I was about to punch in to start my day at the Emergency Room of Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital in Michigan when my cell phone buzzed. I could feel the heat of my blood rushing under my skin when I heard what the person on the other line have to say. It took me a moment or two before I summoned the courage to ask the Clinical Coordinator for the day to allow me to go home and check the news online myself--
And there it was on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippines Star, ABS- CBNNews and other news websites the grim reality and horrific pictures of the devastation brought by the super typhoon Reming (International codename: Durian) to Albay Province and Legaspi City, places that I am very familiar with and known like the palms of my hands.
I scanned the pages and my eyes caught the heart-rending, gut-wrenching stories of tragedy and despair of the people; my people, of whom I am very much familiar with their way of life and customs but you could only take a deep breath to relieve the heaviness in your chest and grieve alone in silence half a world away.
I grew up in Tiwi, a rustic and sleepy town almost 50 kilometers from Legaspi City, the capital of Albay Province where I went to college for four years to earn my Bachelor’s Degree for my Pre- Medical course years ago from the College of Arts and Sciences in the Dominican- run Aquinas University, a university by the heavily silted Yawa river that make our school look like Venice minus the gondolas in those days usually right after a heavy downpour especially during the monsoon season that have earned the university a derisive name albeit jokingly of being the only “floating university in the Philippines” among its students.
It was in this city by the sea where I spent some of my formative years; my rude awakenings to the real world; my youthful fire and enthusiasm for things that were once forbidden. It was also in this city where I spent some of the happiest times of my young life.
It was in the streets of Legaspi City and the neighboring town of Daraga where together with some childhood friends, we had our baptisms of fire about the joys of friendship and the sad realities of life. Barangays Bonot, Rawis, Arimbay, Pag- Asa, Padang, Victory Village, Baybay and San Roque in Legaspi City used to be our playground as well as dark sections and alleys of Daraga.
There we were-- young, care-free, wet behind the ears teenagers tasting “freedom” for the first time in a city far from home doing crazy unimaginable stuff like watching four movies in succession until our eyes were bloodshot and dry in those dingy and rickety downtown movie houses; making countless pranks in school and not being caught; bloody street fights and numerous fisticuffs with other gangs that left some of us with busted beaks or two and broken bones on the side; darting in and out in those seedy smoke- filled beerhouses near the Legaspi Police Station with names like Mark Anthony, Vejors, Melon Patch, etc.; chain smoking Marlboros like there is no tomorrow; heavy drinking sessions with the stainless Ginebra from dusk until dawn; sleeping along the shores and on the sands of the beach of Lagunoy Gulf while fighting a nasty hang- over and of course, chasing girls while living in the fast lane. Those were the days and they were really damn good days.
All these things occurred under the watchful eyes of the tempest and temperamental volcano that is Mayon, towering over the city and the province of Albay with its nearly perfect cone that makes her natural beauty beyond compare, a Daragang Magayon in our midst and like the dusky beautiful Bicolana maiden, she is not only a beauty in her peaceful slumber but a fiery and deadly one in her wrath and anger.
Mount Mayon is legendary for her volatile temperament and Bicolanos are so accustomed to her fickle-mindedness and constant grumblings. In fact, it was only months ago where I had written about her in this blog (see Daragang Magayon) when she had shown once again her legendary temper and spewed ashes into Albay’s azure sky and red- hot lava flowed on her belly that left a lot of people, locals and tourists alike, awed and captivated by her beauty and splendor especially in the night time where the spectacle is far more grand and colorful.
After some fireworks here and there, she was back to her quiet self or so we thought until…
Reming entered the picture and conspired with her to change the landscape of the city that I am so fond of and the province of my roots. The once peaceful, happy and lively place that I know of has been obliterated from the face of the earth and death, devastation and despair replaced it. When disaster struck so close to home, a piece of ourselves is also lost no matter where we are.
The people never had a chance. They never knew it coming. It was sudden and deadly, in one stroke, their lives and property were gone and washed by the strong current into the vast Pacific Ocean. We may never know the total number of casualties in the tragedy but I know that I have lots of friends, classmates and acquaintances who live in those places. And I know for a fact that some of them never made it back alive after the deluge. Their lives and property were now buried under the mud, the place is deserted and now a wasteland but their memories will forever live in my heart.
How come something like this happened in this day and age? How come nobody in our so- called “experts” has predicted this to happen? After all, the build- up of lava in the slopes of Mt. Mayon does not happen overnight, it has been months before this thing happened!
As usual, the inept and incompetent local politicians have no idea and the national leadership was blind as a bat as well. Finger- pointing on who was to blame for the disaster is the name of the game. Some even blame the people who were living there whose only fault was trying to earn an honest living which cannot be said though of our political leaders who were busy amassing ill- gotten wealths and playing political intramurals rather than attending to the basic needs of their constituents.
As long as the Philippine political system is corrupt and our so- called leaders are indifferent to the plight and sufferings of the people, tragedies like this will always occur. It will be just a vicious cycle of death and destruction. It’s not too late for our “leaders” to change but change has to come first within ourselves. I know this is just another pipe dream but hope springs eternal they say. Hopefully, it will be for the better of our country.
Now, I grieve for those who perished and pray for those who survive for life will be a long struggle for them to get back on their feet again.
But I believe in the human courage, the Bicolano spirit and the resiliency of the Albayanos in particular. Mga Uragon baga kita!
And just like the mythical Phoenix, the people of Albay will rise from the ashes and will crawl out from the rubble and rebuild whatever’s left of their shattered lives.
I know that we will succeed for that’s how we Bicolanos are, we are a hardened and determined lot and at the end of the day we will always have those beautiful smiles on our faces, those glowing sparks in our eyes and the inherent kindness in our hearts to live by.
The official death toll of Typhoon Reming (International Codename: Durian) is currently pegged at 1,266 people dead or missing based on body counts and survivor accounts and is growing day by day. It was believed that nobody could really tell the exact number of casualties due to the lack of official data or census of the number of people living in a particular area during that particular time.
Hardest hit were Barangay Padang in Legaspi City and Barangay Maipon in Guinobatan, Albay where entire families were buried alive.
The boarding houses that dotted the banks of the Yawa River near Aquinas University were swept by the rampaging waters into the sea taking with them the students who were sleeping at that time in the process.
The loss of human lives and damages to properties in the province of Albay is enormous and can never be quantified. Power and communication lines were cut, roads were damaged and rendered inaccessible. Food, gas, and water shortages are a sad reality and the probability of a disease outbreak is a given.
The whole province is in a State of Calamity.