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On Paradise

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What has unmade the island of Siargao will ultimately remake it.

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Gaps Sabuero
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On a strip of remote beach in Sitio Abobo, Monserrat, a 50-minute pump boat ride from General Luna in Siargao, Salvador “Baroy” Cortina points to a row of talisay trees. They were planted on the water’s edge in the 1970s, he said, to help prevent the beach from eroding. 

Beach erosion happens when high winds and waves pull sand away from the shore and deposit it elsewhere, depending on which direction the wind is blowing—usually over there, he says, pointing this time to a black-rock formation about a hundred meters out in the water, surrounded by sand. The amount of sand wiped off is considerable when typhoons ravage the area, he adds, and makes mention of Nitang, which had hacked so much away.

It is October 2021. In about two months, Super Typhoon Odette will come barreling through, scrambling everything in its path, but for today the bottle-blue sea is flat and a gentle breeze tempers the midday sun as it bears down on sand the color of polvoron. The cadenced rustling of palm trees makes me heavy-lidded with sleep. Physically, Sitio Abobo is part of nearby island Bucas Grande, but along with everything else within reasonable sailing distance, it belongs to our construct of Siargao the tourism hotspot—the one that just days before made travel headlines as the “best island in Asia,” according to Condé Nast Traveler.

Baroy and his brothers have lived here as fishermen and copra farmers long before Siargao became a tourism product, and now they have Instagram-ready backdrops—a bit of manicured lawn, a ladder leaned against a palm tree, a rustic wood-and-rope swing—waiting for the tour boats that, during the many months of the pandemic, have been few and far between.

He talks about the storm that had pummeled the entire province of Surigao del Norte 38 years ago as though it happened yesterday; the sense of awe and shock undiminished after all this time. He describes in vivid detail how the water had surged several meters inland, the sound of shrieking winds, the terrifying crack of coconut trees as they snapped in half like sticks. The Philippines’ second-deadliest storm of the 20th century made landfall on September 1, 1984, yet it’s fresh in Baroy’s mind and in the minds of those who lived through it. With peak intensity winds at 170 km/hour, Super Typhoon Nitang (international name Ike) left a thousand people dead, almost 400 injured, and 90,000 homeless in Surigao del Norte alone.

I was nine when Nitang peeled roofs off school buildings and churches, blew away houses, and knocked down trees in Surigao City. It happened at night; the power had been out for hours and my family was huddled in the bedroom my sister and I shared, sleepless and anxious but strangely calm, listening to the howl of winds, wincing whenever something heavy crashed on the roof. At some point, a loud thud knocked the fluorescent tube off the ceiling and it fell on the mattress—one of the many details I can still see in my mind.

I remember the sound of broken glass being swept back and forth across concrete for hours. I remember emerging from our house the morning after to a strange landscape of broken branches and other debris, thick queen-sized mattresses high on bald trees, the unfiltered light a little too bright and uncomfortable on the eyes.

But what I remember most is that days before the storm arrived, the neighborhood chatter was that PAGASA had called it wrong again—it’s just a slight breeze, what typhoon?

I was nine when Nitang peeled roofs off school buildings and churches, blew away houses, and knocked down trees in Surigao City.

Almost 40 years later, Super Typhoon Odette (international name Rai) began in a similar fashion—that is, with a tempered sense of alarm among those long accustomed to typhoons. Days before, there were warnings of four-meter waves and winds of up to 150km/hr. It was to be the Philippines’ 15th storm of the year.

“Every year the forecast is a direct hit but it always moves up to Samar,” says Marja Abad O’Donnell, owner of Greenhouse Resort in General Luna and founder of the Siargao Environmental Awareness Movement (SEA Movement), a community-based group that advocates for environmental protection and education. “There was a sense of the news having a kind of Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome. But we prepared for it anyway.”

Marja, her husband James, and the rest of the Greenhouse team trimmed trees, hammered plyboards over windows of cabanas and advised guests to evacuate to resorts away from the shore. Their resident boatman, Oyong dela Piña, himself a survivor of Nitang, hid the resort’s speedboat deep in the mangroves, certain it would be safe there.

Along with native knowledge, Siargao benefits from having a large chunk of the population constantly monitoring the weather and sharing updates via WhatsApp, Viber, or Messenger groups. Hotel owners and surfers like Heidi Ganaden of Lubihan in General Luna check apps like Magic Seaweed as they might the time, looking out for waves and weather, both for themselves and guests who like to surf. “We knew a big one was coming,” says Heidi. “And we knew it was going to be bad, but we had no idea it would be this intense—it was like being in a washing machine for hours.”

Typhoon Odette had rapidly intensified from a Category 1 to a Category 5 typhoon in one day—a phenomenon that climate scientists say will become more frequent as the planet becomes warmer. By 1:30PM on December 16, Odette made first landfall in Siargao. 

When communications went dark, the radio silence brought back memories of Tacloban, cut off and inaccessible for many frantic hours after Haiyan. As reports and images from Leyte began coming to light, they were of previously unimaginable disaster—a whole cargo ship run aground in a field of debris, a whole city reduced to a heap of rubble, thousands dead or missing.

Odette struck on a Thursday. Hours before, on a call with my brother Nicky, who had mentioned evacuating his family from their bungalow to his in-laws’ two-story resort. We didn’t hear from him and his family, or anyone from the island, for three excruciating days. Those of us who weren’t on the island when disaster struck went from feeling assured that Siargaonons are capable people who know what to do in a typhoon, to scouring social media for photos and updates (and managing our anger over the loss of ABS-CBN and its machinery), to dreading a Haiyan-like situation.

“We knew a big one was coming, and we knew it was going to be bad, but we had no idea it would be this intense—it was like being in a washing machine for hours.”

The power of Odette—with peak maximum sustained winds of 195km/hr and gusts of up to 270khm/hr—and the scale of the devastation it wrought, slowly became clearer with every survivor who managed to leave the island in the days that followed. There were assurances that while damage to property was almost total, the people were OK. But conditions were grim: food and drinking water were running desperately low, and the ground response was dazed and slow.

The silver lining in the end was Odette’s comparably lower casualty count, attributed in part to preventive measures taken by the government. Municipal circulars were distributed to remind barangay leaders of disaster protocols, with a zero casualty goal; updates were posted on Facebook. The typhoon has made clear what improvements need to be made to the system—from anecdotal evidence, mainly to do with execution—but it’s at least reassuring that there are protocols in place.

A storm is always two disasters: the clear and present danger of the storm itself, and its potentially more scarring aftermath: There’s the mad scramble during the typhoon, and the individual stories are heart-wrenching to say the least. Then there’s the mad scramble that ensues when wind and rain have died down, flooding has subsided, and shell-shocked survivors struggle for a foothold.

“I don’t know what state anyone is in, but I know they will need help.” 

To state the obvious, Siargao has become a different island since Typhoon Nitang: it has become a world-famous destination, and both its terrain and complexion have dramatically changed. Entire areas have been cleared for a network of concrete roads. An airport has been built. Beachfront property, once the consolation of the least favored child, is gold. Like other holiday destination islands in the country, what happens in Siargao doesn’t just stay in Siargao anymore – the effect of losses, for one, ripples back to the capital, with a potential to ding the overall tourism economy. And the local population now includes full-time transplants who run or work for tourism-based businesses, part-time residents who stay for months on end, and frequent visitors. It has made Siargao—especially General Luna, where tourism business is the most concentrated—networked beyond its shores.

While its popularity drove infrastructure development—albeit not always in the right direction—and shifted the local economy heavily towards tourism, creating a kind of vulnerability glaringly exposed by the pandemic, it has also made the community resilient. After Odette, local government units and their respective Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Management Offices (MRRMOs), themselves dazed from the unexpectedly powerful typhoon, needed time to find their bearings amid the destruction. In Del Carmen, Vice Mayor Alfredo Coro gave government staff three days to attend to their own families before being called to duty. First to be secured were the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, and new mothers.

In the midst of chaos, destruction and despair—and a logistical nightmare created by impassable roads and zero telecommunications—the sense of community was nothing short of inspiring. While individuals, businesses and NGOs like Lokal Lab mobilized for immediate relief, those who were not on the island organized delivery of crucial aid and supplies like food, medicine, drinking water and water filtration systems. There were charter planes and choppers, private speedboats, rented winged vans. Restaurants that were once party central became command centers for rescue and relief operations. 

The Philippines is one of the most disaster prone areas on the planet; Odette has laid bare Siargao's growing vulnerabilities.

Even without word from anyone on the island, and seemingly very little press coverage—the short news items couldn’t convey the full scale of the devastation in the island, and the wide swath of other affected areas—the fundraising and donation drives were on high gear, in every possible avenue. My sister Jof and her family were abroad when the typhoon hit; her first instinct in the next eerily quiet hours post-Odette was to call for donations online, asking friends and family to help spread the word. “I don’t know what state anyone is in,” she said, “but I know they will need help.” 

National team surfer Ikit Agudo, who had been in Borongan, Samar for a competition, asked a friend to post updates and requests for donations on her Instagram account as she desperately made her way back to the island. Arriving in Siargao, she says, was heartbreaking; everything was such a wreck that she didn’t recognize the family house.

Other groups, such as the IAO Remote Volunteers, organized by Siargao resident and artist Grace Otacan-Miro while she was in Spain, capitalized on the fact that its members were spread out around the globe and could work in shifts. The group began working round the clock to update Google sheets of survivors, working off photos, videos, eye-witness accounts, or handwritten lists ferried out by those who had managed to leave, either by evacuation flight or boat to the Surigao mainland. For many of those waiting in agony to hear from loved ones, it was a lifeline. 

There were many other efforts that went on behind the scenes; there were many heroes in and out of the island.

Photo by Camille Robiou du Pont

The intensity of the typhoons and disasters may already be outpacing the degree to which we prepare for them, not to mention our response and recovery efforts. Odette’s intensity may have been unexpected, but it’s again but a preview, as Haiyan was, of things to come. 

Marja and the SEA Movement recommends girding the island with more training and familiarization with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST)’s Reference for Emergency and Disaster (RED) Book, which details the natural hazards in the Philippines—tropical cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes—their early warning signs and ways in which to prepare for them. The RED book’s survival kit essentials includes items such as food and clothing, a transistor radio, a fully-charged mobile phone and a power bank.

The power of Odette, and the scale of the devastation it wrought, became clearer with every survivor who left the island in the days that followed.

“I would update the survival kit and add a satellite phone, solar chargers and water filters because the [absence] of a telecom signal really made it so hard to ask for and receive help,” she says. “Power supply took a very long time to come back, and water became so scarce in the GL area.” 

Gastroenteritis, because of lack of access to clean drinking water, was a leading cause of death after Odette; without phones, it was difficult to get the word out of where water filtration systems, such as from Waves for Water, could be found. Municipalities received satellite phones on December 17.

There’s also an opportunity for improving communications around preparations and relief. Most municipal updates were posted on Facebook, perhaps a risky overreliance on the app given not everyone is always on it. Marja believes a localized mobile PA system might do a better job of communicating the urgency of a rapidly intensifying typhoon. And mirroring the experience of previous disaster zones, there was plenty of frustration over sometimes unverified or inaccurate reports of how aid was being distributed by the government.

Whether or not these criticisms were warranted, it’s indicative of a general mistrust of systems whose inner workings are often hobbled by red tape, or are unclear and have not been properly explained to a panicked public.

A storm is always two disasters: the clear and present danger of the storm itself, and its potentially more scarring aftermath.

But the bigger conversation revolves around reconstruction of both physical and natural structures, as well as enforcing already existing policies designed to mitigate risk and sustain Siargao, the land and its people from disasters, natural and otherwise. The Philippines is one of the most disaster prone areas on the planet; Odette has laid bare Siargao's growing vulnerabilities, some of which have been obvious for years and to which the response has been uneven at best.

While Del Carmen hosts a vast tract of contiguous mangrove forest as protection against storm surges (and to increase marine biodiversity), other parts of the island are compromised. “There are more mangroves being cut for highway or bridge projects,” says Marja. “These and all the other proposed projects in Siargao really need to be reassessed and reviewed carefully by the Protected Area Management Board to make sure that they are aligned with the Protected Area Management Plan.” The speedboat hidden in the mangroves survived the storm unscathed when all other boats were destroyed; it ferried people out of General Luna and lifesaving supplies back in from Cantilan.

Siargao is, thankfully, part of the government’s TouRIST Program, whose main objective is to transform certain areas of the country—mainly island destinations—into resilient, inclusive and sustainable communities in terms of local systems and infrastructure. That transformation is expected to take years; in the meantime, nature is oblivious to all our schedules.

For the tourism workers in Siargao, a number of whom had abandoned industries such as fishing, Typhoon Odette felt especially brutal, coming on the heels of a protracted pandemic-induced tourism slump. Businesses had just about dusted themselves off in preparation for sea-starved tourists, locked down in the country’s big cities for almost two years, and the gloomy outlook that characterized most of 2020 and 2021 had given way to one that was hopeful. You could feel a sense of relief that the long, painful slog was about to be over, and that December would bring brisk trade. Now, not only have they lost their homes, but the means and resources to rebuild, as well.

Siargao has become a different island since Typhoon Nitang. . . both its terrain and complexion have dramatically changed.

As the Philippines reopens to the rest of the world in April, Siargao is rebuilding. Fundraising groups have recalibrated to focus on helping build homes. Aid continues to pour in. Community kitchens continue to serve food. Some hotels have reopened; more plan to follow suit. Surfers split their time between catching waves and delivering construction materials to communities within Siargao and in the surrounding islands. Those who have had to evacuate are slowly coming back.

Among the most heart-wrenching images of Typhoon Odette’s aftermath is of absence: the Cloud 9 tower in Catangan, General Luna, first built without a walkway in 1995, was one of the late mayor Jaime Rusillon’s projects. He had a vision of what Siargao could become, thanks to its unique natural assets. The structure then evolved to become one of the island’s most photographed spots, a symbol of Siargao that often appeared in press coverage, instantly telegraphing a sense of adventure and the singularity of surfing in this corner of the country. In a matter of hours, Odette wiped it all away, leaving only loose planks bobbing in the water.

Reports say that reconstruction on the tower has begun, and that it will likely be ready in time for September’s competition season. In the meantime, the waves that made the island are still there. They will always be there. Long before there was a surfing destination, a tropical escape, a tourism product, there was a place regularly ravaged by tropical cyclones and other forces of nature. 

Although the news has long moved elsewhere, Siargao’s recovery is just beginning. Fundraising groups have recalibrated to focus on helping build homes. Aid continues to pour in. Community kitchens continue to serve food. Some hotels have reopened; more plan to follow suit. Surfers split their time between catching waves and delivering construction materials to communities within Siargao and in the surrounding islands. Those who have had to evacuate are slowly coming back. There is still so much to be done, trauma to process, lives and livelihoods to be stitched back together.

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