Our neighbor lives to tell her supertyphoon Haiyan story

As a mother weathered supertyphoon Haiyan in Tacloban, her daughter chronicled her despair, and hope, on Facebook (texts in box below).


Malou, a mother of four, arrived in Tacloban on November 5. Her fourth and youngest child, Addy, is a 7th grader at the Philippine Science High School Eastern Visayas Provincial Campus, in Pawing, Palo, Leyte. He asked her mother to come to Palo to pick up his report card scheduled on November 8, the same day the typhoon Haiyan (local name: Yolanda) made landfall in central Philippines.

Before she left for Tacloban, Malou’s eldest child, Yssa, told her to take precaution as a supertyphoon was coming. But Malou is no stranger to typhoons. For her, it was a way of life in her hometown of Borongan City, the provincial capital of Eastern Samar. The city is first to take hit from storms entering via the mid-east part of the Philippines which faces the Pacific Ocean. “It was just a supertyphoon. I did not know there would also be those storm surges, water surges. I didn’t know those would occur. I wasn’t really worried as I am used to typhoons,” Malou said.

When her son Addy started high school last June, she decided to move to Tacloban and stay close to him and provide for his needs. Lately, however, she had been shuttling back and forth to their house in Las Pinas (a city in southern Metro Manila), and regularly visiting her husband, Uly, in Brunei as he recovers from cancer. She rented a room near the school of his son who was staying in the dormitory. On November 6, the day after she arrived, the president of the parent teacher association, sent a text message to parents and guardians of students, telling them that afternoon classes had been suspended so they can prepare for the impending storm. The day was still normal with no sign of rain or wind. On their way home, they bought just enough groceries to tide them away when they plan to stay indoors the next day. “Not a lot”, Malou said. “I did not expect the storm would last, and something like that would happen, what do you call that… a catastrophe.” They went back to the room, where her two nieces were also visiting that time. The room is on the upper level of a two-story boarding house about two kilometers from the school. It was also a hundred meters away from the coastline.

Members of her family- her husband Uly in Brunei, and three children left in Las Pinas- held a video call on November 7. It was the day before the storm, and Uly told her that they should have a lot of food ready in case power goes out. She cooked a potful of rice, and adobo from a whole chicken. She also boiled some eggs in case they finish the chicken adobo. The first drops of intermittent rain arrived that same night. “True enough, the electricity was already out in the morning, when the wind started to pick up”, she said.

Good morning text kanina ng nanay ko na nasa Tacloban. (Good morning text of my mother who is in Tacloban. Stay safe guys. Anh (sic) lakas na ng ulan at hangin dito sa Las Piñas. (The rain and wind are too strong here in Las Piñas)


In the eye of the storm

The boarding house is barely a year old. Unlike many of the houses made from light materials, and later on trampled by the storm surge, theirs had perimeter walls and foundations made of concrete. Metal trusses supported the roof, while double-walled plywood panels partitioned the upper floor into four separate rooms. Malou, a civil engineering graduate, thought they would be safe in the house. “I trusted that even if a storm came, it won’t get destroyed,” she said.  The wind pounded the house as it did the rest of Tacloban and central Visayas. It was the ultimate test to the design of the house, and to Malou’s will to live. The latter succeeded, but the former failed. The roof lost to the beating of the wind as it came off. The ceiling, now their only shield from the storm, soon gave way to the wind’s relentless force. “That was what I was really afraid of… when our roof is gone, for sure (debris) will hit our heads”, she added. With no roof over their heads and now exposed to the elements, the rain drenched them and their belongings. Meanwhile, water started to accumulate on the floor. Addy, however, insisted to step out of the house. Malou hurriedly followed and called out on him to come back. When he did, he was already wounded, whereas she and her nieces came out unscathed. “Had they been on their own, they would be dead,” she said. “There was no one older to instruct them”.

Oh my God. These kids. I don’t give a flying fuck if you’re praying or proud to be a Filipino. Just don’t use #RescuePH as your hashtag. There are real people who actually use that hashtag to look for someone.

The whipping of the wind went on for hours, and it posed another danger. Its brute force was pushing one of the plywood partitions to lean toward them. “I was estimating its height and the length (of the room), if the whole plywood would crush us,” Malou said. She saw it was high enough to for the concrete wall to break its fall. The heavy partition leaned slowly, until it hit the concrete wall. For now they were safe.

The gusts of wind, however, continued to gallop the fallen plywood, which weakened its attachment to the beams as it starts to flail. “We will lose our shed!” Malou said. From hunkering down, she stepped on the lower bunk bed to hoist it and keep it from wavering. “I thought we would die if the wall fell on us. It was really heavy. I thought that would be our end,” she recalled. The ominous wall which has now become their proverbial shelter from the storm, was also about to go.

“My hands were already hurting”, she said. Malou became more animated as she told her story. “I was really fighting the wind”, she said as she raised her hand as if to stop and prevent something from falling. She held the wall in place for almost four hours. “I told my niece: Yvonne, it’s your turn. I’m already shaking, give me some water”, she added. Her niece took her turn but soon cried out, “Auntie, it’s too strong!”, referring to the wind.

Hi friends, I need a favor. I can’t watch every news channel in the country so please please please, if you hear or read the names Marilou (Malou) Alemania, Alessandro (Addy) Alemania, Jelyn Cervantes, and Yvonne Buna, please please call me or message me via facebook. Thank you!

Malou already worried about the strong winds and rain, yet saw another cause for concern as she got a view through the window. Water was starting to rise, reaching the ceiling of the first level of the houses and huts. She saw people next-door, all men, held on to the trusses of a nearby house, and for their dear lives. She wondered where the people who lived downstairs have gone. She did not notice anyone go up, and assumed they were dead from the strong current. Out on the street, the rushing water brought garbage and two cars. She did not know anyone nearby who owns those cars. As the flood rushed, she asked herself, “Why is there flood, when the sea doesn’t bring floods?” After about half an hour, the water started to subside. The men who clung onto the trusses swam the flood water and climbed up their window to seek refuge. There were other residents in the boarding house. A couple lived next door downstairs. The roofs and ceilings of the restrooms are gone, except theirs. Inside, she found another couple with an infant only a few months old who took refuge with them upstairs inside one of the restrooms with an umbrella in hand.  “It seems the Lord gave the baby a roof to take cover”. She said. They stayed there until night fall.

Her other niece, Janine, cooped up in the cabinet under the laundry sink made of concrete. She heard a screeching sound, not realizing another wooden partition fell on the other direction, its base now wedged against the base of their protective wall. They were practically trapped, save for the sliding glass window in their room, which fortunately didn’t break. “That became our house, that’s where we stayed for five days, six days. We couldn’t really do anything, there’s no text (messaging), no communication. What can we do, but wait?”

She thought about the worst-case scenarios. Water could reach the second level, or worse, way above their heads. “Do we have to go up the trusses? We were still far from the sea, that would have been impossible”, she thought to herself. As they sought refuge under the collapsed partition, and in the midst of the roaring wind and pouring rain she knew they were at least safe inside. They subsisted on the adobo, rice and eggs she cooked, which soon ran out. Their neighbors who lived next room work at the nearby Oriental Hotel gave them four cans each of sardines, corned beef, juice and water bottles.

Ted Failon’s report just broke my heart. I sincerely hope that my family members and relatives are okay.

The day after

The next day, Saturday, the sun was up. Malou asked Janine to join her as she stepped out of the house to survey the damage in the area. She worried about her best friend, Janeth who lived in a bungalow just a few blocks away, much closer to the beach. She knew Janeth and her youngest child have evacuated to another friend’s house in Barangay San Jose near the airport, but what about the husband and the nephew left behind in their house.

The main door of the house was gone. She went at the back and found the van’s windshield broken, its body, crushed. The motorcycle was still upright but covered in trash. She asked Janine to look for her friend’s husband inside the house. “Tito Zaldy, Tito Zaldy!”, Janine called out. There was no response. Malou started to entertain bad thoughts, “What could have happened to them?” She later learned from two women who lived across their street evacuated to a covered court whose roof was also ripped off by the storm. That the husband and nephew left behind clung on to the trusses. On their way out from the house, her best friend’s husband’s hand got trapped, cutting the pinky finger off, as they swam to safety on an elevated concrete water tank.

It all seemed like a war zone. The damage went far and wide. I thought to myself, “Hala! What happened to this, I can’t believe this.” Malou said. The eye of the storm was blind to social status. “There was no rich or poor”, she added, referring to the people debilitated by the storm. The beautiful houses were not spared. “There were even some made of concrete, but even the concrete crumbled. Was the quality of the construction sub-standard? But the combined force of the water and wind were to blame as well.

They walked a little farther, only to see trash blocking the roads. “At that time I cannot smell anything foul yet, but I already saw eight dead bodies,” she said. Amid the apocalyptic destruction, she still found time to do some household chores. “We just dried our clothes on a clothesline because they didn’t have mud, unlike downstairs where they did nothing but to leave their belongings”, Malou said.

At one point as she was drying their wet clothes, she looked through the window and saw a procession of people carrying dead bodies, each wrapped in a white sheet tied to poles, carried by two people each. In her barangay, there were at least 20 fatalities.

On Monday night, three days after the storm, she was able to connect to the outside world albeit indirectly. Kathy, a sister-in-law of Malou’s nephew, Dudu, was lucky enough to get on a C-130 plane to Manila. Dudu asked Kathy to look up Malou’s eldest child on Facebook, and send her a message. It was the first smoke signal to her daughters. Their mother, brother and cousins are alive.

My mother, brother, and cousins are safe!! Thank you, Lord! And thank you all for your prayers and concern.By this time, Malou’s husband, Uly, has flown back to the Philippines. He told his daughters who already bought tickets to Tacloban that he will join them. “I’ll join you to look for her, even just to find her dead body,” Malou said as she recounted her husband’s words.

Baras to Apitong: The long road to safety

Six days after the typhoon, and after drying their clothes and other belongings, Malou packed their bags and suitcase to transfer to the house of her best friend’s relatives, (Tan-Carvajal family) who were not severely affected by the flood. Getting there, though, was a bit more complicated. Buses and jeepneys were already plying the roads, but people who wanted to escape their ravaged town filled them to hilt. Everyone was only after one’s safety. Private cars won’t stop to give a ride. “People here are so selfish”, Malou said to herself. So with their luggage in tow and under the heat of the sun, Malou, with her son, nieces and her best friends sons, plodded by foot from coastal Baras to upland Apitong, a four-hour, eight-kilometer journey.

“There was nowhere to take cover and rest, everything was down”, she said as she showed her sunburned forearms. Skin damage was the least of her worries, however, as a more serious type of damage was seen on the way to Apitong. Addy’s school was destroyed, its roof already missing. Only the skeletal structure remained of the new gymnasium. At one gasoline station, people young and old were freely taking gasoline. They would dip pieces of foam into the hole of the gasoline storage underground, and squeezed out the gasoline into soda bottles, for personal consumption or commerce at PhP300 per liter. Soldiers secured the area and asked people to line up to give a general sense of order. As they made their way to Apitong, they no longer saw visual signs of death, no bodies laying on the ground, yet the stench of death and decay lingered in the air.

Watching Jeff Canoy’s report breaks my heart all over again. McArthur Park is just one kilometer away from where my mother is staying. Yes, Palo is just beside Tacloban but they haven’t received any goods yet. Something has to be done now. Na-survive mo nga ang bagyo, pero gutom ka naman.

They spent two days at her best friend’s relatives’ house in Apitong. Survival instincts took over sense of propriety “I knew them but we were not close”, Malou said. They were also from Eastern Samar where Malou hails from. “We just had to be shameless”, she added. They consumed their food supply, slept in their extra room, and used their cellphone. Her best friend’s daughter sent a text message to Yssa to tell her that there is a cellphone signal where they were. Their host has been recharging the cellphone using the car battery. On Thursdays night, almost after the storm struck, Malou heard her daughters’ voice.

Finally heard my mother’s voice!!! Thank God!!!!

Coming home

Malou met Jury (in law of Tan’s family), an acquaintance back from Divine Word University in Tacloban (Malou’s alma mater) who now works as supervisor at Philippine Airlines, Tacloban base. They hitched a ride in his car to the airport. On November 16, a week and a day after Haiyan hit Tacloban, with tickets bought by Yssa online, Malou and Addy flew back home to safety. Upon arrival at the airport, despite having heard each other voices on the phone, her daughters shed tears of joy as they saw with their own eyes their mother and brother in the flesh, safe, and alive.



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