By Danny Petilla
LOS ANGELES – An ominous text message sent from thousands of kilometers away in my hometown of Palo, Leyte province, at the height of Supertyphoon “Yolanda’s” fury on Nov. 8 may have changed my life forever.
“Brother, our house is gone! Destroyed in less than an hour!” the message screamed on my iPhone in Waray, my native dialect.
The sender was my younger sister Ruth, 46, who scrambled to compose her digital distress signal in the nick of time to beat Yolanda’s hurricane force winds of 300 kilometers per hour as it leveled our ancestral house to the ground and before it could cut power and telephone lines to isolate Palo, our city of Tacloban and the rest of Eastern Visayas to the outside world.
As it became apparent that Tacloban was now ground zero for one of the worst killer storms in recorded history, the steady drip of horrific details filtering out of the disaster area triggered a sort of global anxiety and waiting game for the thousands of overseas Filipino workers and expatriates like myself as we waited for any news about our loved ones in Leyte and Samar provinces.
This anxiety would hit home in the coming days because I could not sleep thinking about Nanay Petra, my 85-year-old mother, who is sick with diabetes and high blood pressure, hobbled with arthritis and nearly blind with cataracts.
My mother was a permanent US resident but she decided to return to Leyte after my father, Ignacio, a US war veteran, died in California on Sept. 12, 1993.
Then the grim possibility of multiple fatalities threatened my family’s wits as we also learned that our eldest brother, Reynaldo, 62, his wife Nene, and six of their children and grandchildren went missing for 12 days.
When all of them showed up unscathed on Nov. 20, our family’s joy was overwhelming, almost rapturous.
Days of anxiety
Before that moment of good news, our families on both sides of the Pacific Ocean were dogged by days of anxiety and nerve-wracking stress and suspense as images of bodies and split debris littering the streets where I used to roam as a young man transfixed the world.
The ensuing cries of desperation from survivors trying to leave Tacloban were torture to me.
From the relative comfort of my home here in America, where I have been living for 22 years, I felt pangs of guilt and a creeping sense of remorse that I fled the Philippines in December 1991 to escape death threats and harassment from criminals and politicians alike.
From a distance, I shed tears and whispered prayers for the thousands of my townmates killed in the initial impact of Yolanda’s tsunami-like storm surges.
The list of fatalities provided by my siblings via Facebook proved too much for me to bear: I lost a cousin, Teodosia Acebedo, a dear teacher, Cecilia Orejola, a boyhood friend, Mario Sison, and several neighbors, classmates and coworkers as well as colleagues from my days as a reporter for this newspaper in the late 1980s.
Memories came flooding back to me as I reminisced about an eerily similar catastrophe I covered for the Inquirer on Nov. 5, 1991. That day Typhoon “Uring” (international name: “Thelma”) killed more than 6,000 people as storm surges as tall as houses swamped Ormoc, the coastal city 100 kilometers south of Tacloban.
Survivors of that disaster remembered their dead on its 22nd anniversary this month.
Three days later, Yolanda (international name: “Haiyan”) struck their neighbors to the north.
As the 3.4 million Filipinos here in the United States kickstarted an unprecedented relief and reconstruction campaign, I planned my own way of helping.
On Nov. 18, I spoke before hundreds of churchgoers at St. Mel Catholic parish in Woodland Hills, California, where my family worships, to raise awareness of the massive humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yolanda’s wake.
But I felt a certain hollowness and deep sense of shame as complete strangers from around the world rushed to our hometown to volunteer and offer help while I was paralyzed by fear and indecision in my adopted homeland.
I wrestled with the difficult choice of temporarily leaving behind my family – a wife and two college-bound kids – to help my old family heal as they try to rebuild their broken lives. “Don’t worry about us, Dad. We’ll be fine. But your family in Palo needs you,” said my first-born Ignatius, 20, always offering the voice of reason.
Ever the contrarian, my other son, Cornelius, 18, needled me: “You’re like the Alaskan salmon, Dad! People are desperately trying to get out of that place in droves and you want to sneak in.” But he relented and even gave me a going-away gift: an LED flashlight and a warm hug.
My ever-supportive wife, Wilhma, 50, bought my open-ended Korean Air ticket to fly me back home.
On Nov. 21, my family had Thanksgiving dinner a week early. And for the first time in 22 years, I am faced with the possibility of not spending the holidays with my family in America.
With my family behind me, I also made a couple of gut-wrenching decisions: I quit my job of 12 years as a courier at Federal Express and took a leave of absence from my other job as a laboratory assistant at Quest Diagnostics Inc.
In these uncertain times, leaving these jobs at two of the biggest employers in the United States seems like economic suicide. But the images of people who perished in the storm haunt me no end. I have crossed my Rubicon. There is no turning back.
Shortly before midnight on Saturday, my plane touched down at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Armed with a resolve to help, I will be back on the streets of my storm-battered hometown in a few days.
(Editor’s Note: The author was a reporter of the Philippine Daily Inquirer before he left for the United States 22 years ago. He was a recipient of several journalism awards, including first place in the 1990 Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for investigative reporting with his series of articles on “Samar: An Island in Agony.”)