Complacency obliterated by Haiyan

A woman cooks lunch in a makeshift house in Tacloban on the central island of Leyte on November 12, 2013. Tacloban bore the brunt of Friday's category-five Typhoon Haiyan with at least 10,000 people feared to have died there, according to the United
A woman cooks lunch in a makeshift house in Tacloban on the central island of Leyte on November 12, 2013. Tacloban bore the brunt of Friday's category-five Typhoon Haiyan with at least 10,000 people feared to have died there, according to the United Nations. -- PHOTO: AFP

IF I had been a fishmonger living in one of Tacloban’s coastal districts when Typhoon Haiyan struck, I probably would be dead now, and my sin would have been nonchalance.

I probably would have assumed that the same precautions I took each time a typhoon descended on my island would be enough. I would put my faith in the concrete walls, iron beams and galvanised steel roof that cocooned my house, and I’d assume that my home was far enough inland to offer sufficient sanctuary and safety from the wind and rain. All I needed to do was cobble together some supplies – candles, lighters, cooking gas, some canned goods – sit tight, pray, and wait it out.

Of course, I’d be wrong. Dead wrong.

Having lived in the Philippines for about four decades, I have seen my fair share of typhoons and, like most Filipinos, I have learnt to live with them.

The wet months usually start in June and last till November. Most of the time, it would just be light showers pouring like garden spray from the heavens, and the casualty would only be convenience: Traffic would be heavier than usual, public transport would be scarcer than usual, many streets would be ankle-deep in floodwater, and everyone and everything would be wet.

I have fond memories of the rain.

I remember making paper boats when I was a child as the floodwater slowly rose along the narrow alley where our apartment sat and setting them loose like a little armada to conquer those infidels in England.

After the rain had passed, my father and uncles would trawl through the floodwater with fish nets made up of discarded clothing and rags to catch catfish and tilapia from an overflowing river cutting through our district.

I remember getting stuck in heavy traffic in the middle of a highway after a particularly heavy downpour and, having nowhere else to go, sleeping inside my car for six hours till a traffic enforcer woke me with a light tap on my windshield to tell me things were back to normal.

Occasionally, there would be typhoons. We would first learn about them through a local weatherman with the funny accent on TV. The joke then was that we should always assume the opposite of what the man said. If he said it was going to rain, then chances were it wouldn’t. If he said it’d be bright and sunny, then it was time to bring out the brollies.

We did take the weather seriously, though, and we prepared, but we really didn’t prepare for the worst.

My mother would make sure everyone in the family was tucked safely at home. She would stock up on candles, matchsticks and cooking gas because electricity was always the first to go during a typhoon, and she’d hoard enough rice and canned sardines to last us at least two days.

My father would then haul some cement blocks and used tyres, and strategically lay them over our roof just to make sure it stays put. That was it and for years, that had been enough.

Our sense of danger and urgency was always tempered by the thought that we had already gone through the worst, and things couldn’t possibly get much worse. There was also that misplaced assumption that while disaster might befall others, it would never happen to us.

I had seen my fair share of nasty typhoons that challenged, but never overwhelmed, this sense of complacency.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of the wind howling and screaming outside like a giant baboon trying to tear down our house.

I remember the wooden walls shaking and the galvanised steel roofs being peeled off one by one, and my mother frantically reciting the rosary and begging God to keep our flimsy apartment together.

I remember seeing lightning cut sideways through the sky, and thunderclaps as incessant and loud as an artillery barrage.

Through it all, however, we survived, and at the first sign of the sun peeking through the clouds, we would smile, crack jokes and mimic our mother in her moments of distress.

Haiyan, of course, has completely obliterated that sense of complacency.

rdancel@sph.com.sg