Memories of Pepeng
"Punta ka na sa taas. Susunduin ka na ng chopper."
October 9, 2009.
It was business as usual in the newsroom. Editors were mercilessly arguing with producers over the day’s story line-up. Production assistants were running all over, occasionally tripping over the backpack-strewn aisles of the office. A row of TV monitors were blaring, providing an ambient score to the usual bustle at work.
Me? I was taking a nap. A nice, long, coma-like nap — face planted firmly on my desk, cuddled in a small, greasy cubicle right next to the photocopy machine.
It had been a long month at work. Everyone was still reeling from the effects of the massive coverage brought on by Typhoon Ondoy a few weeks earlier. It was my first day back in the newsroom after what seemed like a never-ending string of tragic, disaster-related stories in the field. I was exhausted.
"Hoy, bilis na. Nandoon na ‘yung chopper."
I woke up from a series of taps on my shoulder. Dazed yet somehow transfixed on the voice bellowing from behind, I turned.
"Yung SM Rosales, lumubog na sa baha. Madaming na-trap sa bubong."
Remember those childhood tales involving kids who didn’t want to wake up for school so parents would pour ice-cold water over them to shock them into a state of consciousness? My boss’ words were the news equivalent to that bucket of water.
"Nandun na sa taas ‘yung cameraman mo na si Joey. Lilipad kayo pa-Rosales. Tapos may live ka sa Patrol."
No, not water. It felt like waking up after your cranium was cracked open after being hit repeatedly with that water-less bucket.
In newsrooms, the usual rule is that when bosses tell you to jump off a cliff, you follow. And then when you’re mid-air, gasping for help, hands flailing about, you tell them: how do you want me to land? No time for complaints, this was breaking news and it doesn’t wait for anyone.
So, any gripes about the assignment were packed hurriedly in a small bag, along with a laptop, a couple of shirts, a company jacket and a pair of underwear. In record time, I was flying to Rosales in Pangasinan to find out what was happening.
Typhoon Pepeng was like a birthday surprise you secretly knew was going to happen but still managed to astound when all of your friends jump out of the dark to yell “Surprise!” as you open the door. Only this wasn’t a birthday.
After ravaging Laguna earlier, everyone thought Pepeng was gone for good. But we knew there was a chance that it would U-Turn over water (forecasters predicted it with the gut-punch of a doomsayer), and return to land with vengeance. We knew what would happen. We knew that it could happen. But didn’t want to believe it.
But when our chopper hovered over SM Rosales, and the sight of hundreds of people waving languidly for help from the rooftop greeted me — it was a genuine jump-out-of-the-dark surprise. Imagine a gigantic infrastructure, bowing down mercilessly to floodwaters.
We landed on the rooftop. People rushed to our chopper desperately asking for help. Before I had a chance to say anything, the chopper’s pilot peeked his head out of the window to tell my cameraman, Joey Romblon, that he was leaving us there. He needed to fly back to Manila before the clouds closed in on him, trapping the chopper in the mall along with the rest of us. Surprise.
Again, no complaints. When you’ve got a slew of people trapped in a mall, with evening slowly creeping, and restlessness for rescue rising — you’ve got no right to complain.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man begging for help. He swam to SM Rosales from a nearby hotel. His wife was going into labor, and they had no choice but to brave the floodwaters and find a hospital.
"Nasaan po ‘yung asawa ninyo?"
He pointed to the emergency staircase hinged on the side of the roof. His wife was aboard a rubber boat, floating aimlessly. Surprise.
But the thing was, he couldn’t get his wife to the roof. The staircase to the roof was barricaded by steel bars, with a lock in tow. The boat was trapped. His wife, moments away from giving birth, was trapped.
But the thing about disasters — and I’ve seen this happen more than once — luck and chance tango with fate. A boat-full of rescuers from the Philippine Coast Guard were spotted adrift not too far away from the mall. The people trapped in the mall began yelling, asking for help. Strangers helping strangers. Surprise.
And in a matter of minutes, they were there. Using a driftwood, the rescuers were able to pry open the steel bars blocking the staircase. Jinky, the expectant mother, was saved.
A chopper unexpectedly landed. Until now, I don’t know where that chopper came from. If it was part of the rescue missions or if the heavens parted and led that chopper to that roof. But it was there. A lucky break. Jinky was transported to Dagupan.
It would take a few more hours before the flood subsided. We, along with the rest of people trapped in SM Rosales, were able to leave. But what the flood covered, it also destroyed. The water was gone but tragedy was everywhere in Rosales.
I spent another week or two covering the aftermath of Pepeng. Moving from town to town, interviewing people who lost loved ones, residents who lost their homes. Even the regional office of ABS-CBN wasn’t spared. Their newsroom was also flooded. Regional reporters worked tirelessly in makeshift offices, newscasts were produced from the outside (using lights from the fog lamps of vehicles) just to send the message out that the province needed help. And that it needed it badly.
One year later, I returned to Rosales.
“Pepeng Ang Lupet Mo.”
This was the sign that greeted me in Rosales. The wooden sign, small and hardly noticeable, was crafted by a resident, Valentin Merlin. The sign stood where his house used to stand.
It was a year since the typhoon struck the province with all its might. A year since residents had to flee their homes after floodwaters submerged town after town with its unrelenting fury. Stone houses fell, and the makeshift ones were washed away. More than three hundred deaths were recorded.
“Di ko malilimutan. Sino ba? Nakapabilis ng pangyayari pero ang panghabambuhay mo dadalhin.” Valentin said this as he stood on the land he inherited from his parents, mournfully gazing at a pile of plywood, shattered glass and galvanized iron sheets ageing with rust. He said his family built the house in 1973. It took less than a hour to see it crumble.
“Nilagay ko itong sign para lagi naming maalala. Siyempre, pag nakakabawi ka na, ang tendency ng human nature ay makalimot. Itong sign, paalala parati.”
A year later, Valentin moved to another town – one that was spared by Pepeng. But the rest of his neighbors rebuilt their homes, albeit makeshift ones, using fallen tree branches, borrowed tarpaulin and pieces of their old abodes. The other houses, which survived, are now up for sale even if its walls reek of caveat emptor.
The roads were passable, clean, and mud-free. Water and electricity was back. SM Rosales stood mighty again. Visitors passing by Rosales would never believe what happened there just a year ago. There’s nary a reminder.
Except for that sign. “Pepeng Ang Lupet Mo.”
Four years later, I write this now so as not to forget.
It was one hell of a chopper ride.Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.