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Giving a voice to the vulnerable

Tuesday, November 8, 2016 1:10
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(Before It's News)

Imagine this…

“Super Typhoon Haiyan is moving over the Philippines this weekend bringing with it winds close to 200 miles per hour…” – ABC World News

An elderly couple walk past rubble left by the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City. An elderly couple walk past rubble left by the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City. 

November 7, 2013, just like any other day, I wake up to the music of the Beatles playing on the stereo. My 60-year-old parents are avid fans, especially my mom, Thelma. I go out of my room to the dining table and find my father, Cesar, taking a sip of his morning coffee as he discusses current events with my elder brother, Julius. Being lawyers, their discussion eventually turns into a debate, and the only person who can pacify the situation is my nephew, Tarin who is calmly eating his breakfast – eggs, banana and sweet potato dipped in peanut butter – specially prepared by his dad: my eldest brother, Jonas.

I go to the kitchen and find my mom cooking champorado (rice mixed with cocoa) while dancing to the music of the Beatles. She glances at me with her wonderful smile and says, “Good morning baby!” Yes, at 22-years-old I am still her baby. I embrace her from behind and dance with her, as my sister-in-law, Geo, feeds me French toast that she’s prepared. It was a typical, happy Thursday morning for our family.

Exterior of the Tacloban Provincial Capitol building after Typhoon Haiyan hit on the 8th November.Exterior of the Tacloban Provincial Capitol building after Typhoon Haiyan hit on the 8th November.

Now, imagine this…

Two days later, I am awakened by the strange howling of dogs. Eventually, the howling stops and my surroundings are filled with a deafening silence. I stand up; it is dark, cold and gloomy. No breakfast prepared on the table. No more Tatay (father) and Nanay (mother), no more Kuya Tata (older brother) and Ate Geo (older sister), no more Tarin. It is just me and my elder brother, Julius. All of a sudden the horrifying scenes of November 8, 2013, flashback.

When the wind and rain had stopped, when the surge had receded, when the typhoon had died down and left Leyte in catastrophic ruins, everyone thought the storm was over. Little did we know that the real storm – the struggle for those who were left behind – was just about to begin.

Police authorities distribute water in Tacloban City, Philippines. Tacloban is one of the hardest hit areas by Typhoon Haiyan. Police authorities distribute water in Tacloban City, Philippines. 

As my brother and I walked the streets of Tacloban, I looked at the city’s mountain range. I was surprised to see that the abundant greenery was now brown and dull; not a single tree survived the storm. Half the roads were blocked with piles of debris, the stench of death filled the humid Tacloban air, cadavers of humans and animals surrounded the city, and people looking like zombies were all over the streets walking with no clear direction. It was as if a sheet of cloth was forcibly pulled from underneath us and left the whole of Leyte Province devastated. All I wanted was to go home. All I wanted was to feel the comfort and security of my family. But where do you go when your home has been washed away? What do you do when your strongest support system – your family, whom you loved the most – is gone? Who do you hold on to? How do you move forward when the future seems to be a blur?

The authorities collect dead bodies, victims of the typhoon, near the Tacloban City Hall. The authorities collect dead bodies, victims of the typhoon, near the Tacloban City Hall.

Three years. How long does it take for someone to move on from a tragic experience? I find myself often apologizing to people whenever I’m about to breakdown and cry, because I feel that after three years I should have moved on by now. But the truth is, I haven’t. How can I even start over when the last memory I have of my father was seeing him struggling to surface the water, gasping for air, as he was being swallowed under the deluge of Haiyan? How can I even sleep at night when the only thing I can think about is my mom, drowning in the floods because her own daughter failed to save her? How can I go on with my life when I promised my brother and his wife that I will do everything to find their son, but failed? How can I manage to let go of the memories when the idea of my nephew navigating the world without us, if he is still alive, breaks my heart? How can I even have the strength to wake up in the morning knowing that my family will never be complete again?

They say time heals. Well, maybe it applies to other people, but definitely not to me. As years pass, the reality of living without the people you love the most sinks in even more. I thought I could get used to reading the names of my parents, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew on paper intended for a mass offering for the dead. I thought I could get used to hearing their names during novena prayers for the dead. I thought I could get used to seeing their names engraved on a tombstone. I thought heartache fades through time, but it doesn’t.

On the eve of the Super Typhoon Haiyan’s 3rd year anniversary, people from Tacloban light a candle that spells out “Climate Justice” to commemorate the devastating landfall three years ago. 

Since 2013, November has been a depressing month for all of us here in Leyte. Although we try to make it a solemn celebration of life and a humbling tribute to the world, concealed emotions of grief are dredged up as posters and video ads circulate all throughout the province announcing the commemoration of Haiyan’s anniversary. Memories of the super typhoon’s ferocious winds, cruel waves, and vicious rain come to mind…not that it has ever left. These days, the memories just become more vivid. I cannot help but look back on my life and think about how different things were back then. It has been three years since I was left with no choice but to let go of my mom’s lifeless body so I may live. Sometimes, I still ask myself if I had made the right decision or if it would have been better for me if I had just let myself drown, because living without my family just didn’t make sense. It’s always difficult to be the one left behind, you have to deal with all the questions, the grief, the pain, the regrets. You have to deal with the reality that no matter what you do, things will never be the same.

Why my family? Why me? What did I do wrong to deserve this? I can not help but blame myself for what happened, if only I could have done something different, maybe my family will still be around and I would not have all these lingering questions in my mind. I know no one could ever provide me with the right answer; I need to find it on my own.
On the eve of the Super Typhoon Haiyan’s 3rd year anniversary, people from Tacloban light a candle that spells out “Climate Justice” to commemorate the devastating landfall three years ago.

A year after the onslaught of Haiyan, Leyte was anticipating the landfall of Hagupit – another super typhoon. I can not articulate how exhausting it is to feel so helpless as I waited for the damage it would bring to my city. Then, I thought, is this it? Is this all we can do? To wait for another super typhoon to happen? Are we just going to record the casualties? The injured? The missing? Are we just going to wait for relief and aid from foreign countries every time we are met with catastrophes? Are we just going to rebuild and rehabilitate every time super typhoons such as Haiyan wreck our homes, buildings and livelihood?

I am done waiting. I do not want to see my whole world fall apart right before my eyes once again. And I could never bring myself to think about my children, and my children’s children bear the agony and trauma of what my family experienced. Homes, buildings, and livelihoods can always be rebuilt, but no amount of money can ever bring back the thousands of lives lost and the emotional turmoil caused by these dreaded calamities. We have already survived the worst, it is time we do more than just adapt and endure. Haiyan may have changed our lives, transformed our principles and altered our priorities, but we needed that change. Just like a caterpillar breaking out from its chrysalis, it endures the painful process to become a butterfly and achieve its beauty. We have to know that embracing our own metamorphosis can be extreme, but definitely worth the pain.

Tacloban City residents wait at the airport as they try to get a seat on outgoing C130 planes bound to Manila. Supplies have been scarce particularly water for the last four days and many are wanting to leave the city. Tacloban City residents wait at the airport as they try to get a seat on outgoing C130 planes bound to Manila. Supplies have been scarce particularly water for the last four days and many are wanting to leave the city. 

It took three extreme, furious waves and raging winds to annihilate our homeland. It took more than 10,000 lives lost and over 14 million people displaced for the whole world to finally be able to put a human face on the climate crisis. For the longest time, climate change issues have always been about theoretical studies and scientific researches. But when Haiyan spread its fury and we were stripped of all that we had and everything that we were, it made us realize that the long-standing issue of climate change poses a major threat and has a price to pay, and it is not a small one. Haiyan is an example of what’s to come. Climate change is not just statistics and numbers; it is already about us, the people.

The climate crisis is as real as a father who has worked all his life to provide for his family, only to wake up one day and realize his livelihood has been torn apart. It is as real as a mother bearing the agony of looking for her missing husband all day, and sleeping beside the dead bodies of her children at night. It is as real as a child who is looking forward to an education only to find out his school is damaged and he can not study anymore. The climate crisis is as real as the thousands of families who lost their homes and livelihood — who until today are living in makeshift homes, struggling to make ends meet, with little to no food and clean water. It is as real as the thousands of victims who perished — the accounted and the unaccounted. It is as real as the thousands of survivors who lost their families — and with them, their dreams and ambitions. The climate crisis is as real as the Filipino who has been adapting to its effects all his life, but is now taking a stand to intervene and fight for his basic human right to a safe, clean, and healthy environment; the right to have a peaceful and quality life, with no fear or worry about the future adverse impacts of climate change.

Tacloban City residents wait at the airport as they try to get a seat on outgoing C130 planes bound to Manila. Supplies have been scarce particularly water for the last four days and many are wanting to leave the city. On the eve of the typhoon haiyan third year anniversary, people from Tacloban light a candle that spells out “Climate Justice”

Haiyan was apocalyptic. It was the strongest typhoon ever recorded in history. Nevertheless, we Filipinos, known for our courage and resilience, were able to rise. Of course, with the whole world coming to our rescue and the adaptive nature embedded in the Filipino culture, we were able to push ourselves forward despite unprecedented circumstances. However, now the real question is: are we still going to wait for another Haiyan before we take action? I want people to be aware of the things happening on our side of the world and that the decisions we make today will also affect the choices of future generations. We only have one planet, one home; let us not take it for granted.

It is high time that we Filipinos be known not only for being victims of tragedies. We should prove to the world — and more importantly to ourselves — that although we were left with nothing but the trauma of wrecked homes, shattered livelihoods and death, our story does not end there. Every cut and dent signifies our struggle, every bruise and scar marks how we are reborn. The storm may have given us an inconceivable heartbreak, but it has refined us and it has given us the resiliency to continue our life’s story and make it a triumphant one.

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Joanna Sustento, far left

Joanna Sustento, is at the forefront of Taclobanons trying to make sense of the Typhoon Haiyan tragedy and lending their voices to the call for climate justice. In 2013 she and her brother Julius lost their immediate family to the storm.

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