DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/17 January) — Just past noon Wednesday, we crossed over Samal and flew on. When the choppers hung over Lupon, we made a turn for Mati. The mission was to load rice, sardines, and noodles waiting for the choppers at the Menzi Airstrip. The relief items were to be sent by the Davao Oriental provincial government to Barangay Simulao, an upland village in Boston where we at COPERS served last year at the request of the UNFPA.
Going by land to the village is tough enough under normal conditions. At the moment, it is still cut off due to bad mountain road conditions.
But the clouds closed in when we got to Mati. The pilots thought it best to abort the mission and try in the morning instead. As if in agreement, the skies opened up sending huge globs of rain pelting down with a vengeance. No more flying for the iron dragonflies that day.
We grabbed some halo-halo and cheeseburgers at a local restaurant and sat down to get to know each other. It’s been six years since I’ve flown on a chopper. I didn’t know they still allowed civilians in on their relief missions, especially over not so friendly territory, but the pilot had called me the night before saying his instructions had been not to fly out the next day unless I was on board.
I did not want the young man to get into trouble.
So there I was stranded in a Mati restaurant when I had left Davao thinking I’d be home in time for dinner.
Later, when the rain slackened, I would make a beeline for the department store before it closed for the night. I had no change of clothes on me. I offered to “sympathize” with the flyboys and wear the same clothes two days running, but they laughingly told me they always take to the skies with their personal kits.
Early the next morning, we tried again. It wasn’t raining and the sun would sometimes shine, but the winds were gusting like Puff the magic dragon. We had no choice but to land and wait it out at an airstrip in Barangay Lambajon in Baganga where more relief stuff that the Navy boat brought from Mati was waiting for the choppers. These were intended for the mountain communities in Cateel and Caraga where only the choppers could get to now that many bridges had been brought down by the surging floodwaters.
Colonel Benjie Madrigal of the 701st Infantry Brigade told me that more relief goods from Mati were actually being sent in the long way by trucks to the 1st District of Davao Oriental. From Mati, the trucks rolled to Compostela Valley, Agusan by way of Barobo and Lingig before it could reach Boston.
The flood was receding and the sun was shyly shining now and then, but repairing the bridges would take time.
I whiled away the time getting to know Lambajon again. It is the biggest barangay in Baganga and we had served there twice last year for psychosocial support in the months after Pablo. Some of the barangay officials still remember. They kindly asked me to look in on the newly-repaired daycare center next door.
There I found 54-year-old Alma Cerilla, the daycare teacher, with her class of 40, so neatly turned out and well-behaved. A young boy came up to me to say, “I am four years old.”
Of course, you are. Heartbreaker.
Back at the barangay hall, we made small talk about how the seaside community had overprepared for Yolanda and Zoraida in November. Zero casualty, except for the months-old payao (fish aggregating device) that got carried away by the huge waves Yolanda brought.
The payao was a grant from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. Kagawad Aguedo Lubiano deeply wishes that BFAR would once again look kindly on Lambajon and give them another FAD as post-Yolanda or post-LPA livelihood assistance.
“It was very helpful to us. It gave the residents daily subsistence,” he sighed wistfully.
Fishing is the primary livelihood source for the people of Lambajon. The other is employment at the big plywood company in the village that had to close in December 2012 when Pablo destroyed its facilities. It had reopened three months ago but is yet to be fully operational. Hence, it has only rehired 200 out of about 1,500 households in Lambajon.
Paul Serra, the newly minted barangay captain, agrees that a new payao would really be helpful. Right now, he has his sights set at streamlining the system for the barangay risk reduction management.
“I would prefer for every house to have a batingting,” he said. A batingting is a hanging bamboo or iron tube that one could hit to ring out an alarm. The sound carries.
Meanwhile, the village has sourced grants for life vests and rings and is looking to construct a BDRRMC building and acquire more life-saving equipment.
It was time to fly again. With the Huey loaded up, the flyboys put me in the backseat of the escort gunship this time. Soon our winged chariots skirted the coast for about twenty minutes and narrowly banked inland going higher and higher till the houses at the top of the mountains were merely specks in the distance. It was quite a treat. It’s like being up in a bubble skimming over the wispy clouds. For maneuverability, riding a gunship is like being inside a motorcycle, if that were possible. Except, this baby can fly sideways.
The cold winds up there among the clouds can be bitter. One learns to endure it in return for the uncommon view of the world that only riding a gunship can bring.
We were just to hover above and save aviation fuel as the Huey tried to land and deliver its load. The Huey crew led by Captain Dennis S. Alalay tried valiantly to buck the strong winds, but had to give up touching ground after the third try.
Down below, the Simulao residents were crestfallen.
“Why didn’t you just drop it, sir? We’re very hungry down here and people are getting sick!,” they texted.
The flyboys were equally disappointed, if not more so. They would have airdropped all that stuff if there wasn’t any danger of overbalancing the craft over the mountains. That was the last try before it got too dark to fly home.
The three choppers headed back to Mati. The flyboys will try again tomorrow.
Me – am going home now. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Gail Ilagan heads the Psychology Department and the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University.)