Here in Siargao, a small island just north of Mindanao, we keep close track of all the tropical storms and typhoons that are developing in the Pacific ocean. Not so much because we’d be scared of super typhoons like Haiyan, but because these weather phenomena are what give birth to the swells we strive to surf whenever possible.
We were well aware of Haiyan, or Yolanda as it’s dubbed here in the Philies, at least a week before its arrival to the Philippine coast. Normally we’re excited when we spot a powerful typhoon in the satellite images. We would start waxing our boards and spread the word about good surf sessions in a few days. This one was different. The typical path of a low pressure area is such that it turns north well before posing any threat to the central Philippines, just sending us the waves to enjoy. Haiyan was at a crash course with Siargao from the very beginning. And our island is facing straight to the ocean and among the first islands to take the hit.
Our group of three Finns was probably better informed of the incoming threat than anyone on the whole island. As the landfall was foreseen to Friday morning, we started to be a bit worried already on Monday. For most of the locals it was just another internet rumor that would probably be hoax anyway. The general indifference continued on Tuesday. We were at a birthday party of a local friend and I tried to reflect my concerns while enjoying the traditional birthday treat, a pig roast, with some (OK, a lot of) local punch, but still everybody seemed to expect Haiyan to eventually turn north. The impression of indifference is totally understandable when one remembers that Filipinos get several typhoon warnings every year, and more often than not it’s just bad weather for a day.
By Wednesday morning the atmosphere had changed drastically. A lot of tourists had already jumped to a boat towards Surigao by the time I could get out of bed after the party. Now also locals suggested us to leave the island if anyhow possible, and the resorts had hired tens of men to cover all the windows with plywood, cut down branches and coconuts from palm trees, drag boats far away from the shore etc. The situation had turned 360 degrees to the other direction, as some sports people would put it.
Our decision was to try and catch the first ferry to Surigao departing 5.45 in the morning. After this was agreed upon, we spent the rest of Wednesday packing our bags, stocking up with food and trying our best to protect the house and any stuff left behind. There was a lot of confusion whether the ferries would be going at all the next morning, but we rationalized that the storm would not hit the island until Friday morning and on Thursday morning there should be no problems.
The alarm had set to go off at 3.30 as we had to take the three of us with all the luggage to a nearby resort by one moped before jumping to a car for the drive to the harbor. I slept about two hours before wake-up. The leading part of the 600 km diameter super typhoon had already reached Siargao, as we could feel from the torrential showers every now and then. Two of us made the drive to the harbor of Dapa comfortably inside a truck, but the third of us had to sit at the rear bed of the pickup with all our bags covered with garbage bags. The rain was pouring down almost the entire half-an-hour drive to Dapa, and as we got there the dock area seemed alarmingly empty. All the scheduled boats were canceled due to the storm warning given by the government, as we later learned.
Being stuck at the island we had to go for the plan b. Acknowledging the fair chance for the ferries to be canceled, we had managed to reserve ourselves a room in a concrete house in the evacuation village of Consuelo. Consuelo is supposed to be the safest village in Siargao, but ‘safest’ does not necessarily imply ‘safe’.
We went back to our house and packed only the essentials to small daypacks, as our evacuation hosts could have a full house with not much space for our rucksacks. All the rest we put to plastic barrels and sealed the covers with duct tape. After helping out to protect bar furniture etc at the nearby resort we drove to Consuelo and got warmly welcomed by a hearty local family whose daughter we already knew.
This is when my picture of life in an evacuation village changed at once. People were smiling and laughing and took us in as if we were family. What does it help to be gloomy and melancholy if we’re already at the safest place we can get to, right? Mother of the family started to prepare lunch while we drank a few coldies and picked up raw mangos from a tree to eat with salt.
The lunch was delicious. Not any canned spam or emergency food like that but typical Filipino cuisine with a variety of dishes to choose from and mix together. Our compliments were met with modesty. After lunch the daughter and her friend, also an acquaintance of us, told us “let’s go!” “Where are we going?” we mumbled. “No questions, just come!”
Considering the prevailing circumstances where we actually went might sound slightly irresponsible to say the least, but on the other hand it confirmed the rumors about how people usually amuse themselves during an evacuation. Off we went to a local bar and there we watched wide-eyed when our friends carried beer, drinks and food to the table. The predicted landfall of Haiyan was early Friday morning and now it was Thursday afternoon, so there was no problem in spending three to four hours in a bar having fun. My fun factor was somewhat damped by the tiredness, though.
Sun had already set when we walked back to the house in moderately heavy rain. At the porch father of the family drank local rum with his friends and it would have been rude to refuse when they offered a drink. What waited for us inside was more food; a dinner even fancier than the lunch. After dining at around 8 pm we were all exhausted from the rough and long day and fell asleep in our beds fully clothed.
I woke up around midnight and the whole house was sleeping. I tried to get the latest info on the typhoon’s movements with my 3G capable Kindle at the porch while watched the rain and wind gain more strength. By 1 am the sky was pouring down and gusts were so strong that sitting at the porch did not feel safe anymore as debris was already flying in the air. When I got back inside half of the family had already woken up from the noise, and shortly after that the power went out. As we were placing candles and flashlights around the house the mother opened the door and water started flooding in to the living room. The porch where I’d been sitting just a while ago was now an ankle deep swimming pool. There was nothing we could do but wait so I went back to sleep around 2 am.
My Finnish friend woke me up at around eight and said that the typhoon was mostly gone. Having time believing that I was reluctant to leave the house before I confirmed it from a satellite image. Our local friend brought the news from another evacuation house telling that the typhoon had turned south and our house had lost its roof. Satellite imaged showed me that the first rumor was false. The eye of Haiyan had passed around 100 kilometers to the north of us.
Breakfast was served shortly after we got up from our beds. After eating we packed our backpacks, left most of our food and some money to the family, which they reluctantly accepted after some persuasion. We drove back to our house with strong winds still blowing and a lot of fallen branches on the streets.
Our house was fine and the palm leaf roof was still there with only a few leaking holes more than before. The biggest damage to our place was the banana tree that had given up, so we had to harvest the crop a little bit early.
Life in the island got back to normal fast. After undoing all the precautionary measures all that reminded us from the storm were the streets filled with coconuts and branches and still weak overseas connections. A friend of ours was already kite surfing in the remnants of Haiyan. Power got back shortly after sunset.
Our ease during the threat of a serious catastrophe is yet another demonstration of what is so special about the Philippines. It is the people. The unlimited hospitality despite poverty, the optimism and happiness despite constant shortage and high spirits despite total uncertainty about the future.
My story at the mercy of perhaps the most powerful cyclone ever to hit the land has a rather dull and anticlimactic ending. I just wish the story was just as dull and anticlimactic for the millions of Filipinos whose homes Haiyan hit head-on.