Surigao folk see hope in New Year amid typhoon ruins
SURIGAO CITY, Surigao del Norte, Philippines — When asked about their fishing boats during a disaster damage assessment just days after Typhoon Odette (international name: Rai) struck on Dec. 16, many fishermen in the city’s coastal villages replied, “zero visibility.”
When pressed what they meant, City Administrator Jerry Centro said the fishermen explained that many of them could not see a trace of their boats after the typhoon’s onslaught. “Waya nay bisibol, sir (Nothing is visible, sir),” Centro recalled how the fishers put it into a joke.
Couple Diosdado and Catherine Petilo, who make a living as ambulant vendors, recounted that as winds became stronger and rains heavier, they stayed inside their house, heads bowed in prayer and unmindful about the worst that could happen.
As Odette’s fury weakened by nightfall, Catherine said it was only then that they noticed they were drenched.
“When we looked up, we noticed our house was already roofless,” Catherine, chuckling, narrated in the dialect. She added that it was fortunate that the entire roof got blown away because had it crumbled, they could have been harmed.
After the harrowing experience from the storm, whose strength many in Surigao never encountered in their lifetime, the survivors’ ability to take misfortune lightly and see the brighter side of things indicated a resilient attitude that bodes well for their eventual recovery.
Immediately after the storm, many families who had nowhere to go for the night gathered what remained of their damaged houses and put up makeshift shelters where their homes used to stand or near roads. They did this aided only by flashlights as power supply was already cut off.
Odette left an enormous trail of destruction in the city: 23,738 houses destroyed, 19,424 damaged, and 50,957 families affected.
Mayor Ernesto Matugas Jr. said that practically everybody who lived in the city suffered Odette’s wrath.
Amid such landscape of ruin and despair, the strong community spirit among Surigao residents lightened the burden and helped others bounce back.
The Petilo couple said a neighbor in Barangay Cagniog, whose house sustained only minor damage, took them in, along with three other families, until they would be able to rebuild their house. Many other families have done the same in other parts of the city.
The Inquirer chanced upon sisters Lara and Shiara Macarine in Butuan City where they bought groceries and “noche buena” packs for Christmas to be distributed to 50 families in their neighborhood who had yet to receive relief aid that time.
They also raised donations from friends abroad to ensure that their neighbors will not go hungry if government aid falls short of their needs.
Families who have the means to buy in bulk in Butuan and Cagayan de Oro cities also offered to buy their neighbors’ needs through “pasabuy,” a play on the word “pasabay” (to hitch or to tag along). They have since launched donations for “pasabuy” for goods that will be distributed to specific neighborhoods.
These initiatives will be a big boost in sustaining the provision of humanitarian aid until affected families begin to recover their economic footing, and the local government regains the financial capacity to fully respond to their needs.
Grocery stores in Butuan City have set up special lanes for customers from and for those doing relief runs in storm-ravaged Surigao City.
Help from the larger Mindanao neighborhood and from humanitarian aid groups was also crucial in responding to the immediate food and nonfood needs of residents whose top request, until now, is for roofing materials.
Among local residents, traders were adept at adopting to the new situation in the city. From selling RTW (ready to wear) at the public market that was destroyed by the typhoon, Nadjer Ungco now offers rechargeable or solar-powered lamps and other lighting equipment.
Another trader runs a charging station where people pay to power up their gadgets as the stations run for free by the local government could only accommodate a limited number.
Some restaurants have reopened, offering alfresco dining, and in the evening, customers are treated with candlelit dinner arrangements due to limited power supply from available generator sets.
In Barangay Rizal, a dealer of “lechon” (roasted pig) makes do with what’s left of their facility to cook for customers, riding on high demand during the Christmas holiday.
The local people’s faith is also helping them come to terms with Odette’s violence on Dec. 16.
After the storm, the San Nicolas de Tolentino Cathedral wasn’t able to hold the start of “Simbang Gabi” (series of night or dawn Masses in the nine days leading to Christmas) on Dec. 16 as it was still flooded. But by the morning of Dec. 17, people flocked to the church prompting parish leaders to rush a cleanup so the Mass could be celebrated beginning that night, even aided only by flashlights.
The holding of Masses became more convenient as a generator set was provided to the church on Dec. 20.
Devout Catholic Victoriano Anastacio, a person with disability, said he was sad that he was not able to complete Misa de Gallo, a regular ritual of his life that he said brought him good tidings as a vendor in the local port.
He said that apart from praying for good health, he also asked God to spare the city from another calamity, such as Odette. The locals’ memory of the last catastrophic weather event in the city was Typhoon “Nitang” (Ike) in 1984.
Fr. Vincent Louisse Ruaya told parishioners to not stop thanking God for the blessing of life as they survived the typhoon. He urged the faithful to continue to be kind, especially to those who are in dire need.
On the road to Lipata port, which connects to the Visayas, stranded truck drivers celebrated Christmas by coming together as family even as they only knew each other there as they shared the same fate due to Odette.
They cooked glutinous rice to mark the feast of Christ’s birth and offered some to reporters who came to observe how they were doing. They said it helped them endure the impact of the typhoon which toppled some of their trucks.
In coastal Barangay Mabua, near Lipata, 41-year-old Romil Giluano, a father of seven, said he was thankful that amid the tragedy, his family was spared from harm even as their house was in ruins, pummeled by waves as high as 4.5 meters (15 feet).
“I am now building a small shelter for me and my children, [on the land] where our house used to be,” he said.
Although he lost his fishing boat and gears to the storm, Giluano says his family is the most precious treasure he has now, as he tries to get up and move forward from Odette’s nightmare.
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