportation. We don’t have a place to stay in Manila. We never even thought about leaving.
2. What did he do when Yolanda hit … Mopped water.
3. Is Joe’s house obliterated …. ? No. We lost three window panes and a plywood panel from under the eave. The attic is now dried out.
4. Where did they get food from …. ? We stocked up in advance. Grocery markets rationed after the storm: limit of 3 for each item. Shelves did get bare, so it was a bit of a worry, but not major. My wife stood in the lines, sacrificing herself for the cause.
5. Did they evac to gyms or churches or schools …. ? As far as I know, there were no mandated evacuations in Naval, although some wise residents moved voluntarily from their wood homes to neighboring cement homes.
6. How does it feel not to have internet for months … ? (I’d go crazy) I went crazy, but the shock treatments are helping . . .
7. Did you see American soldiers in your area ….? If you did, did you approach them …. ? No American soldiers here. I would give a salute if I saw any.
8. Did you line up for relief goods …. ? No. We aren’t on the needs list of our barangay.
9. pictures, pictures, please …… None. I have a hard time photographing other people’s misery. I did take some video of our miserable yard with only the bermuda grass left standing.
10. Is 6,000 deaths believable …. ? I’m surprised it was not more. I drove to Ormoc, Leyte, a couple of weeks after the storm. Whole villages were wiped out, with nothing left but foundations and rubble. People were (are?) living under tarps and scraps of tin and wood. Kids lined the highway begging for food. Schools were windowless, roofless hulks. A whole mountainside of coconut trees was laid flat, 80% uprooted. Miles and miles of destruction. And more miles. It was the longest trip of my life. Ormoc was a congested mess. People were lined 50 deep at all the money transfer shops and at Mercury drug. No electricity. Rationed gas. Supermarket and mall shuttered. I turned around and drove home.
11. Is 10,000 deaths a possibility …. ? Oh, yes. In Manila or larger cities, much more. Tacloban only has 250,000 residents. That means about 2% of the population was killed.