Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Disaster Relief and Rescue Operations: A Personal Experience During Typhoon "Ondoy"


When typhoon “Ondoy” started heading towards Manila, I was in Headquarters 9ID, Camp Elias Angeles, Pili, Camarines Sur as we were in the height of our preparations for 9ID’s upcoming 5th anniversary celebrations. We were having an inter-unit shootfest so I was with our commanding general in the firing range studying the course of fire and trying hard to beat the other competing teams. At about 1030am, my wife called and informed me that it was raining hard in MetroManila and the road outside our house was heavily flooded already. "Flooding is a natural occurrence in Manila area. Stay calm and focus on the situation just like what you always do.", I reminded her confidently assuming that the storm will pass without any untoward incident.

After ten minutes, she called again and told me that our floor was already flooded. I can sense that my wife is getting worried at that point and that means, she‘s executing part of our “own” emergency and survival plan. I was alarmed. She has turned off the electricity, unplugged all appliances, collected all valuable belongings (that includes her favorite 9mm pistol and my competition rifle!), etc. She has also sent our only son to go to the apartment unit of my cousin which was in the third floor of the building as the water level is rising fast. At this point the door of our Toyota Land Cruiser is already submerged in floodwater. I simply could not believe that the flooding will come to such level. I can only remember one incident about five years ago that floodwater rose to this level. Our house is already elevated compared to our neighbors.

A thousand thoughts were already rushing in my mind. My focus on the competition is now in disarray, practically nil. I could no longer concentrate on my last stage of IDPA shooting. I hurriedly finished that shooting stage and called my wife again. I was shocked to hear her said, "The water is in the level of our car's windshield!"

Everything does not add up to me. It all seems impossible but it is happening already.

I told her to go upstairs and closely monitor the situation. With the worsening weather condition, I asked permission to leave for Manila from my boss who was adamant at first to let me go but soon he seemed to have judiciously realized the gravity of the impending calamity. When I arrived at the airport, I was informed by the airport crew that flights to Manila were cancelled due to heavy flooding in NAIA Terminal 3. Though the decision makes sense, it is nonetheless frustrating on my part. Left with no other means of speedy transportation, I then waited for a Manila-bound bus which leaves at 9pm that night.

As I waited for the bus departure, my wife was updating me on their situation. "The water is now approaching 2nd floor!", she exclaimed. She is petrified. I can sense that she was trembling. I felt helpless. I know it was happening all over the place. How can I ask for help? To whom can I count on to help my family at this moment?

I asked her to stay in the 3rd floor of our building. About 30-40ft high, I think that is already impossible to be reached by floodwater. That was my honest assumption. Only one can help me this time, it is only God (the only one God and no one else). I said my prayers and tried to take a nap while waiting for the trip. I cannot sleep. I began to question myself, “What if my wife and son perish in the floods? Will I still be happy to serve the Army? What if they go missing? What will I do? How come I can save other people from danger but I cannot save my own family?”
As the bus departed at around 945pm, I was trying to reach my wife through her cellphone. "Can't be reached", the operator said. I hope it meant, "The subscriber cannot be reached by floodwaters". Not surprisingly, our landline was also cut. I tried to call some friends who are from Makati but they had no idea about the situation in my area. The last information that I received was that only the roof of my car was visible and the water was rising at an alarming speed approaching the 2nd floor. I became nervous as I watched on TV what happened to actress Christine Reyes and family in their Marikina house and that one family who were floating atop a pile of debris along Pasig river only to be separated by the sudden and forceful rush of water. Fear is slowly engulfing me as I think of my family in Manila. I prayed harder, all throughout the bus trip. We arrived safely in Manila at around 4:30 a.m.

On my way home, I chanced upon a stranded family near Pinaglabanan bridge (the same spot where the Fil-Am War started a century ago). One of the boys kept asking for food from his mother. The boy was shaking, maybe out of hunger and exposure to the cold weather. It was a heart-rending scenario to me because I saw my son in that kid. I was so touched that I shared some biscuits ("pasalubong" for my family) that I bought along the way. “Sharing what I have to alleviate one’s poor condition is the right thing to do”, I told myself. And yes, I made that family happy even for a while. My anxiety was also momentarily sidelined. I felt good.

Feeling a little better, I got back to my mission.

Since the floodwater level was gradually subsiding, I decided to wade through while it was still above my waist line. Crossing through the floodwater is literally bathing in oil slick and mud. I do not care because I have to be with my family the soonest possible time. Passing through V. Mapa street, I came to know about three fatalities who drowned inside their home. Another tragedy amidst the chaos brought upon by tropical storm “Ondoy”.

Water along the road leading to our house was still about five feet deep. Seeing a resident who had an improvised/field-expedient banca ferrying anybody for a fee, I quickly hired his services. Together, we swam beside his banca with my backpacks and food provisions safely inside it. I swam with him until we reached our own gate. The water level was still within the first floor. Good! I was able to sigh in relief. My family is safe, I confidently assumed. Wasting no time, I immediately called my wife. She came down the stairs rushing. She’s alive and kicking. Yes! I was so happy that I kissed and hugged her like there is no tomorrow.

Afterwards, we went upstairs only to see my son soundly sleeping. What a sight! Heavenly indeed. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I cannot simply describe my feeling. I felt happier than being awarded my combat medals by a four-star general, even happier than when I received my awards and trophies in Malacanang Palace. My real happiness is home, my family!

A truly unforgettable DRRO (Disaster Relief and Rescue Operations) for me. DRRO for my own family. This recent experience of mine will be another reason for me not to stop helping others in need. It is great to "pay forward" for all the blessings my family receives. I am now more motivated to serve my country through the military service, even happier to do more for my country as a public servant.

God bless our country!

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