The deadliest storm in history hit the Philippines on the eve of my sister’s birthday. One year ago, Marian Abigail, who was turning 11, was chatting with my mother on her tablet, describing the crack of thunder that heralded the coming storm.
My mother was in Brownsville, Texas, more than 8,000 miles away. I was even farther, stationed as a reporter in the U.S. Virgin Islands, literally on the other side of the world.
“Nay, indi kami dri ma iwan ah (Mom, we’re going to be fine),” my sister said.
My mother, unassuaged, told her to stay close to her father and head for higher ground. That was when the power lines went down, and what followed was by far the longest day of our lives.
When I first saw a satellite image of super typhoon Haiyan, I remember thinking, That can’t be right. All I could see was a massive, angry whirl of reds and greens over a region of Southeast Asia, and peeking under the whirling canopy was a familiar piece of landform.
Wait, I realized in horror, That’s the Philippines.
There was enough media coverage of the typhoon to keep the more than 10 million overseas Filipinos updated. CNN and most other networks provided live coverage. Weather channels tracked the storm’s northwest path across the hemisphere. We saw images of Tacloban City, now alien and unrecognizable, that bore the brunt of Haiyan’s rampage.
But none of the news networks told us what we desperately needed to know: how our loved ones were.
On the morning after the storm surge, mom and I tried to make contact with our scattered family one by one. Some were in Manila, some in Roxas, a small city in the the Visayas, and some, including my sister and my father, in Dumalag, an even smaller town one hour outside Roxas City.
We tried cellphones, landlines, texting — all in vain. A communication vacuum blanketed the entire province.
In desperation, I turned to the only way to ask for help from as many people as possible: a Facebook status update.
Posting “HELP” on Facebook felt very much like running wild on the streets, begging strangers for aid. But a growing fear that my loved ones may have been lost in the deluge threw composure out the window. On Nov. 9, at 11:49 a.m. EST (close to midnight in the Philippines), my Facebook status update was a plea for information, followed by the names of all my family members.
Three minutes later, Epi Oquendo, a kindergarten classmate I had not spoken to in 20 years, sent a message saying her folks in San Jose, a tiny barangay in Dumalag, were alright. She did not have news of my sister.
At 1:40 p.m, Bem Forteza, a high school classmate, sent a private message saying there was cellphone reception near the old bridge.
At 3 p.m., Bisell Ann, an old churchmate, commented on my status, saying she could have her sister Lalaine, check on my father and sister. Lalaine’s phone was working, apparently.
At 5:57 p.m., my brother Archelle, checking in to say his family was fine, saw Biselle’s comment, asked for Lalaine’s cellphone number, and called her with directions to my sister’s location.
This trend went on for hours: friends and cousins and distant relatives posting updates, tagging each other on the most remotely relevant information about families and homes.
It turned out we weren’t the only ones. Days after the storm, my news feed was a stream of panic, anxiety and cautious hope. A Kuwait-based Filipino was looking for his father, a fisherman last seen with his boat near the shore. An overseas Filipina was searching for her parents and three children in storm-battered Leyte province. My high school classmate Erik Villan could not contact his family, nor get on a plane from Manila to Roxas because there were no flights.
For days after Haiyan swept across the nation, Facebook became a virtual bulletin board, a lost-and-found corner for overseas Filipinos desperate to know their families were safe.
The responses were overwhelming, and incredibly pertinent. My cousin Lexie Villar, whose smartphone was still working, traveled half of Capiz province, taking pictures of streets, landmarks, and homes, and uploading them one after another. Updates from the Philippine Information Agency were shared from wall to wall. A video taken by someone who drove around one town after the storm with a camera went viral.
It mattered little that majority of the posts had nothing to do with our families. Every piece of information we received — photos of the town plaza or a familiar street, instant messages, descriptive emails — lifted the blackout bit by bit. Like pieces of a horrific jigsaw puzzle, details began falling into place, skewed but nonetheless present.
The long wait was eased by my people’s signature humor. In our search for family members, one of my old friends said:
“Ga hinibi lng kodi kagina sa Manila… teh mayo kay na tawgan ko sila naghim os buot ko…bisan wla na kmi balay… hehehehe (I was crying here in Manila. Good thing I was able to contact them; I feel better. Even though our house is gone. Hehehehe.)“
Then he used the word “keri,” a Filipino colloquialism that’s difficult to translate, and one I’ve almost forgotten. I believe it came from the English word “carry,” used in contexts of moving forward in spite of obstacles, as in carrying on.
“Basi ma contact ko naman karun dai nanay.. eh pa check ko sila didto..eh ping taka di dayun.. ang importanti wla casualties nga natabo… ang mga balay lng wla na.. KERY dyapon ah. Hahahah (I might be able to contact my mom…I’ll have them check on your folks then I’ll ping you…What’s important is there are no casualties…Just the houses gone… But still, keri. Hahahah).
And that pretty much summed up how many of us felt.
Two days after the storm, I knew that every member of my family was safe. Thanks to Lexie’s photo updates, I even knew which parts of the ceiling still remain in my childhood home, and that only half of my aunt’s roof had collapsed.
It truly was the longest day of our lives, and for those who still haven’t found answers, that day stretches on.
But on that dark day, this virtual world was inundated by waves of something other than randomness and irrelevance. On social media, I found comfort in the words of friends, awe of the Filipino’s indomitable strength, and profound pride that even at the height of worry for his own circumstance, the Filipino’s bayanihan spirit, the communal unity we frequently tout as a national value, remained intact.
Cover photo courtesy of Ging Green.
Note: After the storm, I’ve received unsolicited help from Virgin Islanders with big hearts. The $1,100.00 raised went toward buying school supplies for children in a devastated rural elementary school.