The prophet of San Rafael

Patricia Evangelista
Farmers are worried. It is land preparation season, and there is little money to make the long trip out of Cateel to the city for agricultural supplies.

Dante Diansay outside his home in San Rafael, Cateel. Photo by John Javellana, 9 Dec 2012.

DAVAO ORIENTAL, Philippines – The road to Cateel cuts through the hillside. It is a pastoral postcard, a Department of Tourism meme. The sky is blue, the fields are green, laundry lines flap against lawns, coconut trees dot the horizon. It takes a moment to understand that the trees all lean to the right, that the laundry dries not only on lines but on the backs of rusting motorcycles, and that the man carefully sweeping his living room floor sweeps through a house without door or roof or wall.

In Cateel town, the devastation leaves no room for doubt. Homes are shattered, slabs of tin and wood layer the streets, the skeletons of buildings stand stark against the sky. This is where Dante Diansay has been lying in wait, slowly circling the plaza on his motorcycle since the day after typhoon Pablo smashed through Mindanao.

Diansay is 56, a small, sunburned man who trails after the handful of reporters based in Cateel town. His smile is disarming. He asks questions. Where are you from, would you like help, what are you covering, whom would you like to speak to?

Come to San Rafael, he says. Follow me.

Welcome to the end of the world

Diansay was once the managing editor of a local newspaper. He is frank about his purpose. He would like to bring the media to San Rafael. He would like them to see what Pablo did to his small village. He would like the world to know, particularly the relatives who might send help.

San Rafael is a farming community half an hour away from the town proper. Every house is broken, along with church and covered courts. Diansay himself picks his way over the tumble of debris that used to be his home, stepping over small puppies that erupt out of the broken floorboards.

It was the wind that did it, he says, not the water.

“The wind spun black,” he says. “It sounded like a rushing train.”

His nephew Jose nods. “The wind tasted bitter.”

Diansay says to be in the center of the storm is to watch chunks of land ripped out like a tooth.

“I was afraid,” he says. “I thought it was the end of the world.”

Never before

Six days after Pablo, relief has visited San Rafael only twice—once from the government, and once from non-government organizations, although more aid appears to be on its way.

Residents survive on relief rice and little else, living inside makeshift tents or inside one of two homes left standing after the storm. Medical attention is difficult, tetanus shots are scarce, and necessary for the many who like Diansay failed to avoid the rusty nails spread across the muddy grassland.

“We have never had a typhoon in San Rafael,” says Diansay. “If we did, it was nothing like what happened.”

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reports 647 dead as of December 10, with 1,482 injured and 780 missing. Cateel is one of Davao Oriental’s worst hit towns, with reports of looting by desperate survivors in the days immediately after the storm, with reports putting casualties from the town at over a hundred. The Philippine National Police has gone so far as to order its personnel to stop looting in affected areas, even as it organizes relief efforts for 200 cops who lost their homes in these places.

Diansay believes that San Rafael has a chance, if only government focuses on agricultural development along with post-Pablo relief. He understands the government’s funds are stretched thin, and explains why many residents are angry.

“Farmers are worried,” he says. It is land preparation season, and there is little money to make the long trip out of Cateel to the city for agricultural supplies.

“We wondered if we still had hope,” Diansay says. He has nothing to offer his wife, a beautician based in Davao whom he was convincing to move back home. He has lost his mobile phone, and is now unable to work for the local press. Many of San Rafael’s 3,000 residents are now jobless and homeless. Food is scarce. There is no money to leave, and little left for those who stay.

“I said we have no choice but to survive this. We need to survive this.”   

In San Rafael, buckets of laundry are being washed by hand. Roofs are being hammered in; small shelters are being built.

Diansay rides his motorcycle out to the highway and waves. He hopes his story will be told. He hopes it will matter. –

(Video by Patricia Evangelista and John Javellana).