Thursday, July 13, 2017

[Second Opinion] Remembrance of typhoons past

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Typhoons were a big part of my childhood. Surrounded by the forest trees on Mount Makiling, our apartment in the UP Los BaƱos housing area was particularly vulnerable to the storms’ effects.

The anticipation for a coming storm began with Ernie Baron’s prognostications on “TV Patrol,” in which he would point his weatherman’s stick at the Pacific in order to show the position of the looming storm. As the storm entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility, it would acquire a Filipino woman’s name (“Rosing,” a strong one, was particularly memorable, it being the name of my paternal grandmother).

Signal No. 2 sufficed to cancel classes in elementary school, but sometimes even after Signal No. 3 was raised there would be blue skies, or just some cloudiness, in which case we would play our favorite outdoor games: patintero, siato, or taguan. Otherwise, we would just stay indoors. Looking back, I would attribute my penchant for reading books to the many days when there was nothing else to do.

The apartments — a housing project for UP faculty — were thankfully sturdy, but because we were surrounded by trees, even a slight wind could cause a branch to fall on electric wires, cutting off power. And so even before the first gusts arrived, we already expected “brownouts,” which sometimes lasted for weeks.

After the storm, we the neighborhood kids would scour the forest for sticks that we could use for siato; the best were from fallen branches of kape and kamagong. The brownouts — and trips to a water outpost a few kilometers away — may continue for days or weeks, but everything else was back to normal. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, it must have been a tremendous effort on my mother’s part to make sure that we could go back to school—with ironed uniforms and packed lunches—despite the lack of electricity.

My childhood experiences are just one thread in the Filipino struggle to face the storms that come our way. Safe in their mansions and gated villages, some children may never even have heard the ominous sound of a fierce gust of wind; a typhoon’s sole consequence will be to have no classes. For others, however, the experience is far worse.

A few years ago, a typhoon swept Laguna and felled many trees, including most of my maternal grandmother’s rambutan. When my mother visited her the next morning, my Lola Belen was in a state of shock, unable to process the sight of so many fallen rambutan days before they were to be harvested. How much more shocked, I thought, are Filipinos who wake up to destroyed houses, or those who could not sleep because of floods? Typhoons call us to empathy — a realization that the blind force of nature affects people differently—and we have to factor in others’ experiences, not just our own.

I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Tacloban, where my friends opened up about their experiences of living through “Yolanda.” They said: “It wasn’t the typhoon per se that devastated us, but the aftermath. People were not people anymore: Some were willing to kill for a sack of rice. And the stench of dead bodies permeated the air for several weeks…” As they proceeded, it became clear to me that the full impact was beyond narrative.

Even so, Tacloban itself has risen, and my friends show no sign of defeat. “It makes you stronger, knowing that you lived through Yolanda,” one of them said. What shines through in their accounts, like a candle in a dark stormy night, is a resilient spirit: one that we can neither romanticize nor underestimate.

“What do you do,” I once asked an old woman in Catanduanes, “when the roofs are detached?” She laughed. “We chase after them,” she said, perhaps half-jokingly. “And nail them back.” Which reminded me of what my Lola Belen told me in the wake of the storm, weeks later: “We will plant new trees. It will only be a matter of time when there be rambutan again.”

With our planet’s climate changing, and our future ever more uncertain, I fear that there will be stronger typhoons, with greater impacts, ahead of us. But I know enough of the Filipino people to say that we are capable of weathering any storm.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

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