Some typhoons come and some typhoons go, but it was Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) that menaced the Philippines early in November. By now the world has seen what a horrific storm this was and is witness to the devastation that Haiyan wreaked across the Eastern Visayas. The destruction to southern Samar and especially to the city of Tacloban (tock-‘lo-bon) on the island of Leyte is almost unspeakable. Haiyan left these areas in a state of complete disarray with over 6,000 lives lost and billions of pesos in losses and damage. There are estimated to still be over 1,700 people missing and nearly 4 million homeless or with damaged homes.
Here in Western Samar, we dodged a major catastrophe, and not by much. In a previous post “The Real Calamity”, I talked about the events that transpired before the storm, and the apparent lack of information services and warning systems in place. In retrospect, and with respect to the systems that are in place, it may be more of a case of lack of education and awareness that needs the attention.
When Typhoon Haiyan arrived, we experienced some wind and rain, but nothing like what we were expecting. Here in the Calbayog City area of Western Samar, there were a few partial roofs that were lost, and some with new leaks. The only real damage I seen was the damage to area banana trees, which are usually the first victims in a wind storm, because of their inherent structural weakness. They are not a wooden tree per se, but more like layers of wrapped pulp and tissue, and are easily twisted and broken in strong winds.
It was the first days after Haiyan left that we began to feel the effects that would continue through this date (mid Dec). We lost power early on the morning of Nov 8th, probably shut down by authorities as a proactive approach to safety (it surely wasn’t the wind that shut down the power nearly 8 hours prior to Haiyan’s arrival in the Central Visayas). Our refrigerator was fairly well stocked with things that were transferred to coolers with ice by the end of the first day. We did not open the freezer until we had to empty it the following day. At first, I would drive to the next Barangay (township of Tinambacan) to the ice plant there and buy ice for the coolers. By day three, they were forced to shut down their generators due to early shortages of diesel fuel. The cost of operating large generators is prohibitive to operating a business at a profit in many cases here. So, no more ice, in our part of the woods anyway. After another two days with nothing cold to drink, things began to get uncomfortable. We managed and consumed all that was refrigerated until it was gone. The frozen meats like pork we learned that we could pre-cook it to preserve it for 1-2 more days before actually cooking it again.
The second day following no ice, We made a trip to the beach resort next door to spend the afternoon relaxing in the cool shade and the ocean sea breeze. As a little luck would have it, an ice vendor found me and offered me ice for a price. Yeah!!! But now, the price was about 4 times higher than what I was paying a few days ago. I’m sure this ice vendor realized at this point in time, any foreigner would be the best and highest bidder on a block of ice, so he sought me out for the highest return on his investment. The fact that we could again have something cold to drink was enough motivation for me to spend the money. Then, after two days of practicing ice conservation, it was no more…and with rumors circulating that it could be 1-3 months before power was restored, I began thinking of other options.
The power that is supplied to Samar actually originates from Leyte Island, which is home to the Tongonan and Malibotbog geothermal fields, where power plants harness the heat to generate electricity. Typhoon Haiyan was responsible for toppling 248 transmission towers and 318 poles across the region, leaving the islands of Leyte and Samar totally cut off from the power grid. The storm also put 19 high-voltage lines out of commission and damaged seven substations. So when putting things in proper perspective, the rumor that we would have power restored in one month seemed ludicrous. We decided now was a good time to look for a generator! Preferably diesel and one large enough to operate an air conditioner, refrigerator, fans, and power for recharging phones and the computer.
Day 6 after Haiyan – Prior to the storm, we had stocked our pantry well with canned and dry goods. At this point in time, we did not need to make a 8 km trip to town for anything, but curiosity and boredom got the best of us and we headed to Calbayog. The streets were crowded with people and businesses were all opened. The influx of people and families from affected areas to the south and from Tacloban were obvious. Armed police (more than normal) were set out and about to manage the situation, and they did a really good job. Checkpoints were set up to prevent the flow of people and possible criminal elements from disrupting life in Calbayog City. The city managed the influx well, taking folks in and providing for those that it could effectively. From what I understand, many of the apparently not-so-needy types were told to keep on truckin’…so to speak.
The store shelves seemed to be well stocked as I suspect they also were prepared for a run on foodstuffs and supplies. Water was not in short demand, but the lines at the gas pumps were getting longer now. That day, I seen an entire shipment of bottled water received by Mercury Drugs, which I know was probably ordered sometime before Haiyan arrived. It just proves how much more efficient private enterprise can operate as compared to government run entities. While we were in town, we looked around for generators, but as fate would have it, they were already all sold out. One merchant told me he had 25 units sitting on the pier at Matnog in Bicol (Southern Luzon), but because it was not considered relief goods, it was a low priority shipment and it just sat there. On the way home, I stopped to fill up my motorcycle just in case…and it’s a good thing I did.
The next day, I connected with some other expats, and on Saturday the 16th, I bought a diesel 5.5 kw generator (genset) from a fellow American expat who is returning to the U.S. soon. That evening, we slept in relative comfort for the first time in 8 days. The next day, we restocked the refrigerator and we again had ice and cold drinks. Now that we had a genset, the next big concern was the fuel to operate it. By now, the gas stations were out of both gas and diesel fuel. When a fuel truck would arrive, it would be gone in very short order. We were lucky that the previous owner of the genset also threw in 40 liters of fuel, plus the 11 liter tank on the unit was nearly full. This allowed us about 4+ days of operation, and gave us ample time to search for a fuel source. The day we actually poured the remaining fuel into the generator, was the day we got lucky and replenished the two 20 liter containers. We were good for another 4 days.
Trucks carrying relief goods coming south through Samar are counting on gas stations in the cities of Calbayog and Catbalogan before heading to the far-flung areas, and were putting a huge strain on fuel supplies in our cities. After nearly a week, it was determined that other functioning gas stations would need to be used for these supply caravans, and upon closer management of refueling these supply trucks, alleviated the fuel problems, at least here in Calbayog. The fuel supply problem in Calbayog was strained for nearly two weeks before it returned to almost normal.
It didn’t take long to learn how to manage the hours that we operated the Genset. We would turn it on in the evening hours after dark (about 7 pm) and run it until about 1 am, or 6 hours. This was enough to cool the house down and we could get to sleep in comfort. Of course, the 96 db noise level was something that we (and the neighbors) had to contend with. In the morning, the house stayed cool enough until about 8 am at which time we would open the house up. At around noon, I would crank up the genset for about one hour to rejuvenate the fridge and freezer. For the next two weeks we would rely on the genset to make our lives easier. For many of our neighbors (who don’t have electricity), their return to normalcy began when the rain and wind ended.
The only real inconvenience that affected nearly everyone was water rationing (water hours) which the city implemented – I believe mainly due to the cost of operating the water service pumps. Water was on from 3 am to 4 pm daily, and that clock was certainly managed on Filipino time! We were back to collecting as much water as we could when the water was running, for use outside the inconsistent water hours or in the event we were to loose our water service altogether. In times like this, you take no chances or make any assumptions about anything. The one thing that was for certain was that the San Miguel Beer distributor was always on time and would show up every Friday like clockwork.
Into the third week, the store shelves were starting to become noticeably bare. Many of the areas suppliers come from Tacloban and that supply line was totally severed. What wasn’t coming out of Tacloban any longer meant decimation. Pepsi and Coke products were the first thing to disappear as both bottling plants were wiped out. Next thing to disappear were the canned sardines and fish products (tuna). Some smaller cans are still available. Cookies, chips, cooking oils, soy sauces…all becoming scarce or depleted. Recently my wife will return from shopping and say “got lucky today, they had….” whatever it was that they didn’t have last time.
Our power originally was restored to us on the 29th of November and as I understood it, it was being supplied from Cebu. NGCP spokesperson Cynthia Perez-Alabanza stated that 700 contractors with the NGCP have mobilized 1,381 equipment experts and linemen from all over the country to help in the repair effort. Although my first thought that power would get restored in short order was a ludicrist idea, the fact that so much focus and effort into repairing the electrical infrastructure soon could actually be accomplished. As all of us here in Samar are happy to report, we feel so lucky and relieved that as of the 15th of December (two days ago), our permanent power supply has been repaired and service restored. Thank you to all the hard working men and women that made this happen so soon.
Today, we are still feeling the effects of Typhoon Haiyan. Store shelves are becoming half empty, and local area restaurants are offering limited menus. Pepsi has just now retured and is being supplied from Bicol and not Tacloban. Suppliers of the chain restaurants like Jollibees have had to resupply from the north or from Cebu, and is inconsistent. There are days when many items on the menu are simply “out of stock”. Many places offer only iced tea or pineapple juice to drink. While we can still see and feel the negative impact this storm has had on Calbayog City, my wife and I are fortunate.
Fortunate that we live in a fishing village and that many Filipinos are good farmers. Fortunate that there is no shortage of fresh fish and vegetables or fruits, like mangoes. We are fortunate that the people who live around us here are tough and resilient. We would be hard pressed to starve in a disaster here, should one ever happen. Where there is such an inherant will to survive, life surely continues. We are fortunate.