disaster preparedness

‘Trees were flying on Siargao Island,’ recounts survivor

Grace Cantal-Albasin

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‘Trees were flying on Siargao Island,’ recounts survivor

GONE. What used to be a watering hole in General Luna town on Siargao Island is gone after the December 16 onslaught of Typhoon Odette.

Jillian Bacarisas

Survivor Jillian Bacarisas recalls the police warning people about a ‘storm surge’ and ‘tsunami,’ prompting islanders to go up the hills, ‘but they never told us how the winds could be so devastating’

BUKIDNON, Philippines – During the first hour of the onslaught of Typhoon Odette on Siargao Island about a week ago, Jillian Bacarisas and her friends were watching from afar how the howling winds uprooted trees visible to them. The smaller trees were literally flying.

“We weren’t scared at first. We were even awestruck by how the trees were flying and managed to snicker at the sight. I didn’t realize that the next hour would be the scariest time of my life. I thought death would come to me right at that moment,” Jillian said.

In the next hour, Jillian said, the winds changed directions and started to rip off roofs and tear down houses around her. Her house at Poblacion 5 in General Luna town also began tilting.

Jillian said she hurriedly picked up her emergency backpack, kicked the door open as it was already stuck, and ran toward the nearest concrete house. There, Jillian said, she took shelter with 10 other people that included children. 

As the wind continued to batter everything that stood on its path, the children and their mothers began crying. Jillian said she calmly consoled the kids and assured them that they’d be all right.

“Then, we saw nothing. Zero. We only heard something that sounded like a jet plane or machines whirring, and then the slamming. The roof was ripped off and we were all drenched and tasted saltwater. And I started to feel death coming. I just surrendered to that eerie night,” Jillian recounted.

The impact of the horrific landfall on the afternoon of Thursday, December 16, lasted for five hours in General Luna town, Surigao del Norte province. The town is Siargao Island’s tourism hub, the place internationally famous for its surfing ground because of its Cloud 9 waves.

SALVAGE. A child looks for anything useful to salvage from what used to be a house on Siargao Island. Courtesy of Jillian Bacarisas

Before the landfall, Jillian said the police went to the beachfront and informed people of a looming storm surge. 

“They repeatedly mentioned ‘storm surge’ and ‘tsunami.’ And so people began retreating to the hills. They never told us how the winds could be so devastating. It was not emphasized,” Jillian said. 

She said there were not enough warnings made other than text messages she received from the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), notifying people about the anticipated heavy rain that could result in flooding and landslides. 

“I was expecting sirens to blare because Odette was huge. I read on the internet and saw on TV that it was a super typhoon. But the locals, especially those who didn’t have TVs or access to the internet, didn’t know anything about it,” she said.  

Jillian’s family tried to reach her mobile phone, but at 11 am – the morning shortly before Odette hit land – telecommunication networks and the electric supply on the world-famous island were already cut off. 

By 7 pm on December 16, Jillian said people began to get out from wherever they’d taken shelter in. 

Jillian said, “I thought of my friends. I wanted to know if they were okay. I have a pregnant friend, and I thought a lot about her situation. My friends and I left my neighbor’s house and began our search that night for our other friends to check on them.”

But General Luna town was literally in the dark, and Jillian’s group already felt drained. She said they decided to stay on the main road of the town and wait for the sunrise. 

“I felt so tired. I shared the bread and some snacks I had stashed in my bag. We had tequila to warm us that night and help us last until sunrise. And as the sun rose, we slowly saw the devastation. It was beyond words,” Jillian said.

GONE. A Siargao Island house destroyed by the powerful winds blown by Typhoon Odette on December 16. Courtesy of Jillian Bacarisas

Most houses, resorts, restaurants, bars, and other shops were leveled to the ground. The concrete and sturdier ones had roofs that were strewn away. Even evacuation centers prepared ahead of the landfall were rendered useless, she said. 

Within the next three days, every morning, Jillian said she found herself roving around General Luna to search for food and clean water to buy or ask friends who own stores to spare her some so she could share them with her hungry and thirsty neighbors. 

People became more desperate. On Monday, December 20, Jillian said she was chased by a group of people while she was riding her scooter just so they could ask her where she got her food. 

“Day by day, food and water supplies dwindled. I rummaged through some sweet potato from a friend that day. The question ‘where I got the food’ struck me,” said Jillian. 

She said that made her realize there must be some relief aid already so she rushed to the municipal hall. There, she said a medical team set up tents but when she asked if there was food and potable water available, there was no reply. 

Jillian said, “I went to the barangay hall. There was food, but the person who was there told me she wasn’t authorized to release the food packs yet. I still don’t get it. People are hungry and prices of some goods are soaring now.” 

DESTRUCTION EVERYWHERE. Houses and establishments are either damaged or destroyed in General Luna, a Siargao Island town in Surigao del Norte. Courtesy of Jillian Bacarisas

She said she managed to leave the island on Tuesday, December 21, to get food, water, and medicine elsewhere. 

As of this writing, Jillian is in Cantilan town in Surigao del Sur, gathering relief goods and items that she plans to bring back to her community in Siargao on Friday, December 24, a day before Christmas.

“The children are having diarrhea already because of the lack of water. Their mothers would boil the water from the wells which are not potable. Many people have been injured because of debris, and there are no medicines yet,” she said. 

Jillian hails from Cagayan de Oro City where her family awaits her. 

“I could have gone back home to my family and taken some rest. But I cannot bear the thought of the horrific devastation in General Luna and then do nothing about it. Siargao is home. I have lived a good life there, and now, I can’t be with my neighbors in this difficult time? I know I can do something for them and I need to go back to my neighbors who badly need food, water, and medicine,” she said. 

Jillian said she is also preparing to facilitate some activities for children and mothers who were traumatized by the devastation caused by Odette. 

Besides, Jillian is about to start her new work at an art workshop cum library funded by some of her foreign friends in Siargao on January 4, 2022.

“It would be a haven for artists on the island. But in the meantime, it will be turned into a temporary relief center,” she said. 

Odette made life more difficult on Siargao Island. Many islanders in General Luna lost their jobs because of COVID-19, and tourism activities slowly resumed only in October when restrictions were eased. Now, there is no more tourism to speak of. – Rappler.com

Grace Cantal-Albasin is a Mindanao-based journalist and awardee of Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship

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