SIARGAO ISLAND (MindaNews / 20 December) – Although I am from Surigao City, I often go to Siargao for various reasons – business, leisure, some advocacies, journalistic work.
I partner with friends in a few tourism establishments, I fish, I help farmers, I surf, train for my triathlon events, and of course I do journalism, writing stories and taking pictures.
But I came here last Monday mainly for a different reason – my parents sent me on an errand to represent them in a court raffle for the publication of legal matters. Which of course I was able to do.
Then I did a little side trip for my advocacy work: I brought assorted vegetable seeds as my gift to farmers here as I have been involved in a project called “Hardin ng Pagbabago.” I was with my colleagues in this advocacy – among them Monette Atienza and Matt Cuadra. Luckily, I was able to give the seeds way before “Odette.”
I stayed at Payag Suites, a beachside accommodation in General Luna whose owner, lawyer John Cubillan, is a business partner.
I should have left the next day to take the boat to Surigao City so I can take care of my parents and my nieces there. I sent my parents a message instructing them to go to Gateway Hotel, just like what I did to keep us safe from the fury of “Yolanda” in 2013. Fortunately, Yolanda spared Surigao City.
But then “Odette” was fast approaching, and the Philippine Coast Guard issued a no-sail policy. I was trapped in this paradise island.
While John was busy preparing stuff, the issue of safety in times of typhoons popped up in mind, having attended safety trainings (I’m a certified lifeguard in the United States) and done many disaster coverages over the years. So I asked him about his preemptive evacuation plan.
He asked me a favor instead to manage the preemptive evacuation of Payag guests. This we swiftly did in less than 30 minutes, vacating all the 12 occupied rooms. I was glad they heeded my call to transfer to different accommodations identified by the local government unit as safe from possible storm surges and other hazards.
Then I thought about my own safety, where to seek shelter, considering the strength of the incoming typhoon.
Long before, I have already studied the safest place to be in Siargao should disaster happen. Using the 3D map of the National Operational Against Hazard (NOAH) project, I concluded that the location of the Siargao Sports Complex in the municipality of Dapa is the safest against natural disasters like floods, storm surges and landslides.
No wonder government line agencies, including the National Housing Authority, and private companies had eyed this location for infrastructure projects.
New sports complex
My friends and I checked out the sports complex in Barangay Osmeña. Its structures are so new and inaugurated by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte only last month.
It has huge tanks that could supply water for days, a diesel-powered generating set, solar lights around the complex, and free internet Wi-Fi courtesy of the Department of Information and Communications Technology.
I also humored my friends that in a worst case scenario, we could loot Puregold supermarket located just across the road. They laughed.
I informed Jing Gorgonio, a member of General Luna Mayor Cecilia Rusillon’s staff, to send some of their constituents who are at risk, especially those living near the sea, to join other evacuees at the Siargao Sports Complex. While there are other evacuation sites in General Luna, I reminded him that the sports complex, although situated in the adjacent municipality of Dapa, belongs to all Siargao residents. Many General Luna residents eventually joined us at the sports complex.
I was able to convince friends and guests to bring their cars to the sports complex that night, safely parked near one of the two grandstands. My group had seven cars – two latest Jimnys, three older versions, an Expander and a Defender. Other vehicles followed.
I spent Wednesday night at the complex with 540 other evacuees. I joined my friends in those concrete seats around the basketball court, using flattened carton boxes as our mats.
When my colleague Matt returned to General Luna for a few hours to rescue his relatives and some guests, I busied myself cooking rice, fish tinola and dispatching my photos and articles to MindaNews.
A cup of joe
Despite the tense situation and the impending disaster, I still managed to use my Chemex to brew freshly roasted coffee beans from Mt. Apo. Ahh … what a great cup it was.
While at the gym, I wanted to transfer to what I believe was a safer area, in those rooms under the grandstands. There are two of those buildings on opposite sides of the track oval. But the sports complex management barred us because those were intended for VIPs.
I was disappointed but did not complain.
At 5 a.m., we woke up to Christian worship songs played by fellow evacuees. I prayed ceaselessly and recited Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd …”
The complex’s main building, the gymnasium, has a basketball and a volleyball court, a press box, a media room and four comfort rooms at all corners but only two were open.
There are rooms around the building with rollup doors facing outside the gym. But these were all padlocked. Below the two grandstands on opposite sides of the track oval were more rooms, and more rooms at the sports academy building. But they were all closed, too.
More evacuees – mostly from the municipalities of Dapa, General Luna and Socorro, among them stranded tourists and foreign residents – came in the morning. More than a thousand people must have come as people realized how dangerous “Odette” could be.
But it was fun seeing friends and tourists at the sports complex.
It was like one huge community gathering as young males were playing basketball, children running around the vast open space, girls tending to their pets, families bonding like in a picnic.
There were no government disaster experts around to manage the evacuation, except for one who asked arriving evacuees to register themselves. And so chaos reigned.
As “Odette” revved up, people realized it may not be safe to be all in one place. What if the roof collapses? So people split up, some forcibly opened the locked doors.
At 9 a.m., with no one in charge, I came out to announce: “Let’s organize ourselves.”
“Marajaw na buntag (Good morning),” I used my loudest voice. “We should be organized. We will be killed if we don’t organize.”
I advised them that when the typhoon comes, we should not run or we’ll have a stampede. Everyone agreed. I gave them assignments to clean bathrooms, too.
“We should keep cleanliness so we won’t get sick. If we survive this catastrophic event but die due to sickness, our neighbors will laugh at us,” I said jokingly.
These words I repeated to the different groups spread in the sports complex – at the rooms around the gym and below the grandstands.
As “Odette” was coming closer, I started to get a barrage of queries from international news agencies. I dispatched some of my photos to the Agence France-Presse and Associated Press. I submitted a photo essay for MindaNews.
At 11:30 a.m., about two hours before landfall, electricity was cut off.
Several evacuees panicked. “Keep calm, keep calm,” I shouted.
I ran to the media room to check on the sports arena officer in charge, Rodrigo Zaballero, and his blind mother, his two children and a dog. I was supposed to stay in this safe place, but opted to be with my friends outside as I felt the room should be for toddlers and children.
Mothers cradling their infants followed me in the room, begging to come in. Men with children rushed in.
Too many people wanted to get inside the room. I convinced Rodrigo to at least let in the children, to which he agreed.
“This is for children only,” I said loudly. But within a few seconds, the media room was filled with more than 80 people. More outside begged to get inside.
I pulled the men out of the media room. In Cebuano, I repeatedly told them this room is for children only.
As I went out exploring other areas of the arena, I saw at the eastern corner horrified Muslim children crying non-stop as G.I. sheets from the roof started falling down.
The intensity of the wind and the rain kept on pummeling the arena. I went to the group of Muslims and urged them to keep calm.
I applied the lessons I learned in all the rescue, safety and survival trainings I have attended.
Open your eyes
“Keep calm and open your eyes, look up so you can see falling debris,” I told a bunch of them who covered their heads with blankets.
I ordered brave Muslim brothers to forcibly open two more comfort rooms to accommodate more people.
The east side was cleared of people except for a few children and girls hiding beneath the basketball rim.
Three Muslim brothers joined me in herding out people still in the basketball court. “Abandon the gym and seek shelter at the rooms outside,” I shouted. I also hinted at opening closed compartments forcibly, if necessary.
By then, only four of us were left in the basketball court, which by now had no more roof. I ran to the south side of the building and hid near the exit area as more G.I. sheets were blown away. I panicked. To calm myself, I prayed again and again.
At this time, mixed feelings came rushing in. “Why are you trying to be a hero when you could be safe had you stayed in the media room?” I asked myself. I thought I’d be dead soon. “Lord, everything’s up to you!” I said.
A glass door beside me was shattered, but I was surprised it didn’t hit me. Someone was holding it. I grabbed an abandoned bed mattress and gave it to the man holding it.
I ran outside and felt my body lifted by the wind for a second.
I planned on entering a room full of chlorine and other chemicals. I know there’s no people there because the room smelled so bad, but at least it would be safer as compared to being out in the open. As I opened the door and entered, the door slammed back and hit my head.
I got shaken and felt dizzy. I noticed blood streaming down my left eye.
Then I noticed the room wasn’t empty anymore. There were about 20 people inside.
I asked if I got a cut, some said yes. “Is it big or nasty?” I asked again as blood kept on dripping. Blood stained my shirt.
Wet wipes and pantyliners
In my panic, I left my emergency kit behind. Someone gave me her wet wipes, another gave me a pantyliner to wipe my face with.
Bloodied but not out.
I gave orders to pull out the drums and gallons of chlorine to accommodate more people, especially the pregnant and the sick. All of us got wet in the rain as we worked. Some shared their extra dry shirts.
We the men used empty plastic bottles to urinate. When it was time for women to pee, we turned our heads and I asked other women to help conceal them. Yes, privacy even in this dire situation.
Trapped men on the other end of the arena were rescued by braver men in my group. I may have been told I was bold and brave, but these guys were daredevils when it comes to rescuing other people.
They rescued children and old people. Not long after, 70 people were inside our room when we were originally 20.
“The more the merrier!” I thought. We squeezed in to heat up our bodies.
I kept on talking and cracked jokes to alleviate their traumatized minds.
I learned that many people feared that most of us who sought shelter at the sports complex were either injured or killed, especially when pictures and video clips of the devastated gymnasium started showing up in the news and on social media.
Even some evacuees right across the basketball gym can’t help but shed tears the very moment when more than half of the roof were blown away by the strong winds and its steel trusses crushed to the ground.
“I’m crying here at the adjacent place,” said Daniel Cowen, a British national now living in General Luna.
Daniel and family were at the gym in the morning of December 16 but decided to transfer at the adjacent building.
“When I saw the structure at the arena and the number of people inside, I was not convinced you’d survive,” Daniel said.
But we did! Only a few of us, me included, suffered minor injuries.
As we felt the wind changing its course, we prayed that “Odette” would finally leave.
As soon as the typhoon weakened, we slowly went out to pick up things scattered around.
When I saw Matt and his children, we raised our hands and smiled. “We managed to survive!” I said.
I learned that Matt, with six others, hid inside the air vent of one of the huge airconditioning machines situated around the gym. Brilliant!
In this friendship, I consider Matt as the angel, and me the devil. “Bad grass doesn’t die easily,” I teased him.
Looking back, I rose as the de facto leader among the evacuees because of all the safety trainings I have attended.
Thank you, Ma’am Carol of MindaNews, NUJP, PPI, Pecojon and other media institutions, the US Embassy, Canadian Embassy, the GIZ agency, who helped me train how to deal with disasters.
After cheating death amid Odette’s wrath comes the next challenge: How to survive the next few days until help arrives? Where to get food and water? (Roel N. Catoto / MindaNews)