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December 18, 2013

Requiem for Yolanda

“I suspect there will never be a requiem for a dream, simply because it will destroy us before we have the opportunity to mourn its passing.”

– Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream

I admit, I was a Daddy’s girl. Growing up in the quiet little city of Ormoc, my Dad was my hero. But then, when I turned 16, I moved away to Manila for college. Many things changed after that. My parents broke up, and in a single instant, my world, my view of life, my view of my Dad changed completely. I walked away from the only life I had ever known, and never really looked back. Before I knew it, 15 years had passed. I got my college degree, graduated from law school, fell in love, got married, had a baby. In all these momentous occasions, though he wasn’t there, I thought of my Dad. Over the years, I saw and spoke to him not very often. He always tried to reach out to me. I never really reached back.

And then, on November 8 this year, Typhoon Yolanda happened. A few hours after the storm made landfall, I found myself frantically trying to call my Dad, to no avail. I tried my uncles, aunts, cousins, anyone I knew who lived in Ormoc. None of them could be reached. When the last big typhoon hit Ormoc twenty-two years ago, it caused a great flood that killed over 8,000 people. I feared the worst. Finally, the next day, I was able to reach my Dad’s brother, the Mayor of Ormoc. He spoke of utter devastation. 95% of the houses and properties were destroyed. People had died. Food, water, and shelter were urgently needed. Then the line got cut off.

The speedboat of relief. Photo credit: Atty. Christina Garcia-Frasco

The speedboat of relief.
Photo credit: Atty. Christina Garcia-Frasco

Shortly thereafter, I spoke to my brother, Paulo, who told me that he and his wife, Michele, were taking a speedboat to Ormoc the next day. Immediately, we hatched a plan to gather and take whatever relief goods we could. I started posting messages on Facebook asking for donations of goods for Ormoc. My sister, Carissa, started a Facebook page for our cause. #BangonOrmoc was our plea, our hope, our purpose.

At sunrise, two days after the typhoon, Paulo, Michele, and I set out on a journey back to a place we used to call home. On a small speedboat, we carried with us boxes of canned goods, noodles, rice, water and bread, and muffled prayers for the certain despair that awaited us. I thought of my Dad, my family and the rest of the people in Ormoc, and prayed for the best.

Thirty minutes into the trip, as we were only beginning to lose sight of Cebu harbor, it started raining. As if to join the rain’s debut, the waves started dancing with our boat, too. We were getting seasick and soaked on our roofless boat, so we briefly discussed whether to turn back. We knew we could. Then we thought of our Mom who had braved many a stormy trip on much smaller boats to the islands of Cebu for her projects when she was still Governor. We laughed nervously as we said we probably inherited her stubbornness and continued with our journey.

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Ormoc lies ahead.
Photo credit: Atty. Christina Garcia-Frasco

The 3-hour long trip was eventful, to say the least. The sea was quite rough, but at some point it stopped raining and a rainbow appeared. We were hopeful all would be well. As we neared Ormoc, however, the sky turned dark and it started raining again. A gray haze blocked our sights. In a way, I was glad I couldn’t see what awaited us in the distance. I was only 9 years old back in 1991 when my brother and I also took a boat back to Ormoc after the great flood, and what met us were hundreds of dead bodies piled on the pier. On this particular trip, I just did not know what to expect.

Finally, we saw the harbor. Everything was gray, broken, and seemingly lifeless. We sat on our boat in silence as so many flattened houses, roofless structures, and leafless trees lay before us. There were no appropriate words to describe this kind of destruction. There still aren’t.

People shouting from the shore broke the eerie silence: “Pagkaon! Pagkaon! Gutom na mi!” (Food! Food! We are hungry!) Without hesitation, some of them began swimming towards our boat asking for food. We gave them what goods we could.

We docked near shattered boulders of concrete where our port used to be. We traversed city streets blocked by fallen electric posts and centuries-old trees. Piles of wood and coiled metal sheets were strewn everywhere where communities once thrived. Concrete buildings were hollow shells filled with debris. People were quietly walking on the streets, dazed, uncertain, in disbelief. I lived in this city by the bay from childhood until most of my teenage years. In my mind, the beauty of this place was still very vivid. All that was gone now. I felt completely lost.

We then proceeded to pack relief goods and rice into plastic bags for distribution. We knew though that what we brought just wasn’t enough. Even the truckloads of goods that we had arranged to arrive the next day were not enough. These people needed more than what we could give. At that time, it seemed to me that what they needed really was some sort of miracle to put the pieces of their broken lives back together. That, I knew, we could never give.

A few hours later, we were finally reunited with our Dad and some family members. It was a meeting filled with nostalgia, laughter, and relief—a kind of reunion that, I realize now, did not have to wait 15 years. They have since been instrumental in aiding our relief efforts, with my Dad even going to the extent of opening the doors of his damaged home and being the designated host/cook/father figure for our volunteers.

Family portrait with Michelle, Paulo, Melanie, and Dad. Photo credit: Atty. Christina Garcia-Frasco

Family portrait with sister-in-law Michele, brother Paulo, cousin Melanie, and Dad.
Photo credit: Atty. Christina Garcia-Frasco

Since then, the #BangonOrmoc movement has also gained momentum. Through the compassion and generosity of so many people here and abroad, as well as the tireless logistical support of the Municipality of Liloan, Cebu; we have been able to distribute relief food packs to over 15,000 families, temporary shelter to over 300 families, and school bags and supplies to a thousand school children. We have also reached out to over a thousand families in Kananga—Ormoc’s neighboring municipality—by giving food packs and temporary shelter. Our operations were greatly augmented when we partnered with the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI), which has thus far been able to distribute over 25,000 relief food packs in Ormoc. Our cause continues as we now shift our focus to aiding in the rehabilitation of schools and houses.

There have been many moments in the several trips I have made to Ormoc post-Yolanda when empathy and grief have tempted me to just cry and ask God why. These people had lost so many loved ones just two decades earlier. Just when the horrors of that terrible tragedy had become a mere memory, they now find themselves homeless and at a loss yet again. No one deserves that much anguish all in one lifetime.

But I have seen too much there that tells me not to succumb to despair. I have seen an abundance of hope. A few weeks ago, I wrote down my thoughts on this on my Facebook page. To me, it still holds true:

In the days and weeks following #TyphoonYolanda, we met thousands of survivors everywhere: among piles of debris they once called home, on unrecognizable streets, in long relief lines. The question foremost on our minds was: With little or nothing left, how will they even begin to start over?

We found the answer in many places:

In the weathered face of an old woman ravaged by time but unbroken in spirit.

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In the laughter of children playing amidst debris.

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In the banging of hammers by fathers putting tarpaulins above their roofless homes.

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In mothers who lost no time selling their wares on the streets to earn income to feed their kids.

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In the generosity and kindness of each and every one of YOU—Citizens of the World, local or foreign, but undoubtedly now ALL Filipinos, whether by birth, by choice or by conscience—YOU with your compassion, empathy and love.

Survivor or Relief Worker. Donor or Donee. Victim or Rescuer. Filipino or Foreign. Not one person has been left unchanged by this. And we journey together until all is right in the world again.

Two days after Typhoon Yolanda, we sailed to Ormoc in search of our father. We found him and so much more. We found a deep admiration and a newfound respect for a people who have had more than their fair share of tragedy, but have responded only with certitude that they will prevail. This strength of spirit is common among survivors not only in Ormoc, but in Northern Cebu, Tacloban, and the rest of the Visayas as well.

With the rest of the world, we, as a nation, mourn all that has been lost to the monstrosity that was Typhoon Yolanda. She gave us her worst. In turn, we gave her our best. And we will continue to do so until the end. This is the legacy that Yolanda has left. 

 

Photo credit: Atty. Christina Garcia-Frasco and Bangon Ormoc.

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