Monday, June 20, 2016

The Typhoon called Yolanda, Part 1 of 3

The Typhoon called Yolanda, Part 1 of 3 (Day 40)

by Rey Laguda

(This is the 40th day of 50-day journey of DepEd Undersecretary Rey Laguda as being serialized here with his permission, culled from his Facebook account - Blogger/owner)

(I would like to use the next three posts to recount the events during the first few weeks after Typhoon Yolanda, to show the character of the people I encountered then, especially the people from DepEd.)

When Yolanda made landfall on Nov 8, 2013, I was finishing a workshop with some ICT coordinators to revise our existing policies. By the time we ended, Yolanda had hit Eastern Visayas and pummeled through Central and Western Visayas and some parts of Bicol and Mindanao. We were tracking DepEd officials as we monitored the news closely. By Saturday, there were still a few Superintendents who had not reported, including the Regional Director for Region 8. A decision was made to get there, assess the situation and find them. A small team was formed - Jocelyn Saw, Marc Helton Sua and myself - to try to touch base. We were with Fr. IJ Chan-Gonzaga, SJ who happened to be from Tacloban.

We initially went to Villamor Air Base to try to get onboard one of the C-130 planes shuttling emergency personnel and equipment into the affected areas. After several hours of waiting and unsuccessful tries, we made a decision to fly to Cebu on Sunday morning and try our luck from there. We had the chance to meet up with a group of Central Office personnel who were stranded in Leyte during the typhoon. They were finally able to cross into Cebu after days of trying. We had a quick debriefing for them and listened to their personal accounts of horror and stories of survival. In the meantime, two personnel from Region 7 volunteered to join us - Victor Yntig and Roland Villegas. Our plan was to try to make it via the planes coming from Cebu to Tacloban. We proceeded to the Mactan Air Base early Monday morning and spoke to Air Force authorities to get onboard. There were many groups trying to find their way to Tacloban but we needed to push our way through. First plane left without us. Then we were about to board the second plane, but we never got to ride. Then the third and last plane -- We were already walking towards the plane when suddenly, we were told to go back. We got replaced in the manifest. That was our last chance. We were thinking of other options already when after a few minutes, the plane came back because of some minor engine trouble. The Air Force Colonel called us out to board and we ran to the plane like there was no turning back. When they opened the door, it was full of personnel from Philippine National Police-NCR. Never mind. We inserted ourselves, all seven of us with our gear. With hardly any sleep, we were finally on our way to Tacloban at around 5am of Monday, November 11.

I can still remember the ride - noisy and uncomfortable. Yet, there was a sense of eeriness inside the plane, as people didn't know what to expect. As we were flying low and getting ready to land, everyone was peering out the windows looking at the wrath of Yolanda. I could remember how despite the sunrise, the feeling was heavy.

We had less than 24 hours to prepare for the trip. Yet with the help of fantastic staff, we had with us a map of all schools and division offices. We were ready for zero communications and had agreements on how and where to exit. Br. Armin Luistro and Usec. Francis Varela were ready to be the second team and getting ready to enter via Ormoc in the days to come. Prior communication was made with the SDS of Southern Leyte, Art Isip, to try to come into Tacloban via land and that we would meet up in the city hall or division office. We were ready to be there for days.

We went out of the C-130 and the devastated terminal and tower was what greeted us. Planes that had just landed were getting ready as men, women and children were boarding and just finding a way out of Tacloban. As we approached the terminal, the walls were torn, ceilings had collapsed and wires were exposed. I saw some people seated and staring blankly out into the runway and the open sea. The whole picture just disoriented me so much that I kept on leading the group into the military compound thinking it was the exit. Fr. Ij called me and said we should go the other way. We were ready to walk all the way to city hall. Then I saw a vehicle with a red plate. I approached the car and asked the passengers where they were headed. They were from the city health office. I introduced the team and myself and asked if we could hitch going to the city hall. They gladly obliged. That ride saved us from what would have been a torturous walk alongside destruction, death and despair. Somehow, the doors of the car shielded us albeit temporarily from being sucked by what we saw as we drove by. It was quiet in the car except for some passengers telling us what they went through. Rumors were already spreading about this personality dying and so forth. They all turned out to be false. But when communications are all down, rumors cannot be avoided. This leads to panic and all sorts of unintended consequences. I took a mental note to always verify information especially during disasters.

As soon as we got to the city hall, we touched base with command center. We reported to Sec Dinky who was on her way out to fly to Guian, Eastern Samar together with Sec Mar. We also reported to Mayor Romualdez to assure him that we were going to organize DepEd locally. We then walked a few meters to the division office, which was occupied by more than 20 families who had evacuated. There was only a security guard who didn't leave his post because no reliever came to take his place. He stayed on out of duty. At this point, we decided to split up. The team was going to coordinate with the command center to get a hold of what was going on. I was going with Fr. Ij to help find his grandmother and check on his parents. We also needed to find a place to stay since the division office was no longer feasible. I bumped into Whaleboy Ag Saño, whom I was so happy to see after hearing he was caught in the typhoon as well. He asked me for help in getting out. I said we weren't planning to get out until Wednesday. Maybe we could join us by then if he was still around.

When we walked around the city, cars were flipped over. People were going around looking for water. We could see some looting happening. We just kept walking until we found Fr. IJ's relatives. We were also able to arrange for a place to sleep in the guesthouse compound of Leyte Normal University. We got back to the division office mid morning. We met with the families in the division office and assured them we weren't going to ask them to leave so long as they had no place to return to. But we asked that they take care of the documents and property and that they organize themselves. We asked them to designate cooking areas, etc. They were very cooperative and spirits were up.

As we waited in the City Hall, we saw a pick-up drive in with a DepEd sticker. It was SDS Art Isip! He made it by land from Southern Leyte. So we made a decision to check on the Regional Director, Lilit Yu, who was from Dulag. The trip to her hometown was something I never prepared for. We passed through the towns of Palo, Tanauan, and Tolosa. Roads were packed with people walking almost aimlessly. Debris and some bodies were by the side.

We found Lilit’s house but unfortunately, she wasn't around. She went to Tacloban. At least, we knew she was alive. Next stop was Ronel-Carmen Nuevo Firmo's place in Tanauan, who was the SDS of Leyte. We got stuck in a sea of people and cars as we entered the town and couldn't find his residence in the chaos. We decided to drive back to the regional office, as it was getting dark. By the time we got there, we saw some staff and we found out that the Assistant Regional Director Sarahadil had just taken a motorcycle out to Ormoc and was on his way to Cebu. When we passed by the adjacent Leyte division office, there were employees who sought refuge in the second floor as waters inundated the whole ground floor area. I spoke to them with to try to give whatever assurance I could given the circumstances.

We went back to the Tacloban division office to pick up the rest of the team who stayed. When we got there, Marc was sitting on the fallen arc signage of the division. He must have been terrified not knowing where we were so late into the night. We then proceeded to the guesthouse compound and took advantage of a deep well pump to take a much-needed shower. Mattresses were damp from the floods but it didn’t matter. We needed the remaining hours for sleep. This was only day 1 for us but day 3 for everyone else there. It was probably going to get worse before it would get better.

None of my teammates complained. We were now 9 in the group by then. Everyone was focused. Emotions had to be kept at bay. What was important was finding our people and setting up shop.

(to be continued..)



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