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'Mga Uragon kami': How villagers saved 900 relief packs as a boat sank

It was just a 30-minute sail across the channel from Tabaco Port in Albay to the small island of San Miguel, where communities devastated by 3 successive tropical cyclones were in dire need of aid.

The skies over Tabaco City were clear and weather forecasts included no gale warning on Sunday night, November 29, so the team organizing relief efforts for San Miguel thought it was a safe window to deliver more than 900 grocery packs to the island before Monday morning.

They were already behind schedule. The volunteers were supposed to have delivered the relief goods gathered by the office of Senator Francis Pangilinan to San Miguel Island on Saturday, November 28, but the weather was bad and they had to postpone the trip.

It was agreed that the distribution would be on Monday morning, November 30. The people on the island, particularly in Barangays Sagurong and Angas, had been waiting long for help to arrive.

“San Miguel, being an island, has not received the same attention as other areas in terms of relief assistance,” Pangilinan told Rappler.

The fishing villages of Sagurong and Angas lie on the far side of the island facing the Pacific Ocean. They felt the full fury of successive typhoons Quinta (Molave), Rolly (Goni), and Ulysses (Vamco), which battered the Bicol region in a span of 3 weeks.

Tawag nga namin, ‘typhoon series’ ito eh. May convention sila sa Bicol eh (We call it ‘typhoon series.’ They had a convention in Bicol),” jested William Ayala, a member of the Alpha Kappa Rho fraternity, which helped organize the relief effort.

As a result, the fisherfolk of Sagurong and Angas lost their little wooden boats, and they have been unable to go out to sea for their daily catch.

And so the volunteers determined to send the relief goods to the island on Sunday night, so that they could be distributed first thing the next morning.

RELIEF WORK. Volunteers spent long days repacking relief goods for villagers on San Miguel Island, Albay. Photo from Jose Ranelle Pastrana

Treacherous waters

The idea was to set sail at high tide so that the boat, a medium-sized outrigger, could make it past the reefs surrounding the island without running aground. The boat was to sail around the cape directly to Sagurong.

But the waters separating San Miguel from the mainland were treacherous. Where the channel meets the open ocean, a cross current called “natunawan” – meaning, “melted” – churns the water, even in good weather. Another name for the current is “sabangan” – the “intersection” of currents.

The 900-plus relief bags were hefty. They contained a pack of spaghetti and spaghetti sauce, bihon noodles, 2 cans of corned beef, 3 cans of sardines, 4 packs of instant noodles, milk, coffee, and a bag of sugar. Besides these were a truckload of rice sacks, also for the villagers on the island.

Loaded with these, the boat pulled out of Tobaco Port at 7 pm on Sunday. Only the skipper, Romeo Barra, and a few crew members were onboard, to leave room for the cargo.

The sea started to get choppy as the boat sailed farther away from port, but the skipper knew the waters well. It got even rougher as the boat splashed its way through the sabangan.

The waves were getting quite tall and a formidable wind was blowing. Then, as the destination came within view on the horizon, the skipper felt something large hit the hull of the boat.

It could have been a log or some other debris cast adrift by the recent storms. Whatever it was, it bore a wide, round hole on the boat’s portside hull, and seawater gushed in. The boat began to sink.

Howell Abion, the relief operation’s coordinator, said the water must have killed the boat’s engine at some point, and in that strong current, the men onboard could do nothing to steer the boat in any direction. They just plugged the hole with bunched up cloth, hoping for the best.

Fortunately, another boat was nearby. It came around and attached a line to the distressed boat and tugged it to shore. They made it to the shore of Barangay Rawis on San Miguel Island just as the damaged boat was about to slip beneath the water's surface.

“Thankfully no one was hurt,” Pangilinan said. “I was directly in touch with Mayor Krisel Lagman and Councilor Insit Tanggo of Tabaco where Sagurong is located.”

Neighbors to the rescue

But what of the precious cargo – the 900-plus relief packs for barangays Sagurong and Angas?

The villagers of Rawis gathered the items and dried them off, checking for what could be saved and what could not.

Sure, some of the villagers may have picked off a few items for themselves, but for the most part the cargo was intact, although some of the items were ruined by the brine, said Jose Ranelle Pastrana, also a member of Alpha Kappa Rho and one of the volunteer organizers.

“Except for the rice, sugar, and noodles, all other relief goods were retrieved. We have also arranged for the replacement of the the goods damaged,” Pangilinan said.

On San Miguel Island, everybody knew everybody, even people from villages besides their own, said Abion. Out of genuine concern for their neighbors who were worse off, the villagers of Barangay Rawis saved the sunken boat’s cargo for the intended recipients.

Bicolanos look out for one another, the volunteers said.

Gagawin lang po talaga namin kung anong gagawin namin…kasi very urgent talaga (We’ll really just do what we have to do…because it’s really urgent),” Pastrana said.

Mga Uragon kami eh (We’re Uragons),” said Ayala, using the slang Bicolanos use to refer to themselves.

Obviously, no distribution took place the next morning, Monday, as volunteers and barangay workers inspected the relief items for what were still good and what had to be disposed of. The goal is to save lives, not cause sickness, Abion said.

Plot twists

By Thursday, December 3, all the salvaged goods had been distributed to the people of barangays Sagurong and Angas.

And then on Friday, December 4, a slight plot twist – the sardine cans began to bloat, and the contents started to ooze out of the seams.

They were those easy-open cans with a tab on the lid, and seawater must have seeped into them, ruining the sardines, Abion said. The barangay leaders recalled all the sardine cans from the villagers.

Also on Friday, another plot twist – 500 relief packs arrived on the island, sent by donors from the University of the Philippines organized by Renan Dalisay, who used to work in Pangilinan’s office.

Help poured in when people learned about the mini-tragedy of the sunken aid boat, Dalisay said.

As in any endeavor, a lot can go wrong, even if it’s just bringing a bunch of groceries across a narrow channel. What Abion and the other organizers planned as an overnight mission ended up taking a full week.

With all those sacks of rice, packs of noodles, and bags of sugar – each one repacked with love, said Ayala – gone to waste, the volunteers could not help their frustration. It had taken a lot of hard work to gather donations for the villagers of the little-known, often-overlooked island.

But on the plus side, now more help is on the way to San Miguel, and everyone saw how the neighbors, who themselves were typhoon victims, went beyond themselves to help the needier.

Some things went wrong, but then some good things happened, too.

“Napakalaking challenge ‘yung pinagdaanan mo na trahedya…tapos nakikita mo na naghihirap ‘yung mga kababayan mo – gusto mong sumuko. Pero laban lang hangga’t mayroon, hangga’t buhay tayo. At mas makakatulong tayo kung kumikilos tayo, kaysa panghinaan ka ng loob dahil sa nangyari,” Abion told Rappler.

(The tragedy you went through was a huge challenge…then you see your neighbors suffering – you want to give up. But keep fighting while you can, while you’re alive. And we are of more help when we take action, instead of losing heart because of what happened.) –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.