Our Surigao City dream house had been “severely damaged” by Typhoon Odette, which ravished the region in a ruthless attack from the sky. “Imagine landscape being scraped by a steel brush,” our friend, Jake Miranda, posted after driving 50 km. south of the city in search of a signal for sending. “Surigao City around 75% damaged, but locals recovering. More for Siargao and Dinagat. Estimate is 4 to 6 months to restore power in Surigao.”
We had been bracing for bad news, of course, but hoping it would be better. For several days we’d been scouring Facebook, increasingly shocked at the burgeoning slash of videos showing the utter devastation. A few hours before Jake’s post, one had especially grabbed our attention. In it, we saw a young man documenting the damage to Punta Bilar, our home barangay, when a voice in the background comments, “look at that house on the hill; it’s missing half of its roof.”
“That sounds like ours, hon!” Ivy moaned as both our eyes widened in horror.
In fact, that was the first “news” we’d received since the moment, three days earlier, that we lost contact with Ivy’s sister, who lives in that house on the hill. Eva had just informed us in a live video chat that water was pouring in through the many broken windows upstairs. Then the feed went dead, leaving us to the darkness and silence of our grim imaginations.
Last night we finally heard from her after five long days and nights of silence. She and the family feel shaken but fine, she said, en route to a cousin in Butuan. Then she sent us pictures of what the house looks like now, confirming our very worst fears. Not only is much of the roof gone, but all the windows, most of the doors and even the beautiful white gazebo completed just weeks ago.
The inside of the upper floor looks like a disaster area, strewn with broken glass and debris. Most of the furniture has blown away, as has the art, air conditioning and, in my office, computers, books, and a lifetime of photos, mementos, and awards.
But amidst all the chaos, miraculously, gleams a silver lining. The basic structure seems to have held. To the extent, Eva tells us, that in the depths of this ferocious storm at least five families whose houses had blown away found shelter on the first floor of ours.
Somehow that affords a level of comfort, even in the depths of despair.
The other good news is that, as far as we know, the rest of our family and friends are all safe. Yet the number of known casualties keeps rising; as of this week, NBC was reporting nearly 400 deaths overall, though only a handful in Caraga including Surigao, Dinagat and Siargao. We pray those numbers don’t increase.
But the survivors, many without roofs over their heads, are facing critical shortages of food and water, as well as the inability to communicate with anyone outside. Fortunately, the Philippine Red Cross has stepped in, delivering five tons of food every day. And many of our friends have offered to help, an outpouring of support that’s heartening.
So, what’s the main takeaway from all this tragedy and disaster? For me, it’s simply this: that life stands poised on a dime. That, no matter how happy and stable one’s existence may seem, everything can change in an instant. It also confirms my long-held suspicion that God has a wicked sense of irony. Early in our ancient plans to make Surigao our home, every sign stood in our favor and every traffic light glowed green.
“All this leads me to conclude,” I confidently wrote last year following a priest’s blessing of our new home, “that God smiles on our little union of culture, nation and faith here on this hilltop in Punta Bilar.” Then came COVID, forcing a temporary retreat to California, and now this, further delaying our return.
We, of course, will try to rebuild. In a few months, after the dust has settled and the power’s restored, I shall travel to Surigao to survey the damage and assess where we stand. For now, though, all we can do is pray for guidance, offer encouragement, and help however we can.
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David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning author, journalist and radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.