Second of a series by Ariel C. Hernandez, Written 25 December 2012
Ayi and Belle Hernandez, as well as their kids, were among the victims of Typhoon Sendong as floodwaters submerged their home. They saved nothing but themselves. How they made it out alive, how they coped with being among the thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the lessons they learned along the way … are in this series of essays by Ayi.
The Balay Mindanaw Relief and Rehabilitation Center is starting to get silent. Most of the volunteers are on their way home to join their families, only the children and the survivors of the flood are crisscrossing the hallways of what used to be a very busy center. Everyone is talking about a simple noche buena to thank the Creator and to bond as a community with shared experiences of near-death and anxiety, but now committed to help those who are in the same situation as, if not more affected than, us.
When I tried to look back, I consider it to be the most difficult week of my life. It was a week of heartbreaking experience. It was a physically draining and psychologically disturbing week, not only for the victims and survivors like us but even to those who were not affected by the floods. The sheer destruction to lives and properties is beyond comprehension and asking the question why it happened makes it even more difficult.
The other day, Belle encouraged me to take a look at our house. I initially tried to discourage her but she was insistent. I did not tell her that I cried profusely for the first time after four days, because of exhaustion, the foul smell of the mud and the dead animals, and the acceptance that the house will not be habitable in the next two to three months. On our way to the house, the same situation of destruction and despair dominate the landscape. Fortunately, we were not able to go near the house because we were worried the Multicab we were driving might get stuck in the mud.
On our way back, the traffic slowed a bit, and then I saw a family, all with very lonely faces, outside their totally damaged house. Then I realized that inside the makeshift tent was a coffin, above it the picture of their daughter with all smiles. A very stark contrast indeed to the prevailing atmosphere of despair and hopelessness for most in my neighborhood. I also noticed that the group of four drinking buddies, who had been drinking in the street since Day One of the flood, was not there anymore. Maybe they were now too drunk to get up, or have come to accept the reality that their homes will not be there anymore, and that they have nowhere to stay in the coming days and weeks unless they do something about it.
Back in the office, my colleague whose home was also totally covered with mud, informed me that they had to rush his father to the hospital as he couldn’t walk anymore, his back apparently injured as they climbed to the rooftop to avoid being swept away by the floods. I fully remember her mother crying when she first saw me at the office. With tears in her eyes she whispered, “Paunsa man ta magsugod na pod ani, Sir?” (How do we start all over again, Sir?) All I can tell her was, “We will rebuild soon. Don’t worry ma’am, we can overcome this one.” It must be doubly difficult for them to see the family patriarch in pain at the hospital
A story relayed by our security guard about the fate of his colleague also disturbed me a lot: His colleague was holding his wife and son when the water was rising and then a log hit him in the chest. With the impact and the pain, he lost hold of his wife and son. Hours later, he found his son dead; I don’t know if he was able to find his wife
I had the chance to visit the major evacuation camps in the city when I accompanied a volunteer team from Sarangani and General Santos City to do medical and relief services. There were too many people with too little space in the schools transformed into evacuation camps. But I realized the people in the evacuation camps were better off compared to the residents of Consolacion village, that area beside Cagayan de Oro River under the bridge in the highway, who are now staying by the roadside in makeshift tents.
Amidst the chaos, Balay Mindanaw was a very busy center coordinating, repacking and distributing relief goods to five villages assigned to us by Archbishop Antonio Ledesma. Very silently, with the leadership of Kaloy, a system was running, volunteers were coming from all over, and donations both cash and goods were flowing every hour of the day. The kids were very active helping out in the repacking and distribution of relief goods and medicines, and have a lot of stories to tell, both happy and sad, on what they saw in the evacuation centers.
Balay Mindanaw was particularly amazed at the dedication of the medical and rescue team from Sarangani. We decided to adopt them to maximize their stay here as they found confusion and difficulty in coordinating with the LGU when they arrived in the city. Kaloy captured all the details with real time updates and. Apart from silently helping mobilize resources to run the operation, I wondered if I could still carry a 50kg sack of rice for repacking. There’s only way to find out, and so I tried. And I’m happy I still could! In all these frenzy, I was receiving text messages, phone calls, email messages every hour. I even had a 40-minute Skype conversation with a probable partner based in Australia!
These efforts from friends, partners and even new acquaintances offering their help and their moral support keep our energies up all day; we only feel tired after dinner. These are blessings that lessen the pressure, these are acts of kindness that give strength, these are measures that provide real hope in the situation of despair and… this is the kind of synergy that adds that fire in the belly….
While we found meaning in distributing food items and water over the last seven days, we also asked the critical question what should we do next.
Starting next week we have decided to focus on the non-food items. Initially we computed an amount of P400 per family. We are also working to forge partnership with Habitat for Humanity and Gawad Kalinga for the repair of the homes, and the most difficult job of building homes for those who completely lost it. Surely, this will be more tedious than distributing food items, this will be much more difficult than distributing clothing and other non-food items.
In all of these efforts, I am also looking at another angle that I think is equally important. The rebuilding of our confidence, confronting the experience of fear, of a near-death experience, the most difficult process of having to accept the fact that you lost a family member or, worse, family members who are still missing even after a week of searching, and praying that they can still be alive. Is there a way to accompany the large number of people who are deeply troubled not only because they lost their belongings, but more importantly, because they lost the confidence to rebuild their lives?
If we believe that the biggest and the most important resource is human resource, then trauma healing, stress debriefing, or in what other terms it is called, should be a major intervention not only in the next few weeks but maybe in the next 12 months, or even more.
I couldn’t imagine what happened to those who lost their loved ones. How are they coping? They must be having a real hard time confronting reality. As I wake up every day, I can still hear the shouts of “tabang” (help) or “tabangi mi” (help us) of the unlucky ones swept by the flood, even though we are so lucky that all of us are safe and even spared from injury. I can’t help but think about the colleague of our security guard, or even the thousands others still asking the question how to rebuild their lives after the floods.
25 December 7:40 am
We went to see the house after receiving a text message that there is running water in our area. On our way I couldn’t help but look at the family who are still grieving the loss of their daughter. Part of me wanted to stop for a while and ask but I didn’t have the courage to do so. Just before we reached the gate of our compound, I hold back tears as I saw a horse lying dead on the ground. How cruel. Maybe it died after not being attended to for the past seven days. I suppose the pony died yesterday because it was not beside the mother this morning. I just thought the owner must have lost the interest of saving one after losing a lot in his stable.
Once inside the house, Belle and I couldn’t help but pick up some things we found above the mud. After filling three sacks of items that can still be salvaged, of things that might still be useful, I told Belle to prepare to go back to the office. On our way back, I hesitated again to stop at our neighbor who lost their daughter. I asked Belle to shell out P500 as our modest donation to the family, then I slowly drove back in front of their house. The father was a bit surprised when Belle handed over the little cash and sincerely thanked us. After a short exchange of words, we found out that there were two families living in that house. Her sister also lost her daughter, probably even more painful because they still have to find her body, one of the thousand or so still missing people in the aftermath of typhoon Sendong. That broke my heart again….
By 11 o’clock this morning, a good friend, along with his wife and daughter, came to visit us all the way from Manila. It was a short yet very meaningful bonding with his and my family. He simply wants to celebrate Christmas with us. So we had a tour of the area, then we had lunch, then they flew back to Manila. Then the whole afternoon was devoted to sharing a lot of stories with Itay, Inay and Brod Lito. With a meaningful and blessed Christmas celebration with a friend and my immediate family, I think I’m ready for another week, or maybe another month, of challenges…