The poignant resilience exemplified by Filipinos in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan is no surprise to me.
In 2010-2012 I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central Visayas region on the island of Negros Oriental, just two islands west of Leyte where Haiyan obliterated the city of Tacloban on November 9. Our headquarters in Manila called or texted us continually whenever a natural disaster was imminent. We each had consolidation points to go to in times of emergency. In extreme cases, we would be evacuated.
I was texted a lot.
The Philippines, the most-exposed large country in the world to tropical cyclones, lies directly in the Typhoon Belt and withstands about 20 typhoons each year. If that’s not enough, it’s also in the middle of the Ring of Fire, where many volcanic eruptions and 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur. The country’s 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo was the world’s second largest land eruption of the 20th century.
My first taste of what Filipinos endure, and how they bear it, occurred in mid-December 2012 when I was returning to my town from a doctor’s visit in Manila. Typhoon Washi, unlike most big storms that shoot straight north and slam into Luzon, had suddenly veered sideways toward the Visayas (like Haiyan did). Although I luckily missed the storm, the aftermath remained.
From the airport, the highway heading into the main city Dumaguete was jammed. Several bridges had overflowed and turned into a mini-tsunami, carrying away untold houses. Hundreds were missing. The route to Sibulan, where I lived, was clear. When I got home, my neighborhood was untouched, but no one had power or water. My neighbors said that dozens of families left homeless by the storm were holed up at the town quadrangle. I walked down to see them and was stunned at how normal everyone looked. Several mothers were strolling back and forth across the stage happily bouncing infants in their arms. They waved and smiled when they saw me. A handful of barefooted kids ran up and greeted me. Surely these couldn’t be the victims.
When I asked, they said they had lost their homes and everything in it, including their pets. They hadn’t even escaped with their sandals. On the steps of the municipal hall, our harried-looking vice-mayor in shorts and T-shirt was conferring with aides. Soon, bottled water and packets of sandals from the market arrived. The kids and adults scrambled to grab a pair, throwing them on the ground to measure their sizes and compare colors. Many were left without a pair. Another trip to the market was ordered.
I learned that my principal’s house was flooded and he was holed up with his family in his office. My coteacher’s house was inundated with mud, and she was staying with relatives. One of my former host families had to scramble to save their valuables as a river of debris roared out of the rice paddy behind their house (and my old bedroom) and into their property.
More than 1,000 were dead.
On the way home I stopped at my friend Nick’s house to see how he and his family were doing. They were heading to Dumaguete to borrow some water from a relative. I told them the highway was flooded and they may not get through. They said they had no choice. In spite of that, he invited me to our tennis club’s Christmas party that evening. I knew he wasn’t serious.
I returned home and read for a while under candlelight. Then it started to pour. Then it got serious. It was coming down harder than I thought it was possible for rain to come down.
Nick texted me and said he was ready. He had been serious. It wasn’t raining cats and dogs, it was raining cows and caribous. The party was potluck, he said, so I scraped together some leftover spaghetti, grabbed my umbrella, flicked on my flashlight, and headed out into the monsoon. The sky was raven black, the street a river. I met Nick at his gate, and he was waiting for me in shorts and sandals. Unreal. We sloshed through the downpour to the party.
Everybody was there, relaxed on the host’s marble porch under flickering candlelight, drinking Tanduay rum, and arguing over the big story of the moment – not the typhoon but the impending impeachment of a Supreme Court justice – while the host’s wife and helpers prepared our potluck dishes.
As my head reeled at their ease at putting the rain and calamity behind them, I politely asked them what was it about Filipinos that gave them such strength to seemingly treat misfortune as a mere nuisance.
“Our faith sustains us,” one said. Nods all around.
Another added, “As a people, we’re cheerful, untroubled, no matter what happens.”
That reminded me of an incident earlier in my service after an earthquake had hit one of the islands. As a TV crew interviewed survivors, bystanders behind them jumped up and down, waved, and smiled at the camera.
“Why be sad?” a third said. “We’re hopeful. Always looking forward. It’s our nature.”
As an example, he described a call he got the day before when the typhoon was lashing the town the hardest. Floodwaters near the house of a policeman he knew suddenly surged down his street. As it rushed toward his home, he ran inside to alert his family. But he didn’t want to panic his mother because she had a serious heart condition. Such a shock could be lethal. So instead of shouting, “A flood is coming! Grab your things and run!” he sang softly to them:
“The flood is coming, so grab your things. Take my hand, and we’ll be all right. La-la-la-la-la.”
The Philippines will be all right.