Destroyed but not defeated: Ormoc community lives on
ORMOC, Philippines – For Merlita Matudina, Super Typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Haiyan, was nothing.
Haiyan destroyed their possessions, left her family close to starving for weeks and removed the roof of their house in Ormoc, Leyte. More than half a year later, she recalled it simply as a day of very strong winds, heavy rain, and a temporary separation from her family.
For the 55-year-old single mother of 3, Haiyan is no match for the flash flood Ormoc experienced in 1991, when she met a mother's worst fear – losing a child.
There's no doubt in Merlita's mind that to her, Yolanda was kind. After the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines in 2013 came and went, the only casualties in the Gawad Kalinga (GK) village where she lived were houses and things.
After losing a husband to cancer, a firstborn to disaster, and raising 3 children with the meager earnings of a food vendor, Yolanda was just another chapter in an eventful life.
Hardships taught her to fear – but they also taught her to thrive.
The community Yolanda built
Everyone was accounted for in the eve before Yolanda's arrival. Merlita, her 70-year-old mother, and her youngest daughter Leilanie stayed in a school in Tambolili, another barangay in Ormoc. Her eldest, 28-year-old Ester stayed at home with her fiancé Mark to watch over their things.
None of them knew what to expect, but their deep-seated trauma with rain kept them alert. Hours later, seeing a sunless sky each time the wind would lift the roof of their safe house, Merlita entertained thoughts of death.
In their home, Ester shared her mother’s same sentiment – this is the end. A self-assigned breadwinner, the idea of not being there to take care of her family was unacceptable. Braving the elements, Ester and Mark trooped to the single-classroom school where the 76 families of their village sought shelter.
She barely knew anyone and her neighbors didn't really know her, but Yolanda made a community out of them. After the roof caved in, they were the image of a family. On either side of the single classroom, were circular formations of people – children sat huddled in the middle, the women knelt and covered the children with their outstretched hands, and the men stood and held each other by the elbows to protect the women. Their human shield worked – everyone lived.
Remembering it more than half a year later, Ester said all of it seems funny now.
The lengths people took to save each other was almost ridiculous but she thought, maybe the instinct to survive is just as strong as the instinct to be kind.
After Yolanda: Same but different
"Wala akong heartaches. Bahala na ano man ang nawala sa ating gamit, basta kumpleto tayo." (I don't have any heartaches. The things we lost don't matter, as long as we're complete.)
After Yolanda, these were the words Merlita told her family, including her 25-year-old son who lived in Manila. The super typhoon may have made their already difficult lives a little bit harder, but to that she said, "Mahal pa rin kami ng Diyos." (God still loves us.)
Mirroring the gamble her mother made when she sold their old house for her husband's hospital fees, Ester took the risk of leaving her family with only P1,000 in her pocket to look for food and supplies in Cebu. But she left them knowing their matriarch wasn't alone – their community was there.
Running on the high of realizing their good luck in the face of a murderous natural disaster, the people of their GK village worked on helping each other out. On the day after the typhoon, they shared one pot of rice among 76 families. Since they only received government relief a month after, when they could, they shared food with their neighbors and with people from nearby barangays. The men of the village made the rounds at night to make sure the women were safe while there was no electricity.
The dazed faces of the traumatized were slowly thawing out, thanks to the balm of joking with one another. People passing by each other would ask how their houses were and everyone would jokingly say the same thing, "Ayan, may sahig pa kami." (Well, we still have a floor.)
In their village, there are very little tears now from the super typhoon that was. Instead, what makes Merlita cry is thinking of what her husband would say about their grown children. “Sa hirap at ginhawa, ikaw lang mag-isa,” (In good times and in bad, you’re by yourself), she said about being a single parent. But she’s proud of what she achieved.
Somewhere in their small house, Merlita keeps a waterproof envelope with all her family’s important documents and her children’s grades.
Inside the envelope is a printed copy of 13-year-old Leilanie’s elementary valedictorian speech. The paper is worn and soft from repeated reading. It’s toward the middle when Merlita starts to cry.
Leilanie said, "That's the heart of my mother, pusong Pinoy: hindi matitinag gaano man kahirap ang dapat pagdaanan (That's the heart of my mother, the heart of a Filipino: it is indestructible whatever difficulty it has to go through)...The world is shaped by the words I speak. For me, my world is shaped because my mother's hand is clamping on mine."
Watch Leilanie as she read her speech to her mother again below.