Monday, November 25, 2013

In the Philippines: The Sun Rises

The sun rises behind storm debris and trees stripped clean of vegetation by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

By Linda Unger*

I am on my way back to the States after an eventful week in the Philippines assisting Typhoon Haiyan survivors in the hard-hit city of Tacloban and surrounding towns. Our UMCOR convoy departed Sunday, November 17, from DasmariƱas in Cavite Province, made the 36-hour drive, distributed emergency food packages over the course of two days to abundantly grateful survivors, and returned to Manila via the ruined local airport in Tacloban.

What stood out? In Palo, which lies next to Tacloban and about a kilometer from the sea, there was an especially eerie quiet—no sound of chainsaws clearing a path through the debris, just the occasional hammering; from inside our passing car we watched as forensics specialists put two bodies into body bags and photographed the scene, and it seemed as though we were watching a silent movie. Everywhere, the ruined coconut crop lay in piles of shredded brown—brown, in fact, was the dominant color: of the spoiled branches of the coconut palms, the seared hillsides, the mud underfoot, and the piles of wet wood and other debris lining the roadsides. Brown, brown, brown—and it was quiet like a family in mourning.

Trees were shorn of their branches, the stubby remains of which reached wanly to the sky—“arms too short to box with God.” Too short, too shocked, too stunned and exhausted. The storm surge in Palo, a kilometer from the sea, and Tacloban shoved everything in its path out of its path, depositing it where it didn’t belong: in fields, on roofs, and in piles of what sometimes looked like junkyard wreckage. Filipino flags and painted slogans called for strength, affirmed courage, but down each side street—where there had been side streets—lay more wreckage. The Roman Catholic cathedral in Palo allowed its grounds—where many of the severed tree branches and parts of trunks had come to rest—to be used for a mass grave. The figures of two angels, standing high above where the cathedral doors used to be and beneath the roof that no longer is, remained inexplicably intact and watchful. Palo, particularly, made me think of pictures I’ve seen of cities bombed in the Second World War.

We drove back at night from the town of Dagami, through Tanauan and Palo, to Tacloban after our second day of distributing emergency food packages. The night was black as pitch. The full moon that had cheerfully accompanied us from DasmariƱas was, by this time, in retreat and covered, besides, with black-on-black storm clouds. Every once in a while a small, bright, red-orange family fire gave a sign of life and challenged the darkness with its warmth and beauty.

Where destruction is so pervasive, one looks for signs like that, signs of hope. And there were at least two other such signs that penetrated the desolation which I became aware of: one is found in that great dynamic of neighbors helping neighbors; the other, in the very remembrance that the sun rises.

Freddie Santos (left) and Angelo Catanga work to erect a temporary roof for a friend whose home was laid open to the sky by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

At the height of the storm, seventeen-year-old Dilmar Barnizo made a rope and pulled people out of the fast-moving storm surge and up to the roof of his family’s home in a vulnerable community in Tacloban. Christian Tabao hosted about 50 of his neighbors, even as his own home was being severely damaged by the typhoon’s high winds. His house is on a hill, and they would be safe there from the floodwaters, so he took them in. On the road we stopped to talk briefly with two men, Freddie and Angelo, who were helping a neighbor put up a temporary roof on a badly damaged home, a first step toward rebuilding a community. And there were more stories and scenes like these.

And, yes, the sun rises, even though, in the midst of so much destruction, it may seem impossible. For survivors, it rises and announces the start of a new day—a day perhaps eerily quiet, but a new day nonetheless. The sun rises, and we can do… something—to ease another’s burden and to make this day better than the day before….

*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries.

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