Ang Isla ni Pablo

BAGANGA, Davao Oriental – Meljohn Monteza was working as a driver in Davao City when Typhoon Pablo slammed against his tiny island of Poo in Davao Oriental (Read more about Isla Poo http://www.rappler.com/nation/17872-pablo-and-the-furthest-island) It took 3 days for word to arrive that his parents and sister were alive, that the island had been flattened by wind, and that the few survivors left were starving and desperate. In this short documentary shot by John Javellana and Patricia Evangelista, and scored by Malek Lopez and Armi Millare of band “Up Dharma Down,” Rappler tells the story of survival in a place its people once called paradise.

       
     
The Prophet of San Rafael

DAVAO ORIENTAL, Philippines - The road to Cateel cuts through the hillside. It is a pastoral postcard, a Department of Tourism meme. The sky is blue, the fields are green, laundry lines flap against lawns, coconut trees dot the horizon. It takes a moment to understand that the trees all lean to the right, that the laundry dries not only on lines but on the backs of rusting motorcycles, and that the man carefully sweeping his living room floor sweeps through a house without door or roof or wall. In Cateel town, the devastation leaves no room for doubt. Homes are shattered, slabs of tin and wood layer the streets, the skeletons of buildings stand stark against the sky. This is where Dante Diansay has been lying in wait, slowly circling the plaza on his motorcycle since the day after typhoon Pablo smashed through Mindanao. Diansay is 56, a small, sunburned man who trails after the handful of reporters based in Cateel town. His smile is disarming. He asks questions. Where are you from, would you like help, what are you covering, whom would you like to speak to? Come to San Rafael, he says. Follow me. Welcome to the end of the world Diansay was once the managing editor of a local newspaper. He is frank about his purpose. He would like to bring the media to San Rafael. He would like them to see what Pablo did to his small village. He would like the world to know, particularly the relatives who might send help. San Rafael is a farming community half an hour away from the town proper. Every house is broken, along with church and covered courts. Diansay himself picks his way over the tumble of debris that used to be his home, stepping over small puppies that erupt out of the broken floorboards. It was the wind that did it, he says, not the water. “The wind spun black,” he says. “It sounded like a rushing train.” His nephew Jose nods. “The wind tasted bitter.” Diansay says to be in the center of the storm is to watch chunks of land ripped out like a tooth. “I was afraid,” he says. “I thought it was the end of the world.” Never before Six days after Pablo, relief has visited San Rafael only twice—once from the government, and once from non-government organizations, although more aid appears to be on its way. Residents survive on relief rice and little else, living inside makeshift tents or inside one of two homes left standing after the storm. Medical attention is difficult, tetanus shots are scarce, and necessary for the many who like Diansay failed to avoid the rusty nails spread across the muddy grassland. “We have never had a typhoon in San Rafael,” says Diansay. “If we did, it was nothing like what happened.” The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reports 647 dead as of December 10, with 1,482 injured and 780 missing. Cateel is one of Davao Oriental’s worst hit towns, with reports of looting by desperate survivors in the days immediately after the storm, with reports putting casualties from the town at over a hundred. The Philippine National Police has gone so far as to order its personnel to stop looting in affected areas, even as it organizes relief efforts for 200 cops who lost their homes in these places. Diansay believes that San Rafael has a chance, if only government focuses on agricultural development along with post-Pablo relief. He understands the government’s funds are stretched thin, and explains why many residents are angry. “Farmers are worried,” he says. It is land preparation season, and there is little money to make the long trip out of Cateel to the city for agricultural supplies. “We wondered if we still had hope,” Diansay says. He has nothing to offer his wife, a beautician based in Davao whom he was convincing to move back home. He has lost his mobile phone, and is now unable to work for the local press. Many of San Rafael’s 3,000 residents are now jobless and homeless. Food is scarce. There is no money to leave, and little left for those who stay. “I said we have no choice but to survive this. We need to survive this.” In San Rafael, buckets of laundry are being washed by hand. Roofs are being hammered in; small shelters are being built. Diansay rides his motorcycle out to the highway and waves. He hopes his story will be told. He hopes it will matter. Video by Patricia Evangelista and John Javellana

       
     
No Place Like Home

CATEEL, Davao Oriental - In this documentary shot in early January, shirtless men and teenage boys begin rebuilding the town's damaged pump. Vendors sell homemade bread. The gas stations are operational. At the town plaza, a group of young boys play baseball on the painted tile. Chalk signs are written on plywood walls—"Pablo Sari-sari store" is open for business, so is a small cafeteria newly named "Signal No. 3." The barangays of Cateel are dependent on agriculture, many residents working in the coconut fields, some with small investments on the harvest. After Pablo, homes were reduced to rubble, schools were crushed by strong wind, coconut trees were either ripped by the roots or broken halfway. 120 casualties were reported, with 361 injured, according to Consuegra. Early reports list at least 11 killed at evacuation centers, including the local elementary schools. At the time of this writing, a month and three weeks after Pablo, Cateel is again deep in floodwater, this time from a January 19 cold front. No casualties have yet been reported. According to Cateel Chief of Police Superintendent Vince Consuegra, forced evacuations to higher ground are being implemented in the villages of Taytayan, Alegria, San Vicente, San Alfonso and Aragon. Cateel's residents claim they will fight, and they hope to return Cateel to the way it was by January 2014. It may be a harder task than they expected. You can help the victims of the Davao flooding and Typhoon Pablo through Rappler's continuing "Text to help" campaign. Video by John Javellana and Patricia Evangelista 

       
     
A Body to Bury

NEW BATAAN, Compostela Valley - It is high noon, and Dante Balura has walked many hours. He has done this for 5 days, plodding down dirt roads like this one, left hand wrapped in a red plastic bag, a pink hand towel clutched in the other. He is looking for his family, and he hopes they are here.

The 25-year-old laborer was working in Davao when he saw on television how tropical storm Pablo ripped through Compostela Valley. He arrived in Barangay Andap, Purok 1 to find his house shattered, and his family gone. His few surviving neighbors said they had been swept away. He went straight to the town hall, where he found 4 relatives among the survivors. A total of 18 more were missing: his wife Josephine, his 3 children—5-year-old Dan Jimmy, three-year-old Dan Joshua and 10-month-old Daphne Joy—his parents-in-law, siblings, along with his wife’s siblings, uncle, nieces and nephews.

“I went to look at all the dead they brought, but I couldn’t recognize anyone because of what they went through.”

Andap is one of New Bataan’s hardest-hit villages, where bodies are still being retrieved from under piles of logs. Mass graves are being dug by local authorities for the unidentified bodies.

One day after President Benigno Aquino III shook hands with constituents and announced his intent to normalize the situation, corpses lie scattered on Compostela roads covered with flies. Dante is one of many who hunt for bodies days after the typhoon. Some ride motorcycles from town to town, others wait in evacuation centers and outside mortuaries for word of new recoveries.

It is Dante’s brother in Davao who lent him the money to pay for food and water, enough to sustain Dante during the trek from funeral home to the town. He has checked records of survivors and included all 18 of his family members in the list of the missing. He has gone from New Bataan to Tagum City in Northern Davao to New Bataan again, visiting morgues and wakes, opening every coffin, following army trucks hauling back recovered bodies.

Only wish left

At first he had hope some of his family would be found alive, now all he prays for is a body to bury.

“I will accept whatever happened to them, all I ask from God is that I see them again, even if they’re dead, so that I can bury them, so that I can be the one to have them buried.”

It is the only way, he says, for his family to rest in peace.

Today he stands over body bags lining the side of a dirt road near a river that was once a road. Most of the bags are already open. A greasy arm stretches out of one bag, a knee out of another. There are bodies frozen in rigor mortis, stuffed into the bags, arms and legs akimbo, fingers fat and swollen and crusted with mold.

Dante bends over each of the 18 corpses, looking into faces, turning bodies, searching for this brother’s tattoo, that son’s birthmark. The pink towel is pressed against his nose and mouth. The stench is overpowering. It does not matter, because the body wrapped in a tablecloth under the body bag could be his wife, his mother-in-law, his sister.

He will keep on searching until the recovery teams pull back. He will wait and walk until he has seen every body. Then he will go back to Davao, away from Compostela Valley, and begin again, whatever beginning means for a man who has lost it all.

       
     
After Pablo

DAVAO ORIENTAL, Philippines - This is the story of Pablo, of the many small towns from Andap to Kinablangan. There were warnings of a storm, but very few knew what it meant. When the wind began whipping, those who could ran to schools and gyms and high ground, many of those who died were killed on the way, or crushed under the rubble of evacuation centers that were also built by men who had never seen storms.

There is old man Egido, who stands on the side of the road, smoking his last Marlboro, staring at the coconut trees he cannot harvest. In Andap, a field of rocks is all that is left of the Charlie Company detachment, the 27-year-old man pretends not to cry when he recites the names of his 7 dead, and is wracked by guilt when he speaks of the sergeant whose hand he was clutching slipped in the flashfloods. In New Bataan, there is a young man named Dante digging through bodies, looking for 18 of his family who disappeared when he was in Davao. Maybe he is there still, haunting the funeral parlors and sitting beside unmarked graves. All he wants, he says, is a body to bury.

It is a story so huge it is difficult to grasp. There are families who refuse to admit that “missing” may now mean dead more than a month after Typhoon Pablo. There are mothers who receive bags of rotten rice and cook them anyway, there is electioneering and politicking, but there are also teachers who teach classes in muddy slippers and pristine uniforms inside classrooms without roofs. There are questions of sustainability, of diminishing aid, of changing weather patterns, of livelihoods lost and fields and fields of coconuts that will take months to clear and 7 years to grow.

There is no grand solution, no saviors or messiahs, no single agency to blame. After everything, the story is about a world that has fallen apart. The center will not hold on its own, not now and not for a very long time. It’s like a dropped bomb, an Armageddon of sorts. Survival is accidental, and those who are alive now, face lives so far removed from what they were yesterday. Some are hopeful, some broken, some just trying to keep going. It is an impossible story to grasp, and one whose ending depends on those who are willing to imagine.