Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Confessions of a super typhoon survivor

YES, I survived Super Typhoon Yolanda.  I understand I cannot take it as a badge of honor and that being one in no way gives me any bragging rights in the fashion of a Mt. Everest climber.  Neither can I speak for all survivors because what I went through may not even be half their experiences.  Still, surviving a super typhoon is not quite like surviving traffic at EDSA.  I realize this as I write now, when it is nearly two weeks after Yolanda came and wreaked untold havoc, together with an immense toll of human suffering, on mainly Eastern but also Central and Western Visayans as well.  Although the media have focused on Tacloban City and Leyte for good reasons, several places in my province of Eastern Samar had been hard hit as well, particularly the towns of Balangkayan, Hernani, Guiuan, Balangiga and many others.

            Surprisingly, it is not only minuses that I see.  I have also rediscovered some invaluable things about life, which, for want of a better term, I call insights.

1.       Simplicity makes life lighter.  With no electricity and its attendant services (cell phone, the internet, etc.) to complicate our lives, Eastern Samareños are turning in droves to churches, family and community acts.  We have instinctively re-established family and community bonding, in no time opening our eyes to other victims who suffered more losses and trauma than we did .  it is so disheartening to hear of families torn by the deaths of other members and the destruction of homes and property, their cherished memories and hard-earned assets now literally gone with the wind.  But it is equally edifying to witness people enjoying quire moments of prayer, family or neighborly chats and the occasional laughter with other survivors and people who care.  A young tricycle driver summed up the wisdom he gained from the terrifying ordeal:  “It now seems clear to me that what comes from human beings which used to make life easier can just as easily disappear.  Cell phone communications, the internet, houses you spent a fortune to build, crops you struggled hard to plant or maintain, business structures that took years to put up—suddenly they were not there anymore.  Maybe, I think, God is teaching us only he doesn’t pass.”

2.      Tragedy uncovers our basic humanity and the brotherhood of human beings.  Forgive me but the first aspect of our humanity that comes out of tragedy is our basic self-centeredness.  Stories of survivors suffering “survivor’s guilt” come from a realization of how it is every man/woman for himself/herself at the moment of tragic impact.  The negative human factor was also in evidence when experts failed to make clear to many people the real meanings of the terms of warning.  For instance, “storm surge” was a term many people dismissed because they did not understand what it meant.  Had people been simply told, local leaders bewail, that they would be dealing with “tidal waves” or “tsunami waves”, there would have been a more cooperative response to official calls for evacuation.  Still, the more important side of our humanity is the sympathy and compassion from total strangers who went to great lengths to offer real, concrete help, such as food, water, clothes, fuel, and a consoling word or prayer.

3.      Filipino humor tempers the stranglehold of trauma.  Elderly people and their family members who barely survived the onslaughts of giant waves (“three waves as tall as out tallest coconut trees,” said one survivor from Hernani) joked about being forced to bathe by the ocean more forcefully and more convincingly than by family.  When so many people were into panic buying because of the isolation-generated scarcity of food, fuel and other basic necessitates, it is told that a boy asked his father, “Tatay, people are into panic buying.  Why are we here doing nothing?”  the father thoughtfully answered, “Don’t worry, son.  We also have ‘panic,’ we just don’t having ‘buying’.”  Other people do think odd when we smile or laugh in the middle of debris and ruins, but Pinoy humor comes in handy when we are trying to cope with enormous tragedies, such as the one we have been through.  When we laugh together while we cry over the loss of our loved ones and our properties, we recommit ourselves to life and sanity.  Tragedy has a way of making psychological wrecks out of people.  But thanks to Pinoy humor, we have a way of breaking out of the grip of shock and trauma.

4.      Tragedy tests faith but ironically also serves to refine and increase it. I can still see the pain in people’s eyes behind unasked question:  “We prayed so much to be spared of this super typhoon, but why did God not hear our prayers?”  Many times I feel tempted to do a Fr. Merino, my OT professor who was wont to say to a difficult situation, “Wait till I meet God, I’ll ask him that myself.”  For us in Lalawigan, our prayer vigils bore fruit in the super typhoon not causing us as much destruction as we expected.  Except for houses and cottages on our shoreline that were either crushed or blown away, most of our houses and coconut trees are still standing, though battered, bruised or twisted.  Most of all, we had zero casualty.  As I stood to face the community at Mass on the Sunday after Super Typhoon Yolanda’s violent invasion, I said, “I am just so happy to see you all here, alive and well.  Indeed the Holy Eucharist now has a special reason for its celebration.  Let’s thank the Lord from our hearts for the gifts of life-preservation and protection.”  No one objected.  Some were in tears over the simple realization that we could have suffered a worse plight (we could have been physically absent on  that Sunday morning Mass), if not for God’s merciful response to our prayers.

5.      Credit grabbing and playing blame game may advance or ruin someone’s political career but both will further victimize the victims themselves.  To be fair, politicians are among the first to be called upon in tragedy and also among the first to respond to it.  It is perfectly understandable that these same politicians have rivalries and enmities build up through the years.  But to use the tragedy of Super Typhoon Yolanda to feed bloated but false information on the number of casualties and the extent of destruction to generate media mileage is the height of inhumanity and insensitivity.  For example, a priest from Guiuan was so distressed to hear his hometown suffered 1000 casualties (who would have fed an information like that to media people unless he had the power and the means?)  the he had to, as it were move heaven and earth, with his motorcycle, though road debris to see if his mother and siblings survived.  He was grateful they all did.  He was happily surprised, too, that casualties amounted to less than 100 in the official count (93 as of the latest).  But his happy surprise turned to outrage when a relative arrived also after having braved the virtually impassable roads, and exclaiming, “My god, I’m so glad you are all alive.  I had to come because I heard our casualties went by the thousands.”  Blessed Henry Cardinal Newman once likened this type of circumstance to frogs in a pond, being stoned by boys: “The frogs said to the boys who were throwing stones at them, ‘For you it may be fun; for us it is death’.”  Perhaps we could also say to unconscionable political leaders out to gain political advantage out of this colossal tragedy:  “for you it may be about advancing your political career; for us it is about our life and death!”

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