By Gloria Esguerra Melencio
A long time ago — 112 years to be exact — when storms were nameless and Filipinos labored to erect sturdy Catholic churches made of thick adobe, a strong storm had destroyed towns in Samar and tidal waves washed hundreds of corpses ashore.
Tropical storms Ondoy (pronounced Undoy in the Bicol region) and Pepeng (Piping in Samar and Leyte) devastated Marikina, Pasig, Cainta and many more in Metro Manila as well as Bicol, Laguna, central and northern Luzon, and the Cordillera region – in two succeeding weeks in September and October 2009.
The number of deaths, mostly by drowning and mudslides, is nearing 500 as of this writing.
Father Cantius Kobak’s Samar and Leyte Collection kept at the Franciscan Archives records of a strong typhoon in 1897 that left all the people of the town of Basey homeless as it destroyed all the houses leaving only some posts standing.
The record likewise speaks of how said storm did not spare even the friar’s convent and the parish archives in Guian town. Books and documents had been wet and were beyond saving aside from the furniture made from exotic wood the Spanish priests regard as precious.
Writing from Guian on October 11, 1897, Reverend Father Fray Juan de Dios Villajos reports the situation in a developed and rich town that was completely ruined and “fatally hopeless for many years.” Much like in the present-day movie, the friar describes how the storm unleashed its fury during his time:
“The church is totally roofless; half of the belfry fell; the convent is completely destroyed; the roofs flew away; the walls outside and inside were torn.… There is no refuge in this town.”
Other nearby towns had also been as devastated. Fray Bernardo Tilebras reports this time from Basey, also in Samar.
He laments that 83 people were given burial on October 13, 1897 out of the 102 bodies found floating on water. It is quite surprising that these Samarenos who were good swimmers, they being born and raised close to the sea, died of drowning.
Tilebras graphically describes how the tidal waves had rose drowning people inside their huts by surprise and the flood carried the bodies everywhere. He says in his letter:
“The sea rose in frightening level bringing ships, botes, cascos and balotos which in turn struck against the houses.”
Even good swimmers like the Samarenos were no match to the deadly, nameless storm that brought floods to the province. They failed to save their own lives.
This brings to mind how the Metro Manila flood victims of typhoon Ondoy had all scampered to higher places recently when floods rose to as high as their rooftops. Or how the residents of Pangasinan, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija and Bulacan among others, swam desperately when the floodgates of dams had been opened after the rains of typhoon Pepeng filled them up almost to the brim. While the skill in swimming may be advantageous, floods spare no one. It was water everywhere.
Filipinos living in the Philippines’ 7,107 islands are used to be surrounded by water but when storms and floods – or even high tides and tidal waves – come, we all are just as vulnerable as our ancestors in 1897.
Retrieving memories after the storm
By Gloria Esguerra Melencio
The most painful part of disasters – aside from deaths and destruction of property- is losing one’s memories written on diaries, pictures, certificates of appreciation, yearbooks, birth certificates, diplomas and other souvenir items kept as mementos.
Written on papers which could easily get wet and swept away by flood, these mementos are one’s tangible connections to the past that flash back easily once the material item is retrieved from the shelf, closet or cabinet.
They were all gone, however, when typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng devastated more than five million families around Metro Manila, from down south up to northern parts of Luzon. Flood washed them away or mud buried them underneath forever leaving a gap between past and present.
Left are fond memories that will forever be etched in family history. With the absence of the tangible mementos, we Filipinos always go back to the oral history we have been used to since time immemorial. We tell stories of yore which we may never own but are assured of immortality once passed from one person to another.
Come to think of it, sociologists say Filipinos have no sense of permanence as explicitly shown in our nipa huts that never stand time but it is in this impermanence that we easily accept that our lives are only temporary. It is in this acceptance of mortality that we readily accept things the way they are.
And so retrieving the written mementos after the storm may be impossible but we hold onto it even during this lifetime momentarily by telling our stories to our children and future grandchildren who bask in the glory of our past.
Stories of experiences during the storms are never-ending. We tell them over and over again with ourselves as heroes – to the delight of the children but to the consternation of the adults who have heard of them a thousand times.
Nevertheless, we lost the mementos but we remember the memories and the feeling that goes with every piece of what was lost in the flood and mudslide.
It is in this mortality that we rise.