Legazpi City — Christmas season is almost almost over. I arrived home on the 24th and the electricity had yet to return to most parts of the city. It is 30th, and still, a significant part of Legazpi is in darkness. Most of it is still in shambles.
My sister says to me that during the first few days after the storm, some residents actually welcomed the darkness of brownouts; that way they did not have to look at night at all the devastation, all the depressed faces walking the city like ghosts who did not know what had, and what will, become of them.
It has been almost a month since the Typhoon Reming ravaged the province of Albay, leaving more than a thousand dead, tens of thousands homeless, and hundreds of thousands families and individuals devastated. People are a bit edgy every time it rains here, and it often does.
A month ago, in the morning of November 30, Reming snuck into Albay unnoticed. It brought with it torrential rains and a powerful storm. Within a couple of hours, the city — which was situated below sea level to begin with — was deep in flood, from knee-deep in most areas to over head in some.
The winds was unlike anything Albayanos, who were used to such storms, had seen, instantly blowing away houses and roofs. The rains unleashed the gravel deposited by Mayon Volcano’s eruption months ago and, as predicted by Pag-asa, run roughshod over several barangays, chiefly Busay and Culliat in Daraga, and Padang and Rawis in Legazpi. Several hundreds, mostly entire families were buried in lahar. Aquinas University, where I studied high school, was not spared. Nor were the students who residing in nearby dormitories. Entire buildings collapsed, killing people in it.
I am overwhelmed by the stories I hear everyday here. Stories of death, but also of survival.
“I know of some students in a dormitory who were in the top floor of the dormitory building, waving for people for help as the flood became higher. Residents from nearby houses sought refuge in those buildings, thinking that those with higher floors provide better chance for them to survive. They did not expect the lahar. I saw them from my house. They were pleading for help as the lahar came, collapsing the building. I could not do anything…”
“A family with a three-storey house in Busay was trapped in the third-floor together with their neighbors. All thirteen of them were buried with the onrush of lahar…”
“I saw a father standing in the roof of his house, trying to bring his wife and daughter there. A sudden rush of water overwhelmed the wife and daughter trying to climb the roof. Overcome with grief, the father jumps into the water, joining his wife and daughter who were already drowned…”
And in the recovery missions:
“It was horrible. All those bodies displayed in Daraga Park, most unidentified. Its too much me. I cried to my sleep for weeks…”
On Christmas day, I went to Barangay Culliat to interview residents, ask them how they spent their Christmas. There I met Aling Editha Demecillo, 56. It took them two weeks to get most of the mud out of the house, just in time for Christmas. Outside the house was a clutter of garbage and personnal effects, mountains of papers, a lifetimes worth of documents and old photographs. Aling Editha says they were quite happy this Christmas, for the family was spared from tragedy. During the storm, they had to climb to the kisame, all 13 of family members, to avoid being buried alive by the lahar. For six hours they stayed there, praying, not knowing they were to live or die.
The others were not so lucky. Or may be luck had nothing to do with it. A great majority who died were farmers, who lived and tended their farms located in these perilous areas. They had — have — nowhere else to go. I interviewed barangay officials, and they scratched their heads when asked if the government had already provided a permanent, liveable relocation site them.
I am overwhelmed by these stories.
There were queues everywhere: in drugstores, sari-sari stores, water refilling stations, gas stations. Two days after the storm in Legazpi, it is said, a man in a car was impatiently waiting in a long, long line in a gas station when he thought of a nasty but effective way of getting ahead in line. Without hesitation, he walked out of his car and told the people in line about a rumor that a tsunami is headed for Legazpi.
This was how, it is said among people in the place, the tsismis of tsunami began.
And the tsismis caught on. It was quickly passed on by people vulnerable, frightened and still in shock just two days after Reming destroyed their homes. Within hours people were hastily fleeing Legazpi, some bringing nothing but their clothes on. Some where even in tapis.
“It was unbelievably surreal,” my sister said. “It was like in the movies, like in that film Dante’s Peak. People panicked, and ran for their lives. They brought nothing else. We saw some people running bringing their grandmothers and grandfathers in their backs, running away from wherever it is they thought the tsunami will come. It was total chaos.”
Those who had cars wanted to drive to higher grounds, thus creating a heavy traffic in the streets.
The chaos lasted for hours, resulting in a few people being ran over by vehicles, including a kid who lost his mother while trying to flee Legazpi.
Of course, no tsunami came. The radio commentators tried to assure the public that no tsunami is coming. But after Reming, they no longer knew who to believe. No broadcaster, no scientist, no politician warned them of the storm. But it came, and it washed away and buried their loved ones. Frightened and angry, they no longer took chances.
It was a stupid, stupid, cruel rumor.