Great tragedy was the backdrop of my first trip to Real, Infanta, and General Nakar in Quezon Province. In November 2004, hundreds of residents were killed in these towns, after typhoons Winnie and Yoyong caused landslides burying houses, buildings, and roads. Thousands of lumber from logging operations (many of which were allegedly from illegal operations) also wreaked havoc after these were swept by the non-stop downpour into these towns, and putting them in almost total isolation.
The logs were everywhere — blocking all the roads, entering houses and establishments. Streets were filled with mud, leg-high. Most of the casualties were buried alive. Other bodies had even been swept by the ocean to as far as Mauban town, while many bodies were never found. With scarce relief goods from government, people fought passionately for food.
Our news team was there, and we covered the three towns extensively. Looking back, I consider the coverage as my most significant, if not most significant and career-defining. But more than bringing my own journalistic experience to new heights, our stories gave me a deeper understanding of the loss of loved ones, as well as government’s limitations in delivering social services and its inability to fully enforce environmental laws. On a personal note, I believe the experience gave me more patience in dealing with personal and professional difficulties — and yes, more courage, wisdom and strength in facing and making judgments on the dangers our assignments bring us us to.
Some of the things I remember very clearly: walking for kilometers from one town to another, wading through the mud, sleeping in the news vehicle for nights, having very limited personal supplies ourselves, given the breaking coverage. Worrying if we ourselves have food and drinking water for the succeeding days. Worrying for our lives when Yoyong came. Oh, did I even mention not having a washroom to go to when the call of nature strikes?
These are all, of course, merely trivial to compared to the actual ordeal of the residents. Up to this day, I don’t think I ever will be able to perfectly capture in words what many people felt and continue to feel, such as the sentiments of a young orphan I interviewed almost a year after the tragedy.
Still, I saw hope and was inspired by the many acts of kindness we witnessed among residents, as well the great acts of kindness they still extended to our team in the middle of their difficulties. There was burning fervor to recover. For many, this meant staying to pick up the broken pieces. For others, it meant starting life anew in a different place.
I’ve visited these towns at least once a year since 2004. As I drove to Quezon on Sunday, I see that the three towns have changed. While there are still traces and reminders of the nightmare — a number logs on the coastline, a few bridges still need to be repaired — the three towns are slowly bouncing back. I was really happy talking to the same familiar faces I met in 2004, who have moved on and recovered.
Everyone’s praying that such catastrophe never happens again. My prayer: that the government has learned its lessons too — and makes sure that this episode does not happen again. And one great lesson: hope does bear fruit.