Typhoon Ruby: The morning after and the weeks ahead (Part 3)

This blog is the third and final part of the story I have to share about Typhoon Ruby, the storm which hit the Philippines at the end of 2014. Click to catch up with part one and part two.

As the winds subsided and the rains began to calm, it was now possible to leave the safe haven of the dark, cramped office. As the power had been out for 36 hours and there was no phone signal we found ourselves not knowing the effects of the typhoon. It’s a strange feeling knowing my family and friends would have found out about the damage caused and the path of the typhoon well before I did, and I was living it!

Trees criss-crossed across all the roads and had to be moved quickly to make way for the Borongan traffic.

Trees criss-crossed across all the roads and had to be moved quickly to make way for the Borongan traffic.

That morning, at around 7 am, I ventured with the Salesian community to drive around the city and see what had happened. It was devastating. Parts of the city were unrecognisable — trees uprooted, buildings destroyed, crops flattened — and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As we drove along the coast, the beach-side barbecue huts that I had previously spent time eating pork kebabs and grilled chicken intestine (really!) had been flipped upside down and we had to swerve to avoid huge puddles and piles of debris that blocked the road. The whole of the visible Pacific Ocean, from shore to horizon, was chocolate brown following landslides washing into rivers and mud coming from the mountains. I felt like I was in a twisted version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Electricity posts were lying flat on the roads and the road which we had previously walked a torch-lit procession was blocked off by rubble and trees.

I had spent over 3 months falling in love with the rural, faraway city of Borongan and I was cut deep seeing what had happened to it. But, what got to me the most, was that if I felt that upset by what I was seeing, I have no idea how people who called Borongan City their home were feeling. I could only imagine the pain I would feel if I saw my home town ravaged quite like the one I was seeing that morning.

The driveway to Don Bosco after it had been cleared. After the storm, there were 2 trees and a blown over wall blocking entry.

The driveway to Don Bosco after it had been cleared. After the storm, there were 2 trees and a blown over wall blocking entry.

Yet, people were resilient. People didn’t seem to show the same dramatic, over-emotionality that I was showing. The Filipino people just stood up, brushed the sand from their flip-flops and got back to life. I’m not sure whether those I encountered in Borongan were just good at saving face, borrowing the famous British ‘stiff upper lip’, or if their attitude was as a result of resignation but it seemed to me like whatever it was they were feeling, they were showing they were capable of bouncing back. Only a few hours after the storm left Samar, people were laughing and joking, thankful for their lives and one more day to live.

As a foreigner from a different culture, I found this attitude of laughing in the face of adversity very difficult to comprehend. How can you make jokes at a time like this? How can you eat breakfast at a time like this? How can you stop yourself from just breaking down and crying? After chatting to people who lost their homes, had their homes partially destroyed, lost their crops, their livelihoods: I witnessed not one tear roll down a single cheek. As I write this, Pope Francis’s recent words reverberate in my mind —  “please don’t be frightened of crying”. For me, I’m a sensitive soul whose friends are used to seeing me get emotional, perhaps for me it would be more courageous to try and control my emotions sometimes. But, for the people of Eastern Samar, it is a sign of courageousness and bravery, I think, to not be seen as so sensitive or emotional and it’s this that is driving people forward for the sake of each other.

The destroyed "kubo" (small cottage) where we said the rosary each night at 6 pm.

The destroyed “kubo” (small cottage) where we said the rosary each night at 6 pm.

As for our place: living on the riverbank left our house vulnerable to flooding and unluckily the typhoon hit when the river was at high tide. As a result, the house was submerged under over 5 feet of water. Luckily, most of our items were moved up to the first floor of the building, but it meant that all of the big furniture was either destroyed or severely water damaged. At one time, even the refrigerator was floating in the water! The furniture in my bedroom had overturned and blocked entry to my room, and the clothes I had left there were sodden. As the water subsided, it left a thick mulch of mud and rubbish across the whole of the ground floor of the house which took days to clean. We lacked electricity and the only food we had to eat was a pig that had floated into our compound, which we slaughtered and lived off for three days — fine when we ate pork adobo and crackling on the first day, not so fine when by day three we were eating pig skin (which still had surviving hairs) and as for the other parts we ate? I’m not sure I want to remember. Not so tasty.

The remnants of the mud after much cleaning had taken place. The fridge was back on its feet.

The remnants of the mud after much cleaning had taken place. The fridge was back on its feet.

It was decided, after consultation with the Salesians, my organisation back home and my own feelings, that I would leave Borongan. Of course, I was feeling tired, uncomfortable, irritable, helpless, vulnerable, sensitive and a whole concoction of other feelings and I was happy to leave the situation initially, but there was a part of me that was deeply sad about leaving. I felt like I had somehow played the “I’m A Foreigner! Get Me Out Of Here” card as everybody else had had no choice but to continue the clear-up and live without power, food, water and whatever else it was that we lacked in that time. I also felt like I wasn’t “seeing it through” — like I couldn’t tell my story without having a conclusion. Everything that I was working towards with my volunteering was only 3 months in out of 12, and I unexpectedly had to stop. One minute I was teaching a lesson on the area of a trapezium, the next I was in a car with all my luggage leaving for good. It was a challenge.

But having reflected on it over the last 2 months, the right decision was really made for me. Of course, my work at the training centre would have been on hold, and after my bedroom was pretty much destroyed, it wouldn’t be the first on the list of priorities to fix. With nowhere to stay, and no work to do, it is obvious that it was untenable for me to stay there. And that’s okay. I just hope my friends there aren’t too disappointed that I wasn’t able to stay longer; I know that I am.

Saying goodbye to our pet Rora was one of the most difficult goodbyes. I heard recently that she's about to give birth to puppies!

Saying goodbye to our pet Rora was one of the most difficult goodbyes. I heard recently that she’s about to give birth to puppies!

And so with a heavy, heavy heart my time in Borongan, and in fact my time with the Salesians, has come to an end. It has come to an end in a way that I could never have possibly imagined. I first thought about volunteering with the Salesians in the Philippines way back in 2011, so for a long time I had in my head the picture of how my time would go. And it was different. But I have learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be brave in the face of danger, how to be hopeful in the darkest of situations, how to find joy in the simplest of things, how to communicate without talking, how to cheer and clap a group of children doing the same dance routine for a fifteenth time like it was the first time I saw it and I learnt how to speak a language that very few people in the world could understand.

I can not thank the community of Salesians, all my friends and Filipino families there enough for welcoming me into their homes, inviting me to their parties and going out of their way to be super friendly to the foreigner who quite often sat quietly in the corner eating his Pinoy spaghetti or buko pandan. I will cherish every memory, and I will forever be sharing stories of my wonderful time in Borongan. It has changed me in unimaginable ways.

My final moments in Borongan - leaving behind many friends. Sad times!

My final moments in Borongan – leaving behind many friends. I hope we can see each other again one day!

After a Christmas spent with good friends in Manila, I have spent my last weeks in Cebu at the Provincial House whilst I arranged for alternative opportunities. On Wednesday, I will be moving to Olongapo in the north of country where I will be working with the Preda Foundation, a social and humanitarian organisation which works closely with abused women and children. I will stay there for two months, before I will arrive back to the UK a little earlier than planned at the end of May.

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Typhoon Ruby: Raging winds and an overnight community (Part 2)

Typhoon Ruby

As the winds swept in and the darkness somehow darkened, there were many thoughts that were flowing through my head that night. How were the people outside of the evacuation centre? What were my family back in the UK feeling? Was everything going to be okay? The stories of those who had been affected by Typhoon Haiyan were etched on my brain like dark scratchings and it left me wondering if we would be victims or survivors.

By around 10 pm on the night of Saturday, December 6th, 2014, the winds of Typhoon Ruby blustered their way into our communities, finally making landfall in Eastern Samar, the place I had called home for the three months prior to this monumental moment. We had been worried for the whole week what was going to happen, and where the storm would land and a town named Delores, some 70 km away from Borongan City, eventually revealed itself to be the target of Ruby.

The storm was made worse by the fact that it happened overnight. Having no electricity, and only one emergency light bulb to light up our small office room in the evacuation centre, it was easy to build up exaggerated pictures of what was happening outside. I remember re-assuring a friend that the sounds we were hearing weren’t waves or floods, but the sound of the heavy rain hitting the walls of the building sounding worse only because of the extreme winds. Every so often there would be a deafening bang: the sound of a tree being uprooted or a roof blown off a house, but what was going through the minds of all of us was (hopefully) far worse than the reality.

Sustained winds of up to 130 mph and gusts of up to 180 mph thrashed the land that I had come to love and the heavy rain and rising tide threatened the coastal places (such as the house in which we lived) with a serious risk of flooding. There was so much to think about, so many people to pray for, and so much to hope. Yet, for what turned out to be around six hours of extreme winds, what happened inside the room turned out to be far more powerful than what was happening outside.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My "spot" was by the pillow just below the plywood.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My “spot” was by the pillow just below the plywood.

At the start of the evening, our room began with only around ten of us inside. We had pillows for the ground, and torches to see each other with; before the winds it was like we were camping – we told jokes, shared biscuits and chatted about Taylor Swift. However, once the storm took hold, we soon discovered that our spot was prime real estate because the winds of Typhoon Ruby were approaching from the west and our room had no westerly facing windows. So whilst the other classrooms and offices were becoming wet and hazardous as window panes were blowing in, our room (sheltered by a toilet on the other side of our westerly facing wall) stayed relatively dry and safe.

As the hours slowly and painfully passed, people began to gravitate towards our room. When the storm was at its worst, there were probably around 50 of us tightly squished together like the tinned sardines I had been so used to eating in the mornings. After several decades of the rosary, the noise and the bustle of the inside of the room began to quieten. Of course it was impossible to sleep because of the noise outside, but somehow a peace descended on the room and whilst we all were carried away with our own thoughts, there was a silent connection, a silent support, between all of us together.

For those hours, we became a community. It no longer mattered where we were from, or what our culture was, how old we were or what our first language was. We spent the night shifting our bodies so that the next person could take their turn to be comfortable, moving like our own complex weather system spread out on the floor of the middle office. There was an old lady of a considerable age, and a young baby who was barely 18 months old. Faces I recognised, those of my friends, and faces I didn’t.

And in the deepest moments of Typhoon Hagupit I felt strong. Strong, not just because of the optimism and prayer of those around me, but strong because we shared in that moment together. If I witnessed before the typhoon a raw emotion seen in the eyes of families for their children, I now experienced a different kind of emotion that oozed out of all of us, an emotion that expressed itself, definitely in fear and vulnerability, but also in confidence and solidarity. A feeling that we wouldn’t just get through this because we were with our individual families, friends and colleagues, but that we would get through this because all of us were family together.

As the winds began to subside, many began to drift off to catch a moment’s sleep before sunrise. I probably managed an hour or two. When I woke up, people had begun to move back outside to see the damage that had been caused and although the winds were still howling through the gaps in the building, it was no longer dangerous to go outside. As expected, most of the landscape and agriculture of the village surrounding us had been flattened. I saw buildings that I had never seen before because they were previously obscured by trees.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

None of us were sure what had happened farther than what our eyes could see and in a lot of ways, I could never have been prepared for what I was to see in the following hours and days. But one thing that was not destroyed throughout the destructive typhoon, was the spirit and faith of the people I had shared one of the most memorable nights of my life with. We bonded in ways I had never expected, and whilst it’s probably true I will never see or meet 95% of the people I shared that room with again in my life, I won’t ever forget what they did for me and for each other. It was truly a moving and special experience amidst the terror and anxiety of what could have been a night a lot more terrifying if we had been alone.

This is the second part of my Typhoon Ruby story. You can catch up with part one by clicking here and you can find out what happened next by following this link.

Typhoon Ruby: A week of waiting (Part 1)

“Is this your first experience of a typhoon?” was a common question I was asked in the first week of December at the end of last year. Living in the United Kingdom affords us an amnesty when in comes to extreme weather systems and people were shocked when I explained that there are no typhoons, no tsunamis nor any major earthquakes within the British Isles.

News of an approaching typhoon heading towards Eastern Samar had begun filtering out in the media from Monday, December 1st and in spite of the fact that most people living in Samar have experienced many, many typhoons in the past people were a little anxious about Typhoon Ruby (internationally known as ‘Hagupit’) heading our way.

Following the national news the morning we evacuated - headline reads, "Borongan Residents Brace For Ruby"

Following the national news the morning we evacuated – headline reads, “Borongan Residents Brace For Ruby”

At first I was a little frustrated by this. The little I know about mathematical weather forecasting (not much, I used to snooze in my stochastic modelling classes) is enough to know that medium to long-term weather forecasts aren’t always reliable. We were speculating on a weather system that was almost a week away and the news was even reporting there was a possibility it could veer off entirely and head towards Japan. But the more I spent reflecting on this the more I began to understand that everywhere and everyone was still recovering after Typhoon Yolanda (‘Haiyan’) which completely devastated the country at the end of 2013.

And so I learnt my first lesson of the Typhoon. In order for me to appreciate the circumstances of the people I was surrounded by, I had to forget about what I had learnt at university, leave behind my own arrogance and walk together on the path of those around me. Although I never once felt I knew better than those who had faced storms before, I felt like people were overreacting. But after at least 6,000 were killed during Yolanda, could I really blame anybody for wanting to take this possible storm seriously?

Boarding up the windows at the Training Centre

Boarding up the windows at the Training Centre

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and Wednesday into Thursday the news reports began to become more concrete. It was now out of the question it would head towards Japan; Borongan City looked like a good shout to be the place the storm would first make landfall. I had begun to feel scared. It had already been decided after Yolanda that in the event of another typhoon, our training centre would be used as an evacuation base. So we went that afternoon to board up some windows, prune the trees and prepare the place where I normally teach maths to turn it into a place where who-knows-how-many people would take refuge and shelter.

On Friday morning the storm had become stronger, it was slowing down to a snail’s pace (only moving around 7 mph) and was heading straight for Eastern Samar. By that afternoon, I had packed up all my things, moved them upstairs in case of flooding, and we evacuated from our home. In the beginning there were around 300 people there: men, women, children, religious, and of course one volunteer from a small British seaside town named Whitley Bay. More and more people joined us and by the time the storm was due to hit there were around 500 people sheltering in the classrooms, offices and workshops of Don Bosco Training Centre. We even had some furry friends keep us company as some brought dogs, cats, chickens and even their piglets (protecting their livelihoods at all costs!) to shelter from the rain and winds that were approaching.

All packed - preparing to leave!

All packed – preparing to leave!

I was officially an evacuee along with so many others and over the course of the proceeding 24 hours, the same question kept coming up, “Is this your first experience of a typhoon?” Of course I answered with a firm “Yes” followed by an addendum of “…and I’m feeling a little nervous”. What took me most by surprise, however, was just how many were admitting to me that it was actually their first time to evacuate during a storm, explaining that normally everybody just sits at home waiting for the winds to pass. But once again, because of the previous mistakes of those who did not survive Typhoon Yolanda, people were keen not to commit the same ones themselves heeding all warnings to evacuate. I had to admire the humility of those who had been staying in less-than-secure homes during typhoons for decades and all of a sudden listening to advice to evacuate. Perhaps we had all learned a similar lesson throughout all of this.

As I looked around the centre on that Friday night (the night before the storm finally hit) all I could see was an increased sense of vulnerability in all who were there. I recognised a real raw emotion, a kind of survival instinct, that I had never witnessed in people before. All around me mothers were tending to their children and grandparents were sorting out the food for the family. Kids ran around playing, not appreciating what was coming, whilst onlooking parents smiled as the innocence of their children provided light relief for all those who were feeling a bit anxious (myself included).

ruby1d

Waiting.

It was a week of waiting. For six days nobody know how this storm would pan out. Would it be as strong as the news was reporting? Or were the media outlets also being overcautious about their interpretation of the forecasts? With each passing day, I became more worried especially when I was left alone at night with just my thoughts and dreams swirling inside my head. Yet, by the time we evacuated I received a gift that made a lot of this worry disappear.

In spite of the obvious restlessness that swept through the evacuation centre on that dark December evening, people were still very confident about what was to come, and I was massively inspired by that. People would have had every right to roll their eyes at my fear and trepidation; after all, my house, my family and friends, my livelihood weren’t the ones at risk. Everyone and everything I know and love is sitting firmly over 6,000 miles away. Yet people whose homes and livelihoods were in danger still took the time and effort to comfort and re-assure me that all will be well. And in those moments, in the moments that I felt so vulnerable and so sensitive, I felt cared for. It was a gift. And it made me feel strong.

My Typhoon Ruby story is made up of three parts: this one, part two and part three. Thanks for reading!