“Nandito na!!! Dumating na!!!” (It´s here! It has arrived!)
The wind was gaining more speed. The rain was getting heavier and heavier. The children were already asleep while the grown-ups were up listening to the commotion outside; praying and waiting for the whole thing to subside. Nora, sitting on her couch in Barcelona while nervously holding her phone, listened to her sister shouting at the other end of the line. She could hear the sound of strong wind gusts and the loud splashing noise of the rain banging on the roof. Her grip on her mobile phone tightened as she tried to imagine her hometown being battered by one of the strongest typhoons in history.
“Yung bubong nilipad na!!!” (The roof has been flown off!)
Her sister shouted again. Her phone credit was running out. She told her sister to hang up. The last thing she heard before saying goodbye was her sister shouting again.
“Bumagsak na yung balcon!!!” (The balcony fell off!)
She felt her heart beating fast as she hurriedly topped her phone up. She called back after fifteen minutes but the line had died. She dialed again. She could feel her body tremble. The sound of the angry winds didn´t leave her head even if she was a thousand miles away from the raging storm.
“I will call them tomorrow.” She told herself.
Nora Calumpingan, a mother of two
Nora, 33, was originally from Suluan Island. She moved her two sons, Mel Anthony, 12 and Michael Vince, 10 to Guiuan to study under the care of her parents. They shared the one-storey, two-bedroom house with Nora´s older sister, her sister´s husband, her nephews and their adopted brother. They lived in Brgy. Hollywood which is more or less 50 meters away from the coast. They are already used to storms as Eastern Samar is always visited by strong typhoons year after year.
Emmalyn Baquingon, a worried daughter
Emmalyn, 29, was born on the island of Humonhon. She came to Spain three years ago and her family moved to Guiuan months later. She learned that there was a typhoon coming but she didn’t see any reasons to worry because their island has been an unwilling host of typhoons entering the country. She wasn´t sure though if their new house could withstand the possible strength of the coming storm. The only thing that she was sure of was their house was yet to be finished.
Thursday 7th November
Nora called her sister at exactly 10:00 in the morning in Spain; 5:00 in the afternoon in the Philippines. She was assured that they were fine and prepared. She insisted that her whole family move to a two-story house owned by a friend in case it got stronger and destructive. Her family did as told but when she called again, they had moved back to their house because the sun was shining. There was no sign of a super typhoon.
The last time Emmalyn talked to her mother in Guiuan was at 7:00 a.m., Spanish time. Her family was already preparing to move in to a friend´s bungalow as their house was made of wood and was near the coastline. At ten o´clock in the evening, she tried calling her mother again but the line was dead. She called her sister in Manila. Their parents were able to move in to the bungalow.
As a force of habit, as soon as she got home from work at 9:00 p.m., she checked her Facebook account. Something was wrong, she thought. There was a massive influx of updates and shout-outs posted by friends living in Guiuan. Flying roofs! Broken windows! Falling trees! With shaking fingers, she dialed her sister´s number and a frantic voice answered her.
“Nandito na!!! Dumating na!!!” (It´s here! It has arrived!)
Friday, 8th November
“Where could they be?” She had been asking herself the whole morning. She found herself blaming her family for going back to their house and did not stay put in a stronger house. She was also blaming herself for not insisting hard enough. As soon as the phone connection had died the previous night, her friends in Guiuan had also stopped posting their shout-outs about the super typhoon. Without sleep, Nora went to work. But this didn´t stop her from dialing her sister´s number every minute.
Emmalyn usually cries when she cuts onions. But on this day, cutting the onions was not the reason why tears were welling up in her eyes. Early this morning, she saw her friends´ updates on Facebook. She couldn´t believe Yolanda was that strong. Extremely shocked, she suddenly felt scared for her family. She cried and cried while cutting the onions. As soon as her employer sent her home, she went to see her flat mate Nora and shared what she had found out on Facebook. They tried calling their families even if they knew that they couldn’t get through.
Saturday, 9th November
The typhoon had already exited the Philippines but there was still nothing about their families. “Where are they? What happened to them?” Questions they alternately asked themselves while scouring the web for possible news. They hadn’t eaten properly since Friday and they had been crying all day. They had transformed their living room into a make-shift “newsroom” as both of them hunted for pieces of news, commentaries, forums, or shout outs on Facebook.
“Are they still alive?” Emmalyn´s cousins in Manila were also asking her. Even them found it hard to know what happened to their relatives in Guiuan. Emmalyn felt a surge of frustration whenever she bumped into news about Tacloban. Everybody was talking about Tacloban. Almost all the photos and articles she found were about Tacloban. Although, she felt bad for the people of Tacloban, she was also hoping that somebody would at least talk about Guiuan. “What about Guiuan? Yolanda slammed Guiuan first!”
Sunday 11th November
Photos started to flood the cyberspace as images of the aftermath of the storm were all splattered on every news websites all over the world. Nora and Emmalyn couldn´t believe how massive the destruction was. Nora couldn’t get over the fact that this was the typhoon she heard on the phone when it was crushing her house. She carefully examined each photo. She checked the faces of the survivors. She checked the children, the old people. One of them could be her son. Or her mother, her father, or her sister. “Makikita ko pa kaya sila? Kakayanin ko kaya ito?” She felt helpless.
Emmalyn felt like a withered vegetable. She didn´t feel like eating or even a glass of water. Rumors of looting, hunger and slow relief operations worried her sick. They decided to go to mass to feel better. Even before they could enter the church´s threshold, they were already crying. They stormed the heavens for help. They begged God to prepare them for the worst to come. The mass was offered to the victims of the typhoon and as the priest was asking the people to extend help to the victims, photos of the survivors were flashed on the projector. Nora and Emmalyn craned their necks to see each photo. Nora began to imagine her two sons. What if they didn´t have food to eat. Or they were sick. Or wounded. Her parents. What if they are…? It was too much for her to handle. After the mass, they were swarmed by their friends to offer support.
Emmalyn was able to talk to her sister in Manila. She finally decided to go to Guiuan and was supposed to fly to Butuan on this day. From Butuan, she would take a bus going to Surigao and from Surigao, a pump boat to reach Guiuan. But because of the coming of yet another typhoon, flights had been cancelled.
Monday, 12th November
As the entire world had already known about what had happened in the Philippines, Nora and Emmalyn read almost all the write-ups about the typhoon hoping to learn something about their hometown and eventually about their families. It was exhausting. Undaunted, they told themselves they would never stop until they found out something. Her attention was caught by a photo of an aerial view of a town with a caption saying “Brgy. Hollywood, Guiuan.” She felt her pulse running wildly. This was her family´s place. She zoomed in the photo and she was sure she saw their house or rather, what was left of their house. Their garden, all ravaged and destroyed. The roof and the balcony were gone. She imagined her son crying for help in the midst of strong winds, waves and rain. It was such a painful sight she found herself crying again.
A Catalan television channel wanted to interview Nora and Emmalyn. They saw a glimpse of hope. This will be their chance to tell the world to help them look for their families. They were accompanied by Sister Paulita Astillero, president of Centro Filipino in Barcelona. The television crew was nice and sympathetic. It was their first time to be interviewed live inside a television studio. While waiting for their turn, Emmalyn avoided the television screens flickering in front of her. Every screen was showing children wandering aimlessly, barefoot and alone, mothers holding their new-born babies, parents grieving over their lifeless children. These images were filled with horror, fear and desolation. The host asked them to show the televiewers some photos of their families. They tried to fight back their tears. But when Emmalyn held the photo of her parents and showed it to the camera, her voice quivered and tears flowed down her cheeks. She held it tightly praying very hard that there may be one of the million people who might see the interview happened to know the whereabouts of her family.
It was back to their “newsroom” once again after their television interview. They were back to combing news websites and updates on Facebook. Emmalyn wrote the International Red Cross and Yolanda Google finder. Her sister had finally flown to Butuan. He joined a Manila-based group to bring food to their relatives in Guiuan.
Tuesday, 13th November
“Hindi ko ito tutulugan! Hindi ako titigil!” (I will never sleep. I will never stop.) Nora had a feeling that something would come up if she didn’t stop looking. At four in the morning, she came across an update posted by a friend´s friend on Facebook. The post said, “I hope my family in Guiuan are safe…” Her heart leap at the mere sight of the word “Guiuan”. She scrolled down hoping for a reply. Somebody replied. “For those who are from Guiuan, you can contact this person…” She knew the person. With her heart beating so fast, Nora grabbed her mobile phone and dialed the number. “God, let it ring.” It rang. She waited for the person to take the call. “God, please answer.” But the line just kept ringing. She dialed again. Still, nobody was picking the call. She tried her third attempt. The call was finally taken and a very calm voice began to speak on the other end of the line. “Who is this?” Nora was hysterical. She was on the verge of shouting and crying at the same time. “Hello! Dexter! This is Nora!”
Lack of sleep and an empty stomach took its toll on Emmelyn. Even if she was fighting it hard not to doze off while searching for the list of people who had died in the storm, her heavy eyes and light head made her. But she was suddenly roused from her deep sleep when she heard Nora shouting hysterically on the phone. “Kamusta si nanay? Kamusta si Tatay? Ang pamilya ko? Saan sila?” (How is my mother? How is my father? My family?)
Dexter turned out to be in Cebu during the call. He was able to visit Guiuan immediately and check his family right after the typhoon. In yet another calm voice, he assured Nora that her mother was okay, her sons were okay, her sister and her family were okay. “Pero yung tatay mo, may sugat sa ulo.” (But your dad has a cut in his head.)
Emmalyn saw Nora dancing on the couch. Shouting and laughing. “Buhay sila! Buhay!” (They are alive!) Nora shoved the phone to Emmelyn. “Talk to Dexter, he might know something about your family.” Dexter may have already been immuned to numerous hysterical phone calls asking him about their families´ whereabouts that his voice was relaxed and unaffected that Emmalyn thought he was just pulling their leg. “Wala namang gaanong damage, safe naman.”
Adamantly, Emmalyn took it as an assurance, although she wanted to talk to her family.
For several minutes, euphoria wrapped the whole house as the two celebrated the good news. When they finally got back to their senses, they looked at each other and felt something.
“Dali! Magsaing ka! Kain tayo!” (Quick! Go cook some rice. We are eating!)
“Wala tayong ulam!” (We don´t have food!)
“May gatas!” (There´s milk.)
Days of agony and preoccupation made them skip meals without noticing it. After the good news though, they finally had the appetite to eat anything even if it would mean rice with only a glass of milk poured in it mixed with chocolate powder Neskwik.
Relieved and overjoyed, Nora thanked God and their friends for the unexpected turn of events. As if Dexter´s assurance wasn´t enough, Nora stumbled upon a video clip posted on Facebook of an interview of their town mayor. Finally, something about their town, she thought. She intently watched the video and suddenly, her heart froze and her nerves trembled, but in a good way. She paused the video, went back, paused one more time, played it back and paused again.
“Mga anak ko! Nakita ko sila!” (My boys! I saw my boys!)
Nora was hysterical again. In the clip, right after the mayor was interviewed, the reporter showed the extent of the damage in Guiuan. As the camera panned on the battered houses, it caught two boys passing by, with their backs to the camera, carrying a pail of water.
“Mga anak ko yan! Kilala ko ang lakad nila. Alam ko kung paano sila mag-igib. Kung paano inaalalayan ni bunso ang kanyang kuya!” (Those are my boys! I know their walk. I know how they fetch water. How my younger son helps his big brother with the pail!)
Nora and Emmalyn watched the video all over again. Nora started calling her siblings in Canada, Saudi Arabia and Manila. They needed to start planning what to do next. Emmalyn´s sister must have already arrived in Guiuan because when she tried calling his phone, there was no connection.
Wednesday 14th November
Emmalyn wanted to really make sure that her mother and father were alive. She checked all the typhoon-related posts on Facebook. She happened upon a friend who is now based in Surigao but her parents were in Homonhon. This friend posted her phone number for people who wanted news about their families in Guiuan. Something was telling her to call the number. It turned out this friend was able to talk to her mom´s godchild Ramil. Ramil was in Calbayog to get some food and have internet connection. According to Ramil, nobody died in their place. Emmalyn wanted to personally talk to her mother´s godchild.
“Ramil, how is mother?”
“She´s okay. They are safe.”
“Do you have anything to eat?”
“We have some but not enough. We need to get food here in Calbayog.”
Emmalyn cried and cried after the confirmation.
“Thank you Lord. I am really going home. I really want to see them. ”
Nineteen days later
As of this writing, nineteen days after the deadly typhoon trampled Central Philippines, the government has stepped up its relief operations. Surviving families have already started to bury their dead relatives. International aides have been pouring in. Prayers and sympathies have been overwhelming. Everybody is doing his/her share to help rebuild the lives of those who survived one of the most devastating typhoons in history.
As for Nora and Emmalyn, they finally met their families in Guiuan last, 22nd November. They couldn´t be more thankful to God for sparing them from the wrath of the monster typhoon. They haven’t prepared for this spontaneous homecoming and they may not have enough money with them. What matters is that their families are alive and safe. They are planning to take them to Manila as the situation in Guiuan is still very difficult.
Looking back, although Nora and Emmalyn went through days of agony and uncertainty even if they were miles and miles away from the destructive storm, they never lost hope and gave up praying.
“That was what held us together: the mighty power of hope and prayers.”
Nats Sisma Villaluna came to Spain to study Masters in International Sectorial Economics at the University of Santiago de Compostela in 2004. From 2005 to 2008, he worked as a volunteer with various Spanish NGOs in Madrid. In 2009, he took up Masters in International Cooperation at the University of Barcelona. At present, he juggles from teaching English to being an active volunteer of Centro Filipino in Barcelona. He is a member of The Filipino Writers in Spain and the Grupo Concierto Filipino. Nats is a lover of books, good food and art films. He also travels a lot in his free time.