DEL CARMEN, Siargao Island – Belen Ga and her family thought they had experienced the most powerful typhoon in their lives almost four decades ago through Typhoon Ike (locally known as Nitang in 1984), only to be proven wrong by Super Typhoon Rai (locally known as Odette) that wreaked havoc in Siargao Island late last year.
“Odette was a monster typhoon. The howling winds, which scared us to death, leveled all the houses made of light materials in our neighborhood,” the 58-year-old widow says two months after the typhoon, with debris still surrounding her newly-built house.
Like all her neighbors, Ga, who lives alone in a shanty town close to the shorelines in Barangay Sta. Cruz here, saved nothing except the few clothes and some food that they brought to last for a day or two at the evacuation center, thinking all along that Odette would come to pass with just a little might.
Odette first made landfall in Siargao Island at 1:30 p.m. on 16 December 2021, just nine days before Christmas, packing maximum winds of up to 257 kilometers per hour (kph) or 160 miles per hour (https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/super-typhoon-odette-rai/). Its strength was comparable to Super Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) in 2013, as Odette reached Category 5 upon making its landfall.
Odette, the 15th and the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines in 2021, made several other landfalls in other parts of Mindanao, Luzon, and Visayas after barreling through touristy Siargao, the surfing capital of the Philippines named as the “Best Island in Asia” last year by the US-based travel magazine Condé Nast Traveler.
Before dusk, Ga and some of her neighbors went back to see their community, totally shocked as the typhoon wiped out their houses, with waist-high sea water flooding the streets as the waves breached the seawall built to protect dwellers and their properties.
A few days later when the condition allowed government and humanitarian responders to enter the island, international humanitarian and development organization Oxfam Pilipinas, member of the Humanitarian Coalition supported by the Canadian Humanitarian Assistance Fund, in partnership with the Sentro Para sa Ikauunlad ng Katutubong Agham at Teknolohiya Inc. (SIKAT), a local non-government organization, brought in emergency aid to ease the plight of the hardest hit population belonging to the poorest of the poor.
Ga and her neighbors whose houses were flattened by Odette received cash-for-food assistance worth P2,600, including P100 for transportation allowance, or a total of US$50.
“The amount may not be a lot but it’s a very big help considering that the typhoon destroyed not only our homes but also our livelihood,” she said.
Ga, who also received assistance from the national and local governments in the form of cash, rice, canned goods, and noodles, used part of the assistance from Oxfam and SIKAT to buy meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and milk.
She has been living alone since her husband died from diabetes in 2015, and her six children started their own families. The P2,500 cash-for-food assistance supported her necessities for weeks.
Ga also spent the cash assistance wisely, taking a few hundred pesos from it to buy flour and other ingredients to resume her home-based livelihood that she started way back in 2009. She cooks hotcakes that the neighborhood kids love to eat for its flavor and price. Cooked over charcoal, she sells each hotcake for five pesos – and earns a gross sale of P300 from a capital of P200, or a net income of P100 daily.
According to her, except for rice, P100 is enough for her budget to buy viands for the day. As a doting grandmother, she also feeds her grandchildren whenever they pay her a visit, an addition to her daily expenses, which she does not really care about as their presence brings her happiness.
Daisy Joy Batistil, SIKAT team leader for the cash-for-food program, said that at least 912 families in this town whose houses were wiped out by Odette received the cash grant.
“We conducted a thorough validation process to ensure that the project participants belong to the poorest of the poor,” the NGO worker said.
As project implementer of the cash-for-food program, SIKAT’s staff and volunteers assist the project participants in getting the cash wired through a money transfer firm.
Ga was thankful that the assistance they got from Oxfam and SIKAT was in cash rather than relief goods.
“I can choose what food to buy with the money on hand,” she stressed, but still remained thankful that they also received relief goods from the government.
In the neighboring town of San Benito, 64-year-old Dioscora Ata, also received the cash-for-food grant that she used to buy meat and fish for about two weeks.
She lived with her husband in a hut destroyed by Odette, which also damaged the boat the couple used to catch crabs in the vast mangroves of the municipality. Before the super typhoon struck, the couple could sometimes earn P2,000 from catching and selling crabs. They also have a one-hectare coconut farm, now with only 20 trees left standing after the ravaging typhoon passed by.
“God saved us from the howling winds of Odette. And we are very thankful for the cash-for-food grant that we received. It helped us buy nutritious food for several days,” Ata said.
They stored food that would last for a week in anticipation of the typhoon. Their food supply piled up as relief goods such as rice, canned goods, and noodles from the government and other donors flowed to the typhoon survivors. With relief goods, however, they have no choice but to consume what’s in the package.
Ata expressed worry over the eventuality when the flow of relief assistance from the government and humanitarian organizations will stop, noting that the boat and coconut they depended on for livelihood are gone.
“Paano na pag wala na ang mga ayuda (What if the help stops coming)?” she asked.
Like the widow Ga, Ata also wished that a sustainable livelihood program would be provided for the typhoon survivors to help them fend for themselves in the future.
Both women experienced the wrath of Typhoon Ike, which also packed winds over 200 kph that left a wide trail of death and destruction in 1984 in parts of Mindanao and the Visayas.
Fortunately for Odette, it struck Siargao Island during daytime when everybody was awake – and coupled by the disaster risk awareness of the locals – only less than two dozen people were reportedly killed.
Amid the vast destruction across the island, Ga and Ata still radiate the spirit of resiliency that hopefully, together with the relief and rehabilitation efforts by various groups, can rebuild their lives sooner than later.