Visit to Yolanda’s Ground Zero and a funeral


Note on the term “Ground Zero”:

The term “ground zero” describes the point on the Earth’s surface closest to a detonation of a nuclear bomb and other large bombs.

The term is also used in relation to earthquakes, epidemics, and other disasters to mark the point of the most severe damage or destruction.

As used in this column, ground zero refers to the point of greatest damage and destruction in Supertyphoon Yolanda/Haiyan—and that is incontrovertibly Tacloban City, the capital of Leyte province.

I wrote this column in Tacloban, where I was on a visit last week for the wake and funeral of an aunt, who had passed away at the age of 96.

I am ashamed to confess that it was my first visit to Ground Zero of Yolanda/Haiyan, since its devastating landfall on Nov. 8, 2013—ashamed because Tacloban is home to many close relatives (including an elder sister and her family), and Leyte is my home province.

How could I lapse into Noynoying, when the plight of hearth and home and loved ones is involved?

I plead three reasons for the lapse:

First, the relatives who were my immediate and deepest concern during the catastrophe evacuated to Manila after Yolanda struck.

Seeing everyone in the flesh and safe from harm in Manila was reassuring, but it certainly did not mean that the worst was over in Tacloban.

Second, I was horrified by the tragedy and devastation, and I dreaded what I would find if I successfully got to Tacloban.

It did not help to settle my mind that my wife and I were actually scheduled to be in Tacloban on the day the typhoon struck. We were supposed to stay in the same hotel where the CNN broadcasters were billeted. We are the definition of “fortuitous.”

Third, Yolanda impelled me to take up journalism and column-writing again. I imagined that as a journalist, I could be of more assistance to my home province and home region by pressing the government (the President and Congress) to act more decisively and generously in the relief, recovery and rehabilitation effort.

Not quite resilience and rebirth    
Visiting Ground Zero two years late, I wish I could report a story of resilience and rebirth.

The story of recovery and rebuilding is stirring and heroic in parts; it is disgraceful and villainous in others.

The negative aspects unfold like a caricature of relief, recovery and rehabilitation, viz.:

President BS Aquino dismissed one Tacloban businessman, who pleaded for tough law enforcement, with the words, “Buhay ka pa naman, ‘di ba? (You are still alive, aren’t you?)”

Mar Roxas crudely summarized realpolitik to the aghast city mayor Alfred Romualdez: “You are a Romualdez; the President is an Aquino.”

Aquino and Roxas blamed the lack of civil defense on local governments as the first responders.

Aquino and budget secretary Florencio Abad, Jr. Abad impounded the P900 million appropriation funds for the upgrading of the Tacloban aiport (Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport) to fatten the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). Consequently, the airport was helpless to withstand the typhoon.

The Aquino administration tried to move Ground Zero from Tacloban to Guiuan, Samar—a lie worthy of the Nazis.

The other half of the story is inspiring. The international aid that poured into the country because of Yolanda was colossal and massive.

The United Nations was present in a big way. Individual countries, like the US, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Australia, made dramatic humanitarian interventions.

Many international organizations and foundations, like the Red Cross, bore a big part of the relief and recovery effort.

Noteworthy for their sustained assistance up to now are the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation of Taiwan and the SM Foundation of the Philippines.

Tzu Chi introduced the highly innovative concept of cash-for-work in the relief and recovery effort, particularly in the crucial work of debris cleaning and reconstruction (P500 per day wage), to assist people to get back on their feet.

Among Philippine foundations and organizations that assisted in relief, recovery and rehabilitation, SM Foundation has had a huge impact on the ground, because of its wide-ranging and continuing programs.

I saw only parts of Leyte this week; and I still have to visit Samar.

Tacloban, I was glad to see, is back on its feet. New life is sprouting all over the capital. Business is thriving. Many of the business start-ups are restaurants and other places to eat.

This reminded me of my friend, the late Larry Cruz (founder of the LGC restaurant chain), who said that in times of anxiety and stress, people tend to dine out more.

There are more foreign tourists going to East Visayas. There is now a noticeable Muslim minority in Tacloban. Most of them are traders, and many are Badjaos. A Muslim mosque is rising in one district devastated by Yolanda—Brgy. Anibong.

No change on the horizon
Like the rest of the country, Tacloban and Leyte held elections on May 9 to choose their local leaders and representatives in Congress, Absurdly, the results showed Leyte and Tacloban plunging deeper into the muck of dynastic politics.

After 30 years of electing a Petilla family member to the governorship of Leyte since 1987, shifting first from the father, then to the mother, then to one son, and then to another son, Leyte this year threw all caution to the winds.

It reelected a Petilla as governor, and then installed his first cousin as his vice governor. It is doubtless a scheme to keep political power perpetually in their hands..

The politics in Tacloban City and the first district of Leyte is no less bizarre. These places are controlled and led by the rival Romualdez clan.

In this year’s election, the incumbent mayor and the incumbent representative put up their wives as the candidates to replace them: Christina Romualdez to replace Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez; and Yedda Romualdez to replace the termed-out Rep. Martin Romualdez. Both wives are non-natives to Leyte, and cannot speak Waray. Both won.

There is no change on the horizon for Tacloban and Leyte.

A woman better than good
On the last night of the wake for my aunt, relatives and friends paid tribute to her memory. Her name was Mrs. Rosario Parker Villasin. She was a teacher, first, last, and always.

I offered my own homage to her as follows:
I shared with Tia Charing (the deceased) a love of words and literature.

I will always remember her as the aunt who gave her children noble and pleasant-sounding names—names taken from the plays of Shakespeare—Cecilia, Noel, Lysandre, Orcino, and Nestor.

In this time of sadness, let us take solace from the words of Aeschylus, who wrote of grief this way: “Pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our despair, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

The loss that we have sustained here is of a mother, grandmother, great grandmother, aunt, friend, but, most of all, it is the loss of a teacher and a mentor.

Tia Charing brought to the vocation of teaching exceptional passion and dedication.

She taught in public and private schools, in Filipino and Chinese schools, and God knows where else. When she visited her children in America she found a temp job teaching.

She always found time to teach, wherever there were people with whom she could share the learnings of her life.

Another writer (William Faulkner) had a profound insight into history. He wrote:

“History is not ‘was,’ it is ‘is.’”

I think we should regard our dear departed in much the same way—that they are never gone from us, but are ever present in our midst.

Tonight, let us hold this thought of our dear Tia Charing:

“She is a woman better than good.”


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1 Comment

  1. The disaster in Tacloban was massive. This Yolanda is one of the biggest storm in the world. It is not fair to point fingers at anyone because per pictures on TV, the whole place got leveled. Nothing standing. I still remembered the storm that hit New Orleans was also massive and it took the government number of years to rebuilt but Yolanda is 100 times more destructive. I never heard any Americans blaming anybody for the slow recovery. They just rebuilt without complaining . Maybe it is their culture.