Sulong Dilag City, Paranag Valley.
It’s always been life-threatening for us to keep living here. We are all aware of that. We’ve tried transferring somewhere more secure. We really have. But circumstances seem to bring us back to this place every single time. Having been born and raised here in Sulong Dilag City, I have heard stories about the many natural occurrences residents had to go through a decade ago. Those that lived through them have always told them in such an appalling manner, and it would send chills down the spine of the younger residents. But I would be indifferent and brush off every word they said.
Not only did they speak of the disasters, but they also spoke of great men that always served as a symbol of life. The older residents described them as people who always came in groups, and wore bright red jackets in which people took as a sign of hope. They weren’t celebrities nor were they politicians. In fact, they had zero intentions of being known. All we were told was that they were brimming with dedication and bravery.
I didn’t think Mother Nature was capable of creating that terrible of a phenomena, even upon hearing such stories. Well, at the time, I didn’t believe. I’d never really seen or experienced anything that peaked my interest. But ‘to see is to believe’, they say. And right now I’ve never been more certain that these men they spoke of weren’t human, because humans are selfish in nature. And they were the complete opposite of that. The complete opposite.
I still remember it like it was yesterday, every detail embedded in my mind like the back of my palm. It’s still so haunting to me how dedicated some people can get and how driven they are to serve others. It’s absolutely amazing.
I remember it being an early Sunday morning, and the day was all too gloomy because the sun felt a little shy. In our household, weekends didn’t mean that I could be a kid and play under the heat of the sun all day— getting dirt all over me and getting a few scrapes on my legs. I was 14, Sundays for me meant that it was time for me to help Father around the house and take care of Grandmother and my little sister, Flori, who was half my age. My father was in charge of the cooking and the cleaning, while I was always in charge of washing our clothes.
I’d already memorized this routine—it being the only chore I did—carrying two baskets of dirty laundry on each hand and taking them down the river, which would take me about six minutes to reach. Once I got there, I would place the two baskets down, greet other neighbors that were also washing their clothes, start rolling up my pants, and dip both of my feet into the water.
I often forgot why I chose to do the laundry over any other chore at home. But every time my feet came in contact with the cold water, I got reminded of how much of an intimate relationship I had with it. It was always the water I came back to; the way it splashed onto the rocks and the way it demanded to be heard had always kept me silent, and its unpredictability itself was astonishing to me. Years ago, whenever my friends and I would play hide-and-seek, the first place I always ran to was the boulders by the river. Given my small frame, I had no trouble squeezing between the big rocks and trying my best not to laugh when my playmate would pass by my signature hiding place.
Another unforgettable moment I had with the river was when it witnessed me crying my eyes out because of my first heartbreak. The girl I had feelings for was moving with her family to Manila. It had been painful for both of us, since she was planning on staying there until she reached college. I was 14 and in love, but I was 14 and heartbroken at the same time. So when she turned her back on me, I went straight to my place of solace and poured all my emotions there until sundown. For some reason, I was waiting for the river to comfort me—or at least do something to make me heartache go away, to feel a little more at ease. All it gave me was the sound of water rapidly passing by and the faint harmony of the birds flying above me. But it was enough, it was more than enough.
The time was seven thirty-eight in the morning, and the skies were quite gray as always. I felt the rain start to trickle on my head by the time I had finished washing our clothes, so I decided to run back home or else I wouldn’t be able to hang the clothes dry just in time before Father came home from the wet market.
I heard the skies rumble as I reached our front door, and the drizzling of the rain back at the river now felt like bigger drops that fell on the roofs of our houses— creating a band of tiny beats that were slowly but aggressively approaching.
...I don’t think I’ll be able to hang the clothes today– especially when it's raining, I thought. Luckily, I took the two baskets inside our house just in time before the rain had started to become stronger, in fear of them getting wet again. Father always reminded me that clothes produce a bad odor when dried indoors, but I didn’t have a choice. I needed to wait since the rain was pouring down harder than usual.
I set the two baskets of newly-washed clothes beside the kitchen sink and went over to Grandmother who was sitting by the window of the house, slightly moving her rocking chair back and forth. Taking her left hand, I raised it to my forehead, a sign of respect given to older family members and taught to the young ones in this neighborhood. She put her hand down and placed it on the arm of the rocking chair.
“Grandmother, what do you say about me going to Manila for the rest of my high school? Do you think Father will let me?” I hesitantly ask.
“Eh? Is it about that girl?” she asked as she furrowed her eyebrows at me. “Oh, Niño. You’re still very young. Is this what you want to prioritize right now?”
Yes, This is in fact all I’ve been thinking about lately. “But Grandmother, I didn’t even have that in mind.” I let the lie leave my mouth as I avoided eye contact with Grandmother.
A sudden sharp thunderclap from outside caught me off guard as the skies kept rumbling. The rainfall had grown more intense this time, and it was raining so heavily that the sound just grew into a long, whirring noise. Shifting my eyesight to look outside, the leaves were rustling because of the strong winds, and all of the trees seemed to be slanting, the wind violently crashing onto them. A bolt of lightning tore across the sky and for a split second, our house was lit brightly.
I saw Grandmother jolt up because of the lightning, so I went to her with the intention of rubbing her back to lessen her shock, but I was stopped midway by Flori’s shaky call for me.
“Kuya Iyo? Kuya? Kuya…” She still had trouble pronouncing Niño, so I’ve grown accustomed to being called Kuya Iyo by her. I was certain that she woke up because of the sound of the thunderclaps, and I could tell she was getting afraid by the tone of her voice.
I left Grandmother’s side for a quick moment and went to check up on Flori. Seeing her standing beside our small couch, with her bare feet touching the cold cement floor and her toes folded. I knelt in front of her and took both of her hands onto mine and blew onto them repeatedly– giving them some warmth. Father usually did these things, comforting Flori whenever she felt uneasy or afraid. He had mastered being a mother and a father to both Flori and I, and in times like this he would know what to do. So I did one of the things I knew Father would do. I carried Flori in my arms and let her head rest on my shoulder, until she felt better.
She lifted her head up, looked at me and went, “Kuya Iyo, I’m scared. The wind might take me away.”
I looked at her with sympathetic eyes. I couldn’t let anything happen to her and Grandmother. She was seven years old, yet she was already aware of the danger that the storm might bring upon us.
There was another deafening crack of thunder; it was louder this time. Its vibration echoed throughout the house and caused our lights to flicker a few times until the electricity got cut out completely.
Flori buried her head onto my neck in fear as the electricity got cut all of a sudden.
The rain was pouring incessantly, and just like Flori, I felt afraid. The fear that had accumulated inside me awhile ago was starting to reveal itself with every crack of thunder and flash of lightning. It was evident that the rainfall had no intention of stopping or even dying down a little.
The wind, teaming up with the rain, picked up intensity by knocking down flower pots outside our neighbor’s houses and even causing metal roofs to be effortlessly swept away.
I looked out the window with Flori still clinging onto me. It was really hard to see anything at this point because of the curtain of rain that was preventing me from seeing clearly all the damage the storm was creating outside. Exerting all my effort to adjust to the blur was easy enough, but the sight that stumbled upon me was hard for me to explain. All my limbs refused to move, so I just stood there frozen. I couldn’t process what I had just laid my eyes on.
The terrifying sight of water slowly approaching toward our house was all I saw. The river—my safe haven, my place of solace—must’ve had a hard time trying to contain all the rainwater. Seeing the water look like that was not at all familiar to me. It had always been pure, and graceful, not monstrous and hungry. It hadn’t stopped raining since two hours ago that the vengeful water steered its way into our town, carrying all the dirt and debris it accumulated during the rainfall.
“Niño…” I looked at the source of the voice, only to discover that Grandmother was now standing up, her eyes filled with so much fright. I looked at Grandmother, then at Flori, and then outside once more. The muddy water was approaching fast. We had to think of something in order to keep ourselves away from harm.
The vicious wind had multiple trees uprooted and only had plans of destroying more, and it gained more strength as it teamed up with the flood water, with no intentions of leaving any house and building untouched.
The feeling of adrenaline rushed through my veins as I quickly thought of something to do. I was in a state of panic, and we were already in the hands of danger– but we could be put into real jeopardy if we didn’t act quick.
I put Flori down. I told Grandmother and my little sister to go up on the staircase. I started running around the house unplugging all electronics from their sockets. I ran to the kitchen and took a plastic bag. I placed in it all the canned food we had left and the water bottles Father bought days ago. I can’t panic now. I thought to myself. I ran back to where Flori and Grandmother were and handed them the plastic bag.
Rushing toward the living room, I quickly took a few things.
“No! No! Please no!” I was startled by Flori’s sudden explosion of pleadings.
I looked at my sister and realized that she was pointing at the door frantically. As I turned my head to look at where she was pointing at, another crack of thunder caught us by surprise, and a strike of lightning blinded us for a split second.
Oh no… No, no, no, no. There is water! The flood it’s — it’s made its way!
It was already one forty-one in the afternoon. I thought it was past three. I was confused. Time became frozen once I laid my eyes on the flood water entering our house. Everything felt like it was in slow motion, and my feet forgot their function and stayed planted on the floor.
Now, the water was coming for me. It was coming towards me. I unconsciously took one step toward the door, not taking my eyes off the intruder that had started to invade our house. It was calling my name. I could hear it clearly.
“Niño! What are you doing?! Get up on the stairs, now!” Grandmother’s sudden outburst took me out of the deep trance I was in. They were standing on the fourth step of the stairs, while Flori was standing behind Grandmother, shivering.
My heart broke into a hundred pieces as I looked at my little sister, shaking in fear. I quickly needed to muster the right words to say to her.
“I want Father! Please, take me to him! There is water, Kuya Iyo! I’m scared!”
I had never heard Flori cry like this before, and she didn’t even understand what was happening around her. I went up the stairs to my little sister, took her from behind Grandmother and crouched down.
“Grandmother,” I said, looking up.
“Flori,” I said, now shifting my eyes to her. “I’m so sorry. We need to get out of here before the water starts reaching the steps of the stairs. I’ll look for a way for us to-”
“Tug, tug, tug.” There was a sudden bang on the door.
Then another one, “Tug, tug, tug.”
Beads of sweat trickled down the temples of my head as we all looked at the source of the banging. I had never felt terrified before, not for me, but for the safety of my family. There was a deafening silence among us, like the three of us were anticipating something. In a loud bang, our wooden door flew open, the flood water accumulating more depth by the minute.
That was when I saw him, standing at the doorway. He looked to be older than I was, maybe about 20 or older. I could’ve sworn he looked familiar, like I’d seen him around the neighborhood at some point. He was wearing this red jacket that I couldn’t remember where I saw before.
“Red jacket! You’re from the rescue team!” I jumped up and went down the stairs, and felt so ecstatic to see one of them in person.
“Oh, goodness. Thank you, young man.” My Grandmother felt so relieved that help had arrived.
“Is anyone hurt? Are you all okay?” The man came closer to me and took a pen light from his pocket. He checked both of my eyes and went straight to the stairs to check Grandmother’s state if she was in any form of shock. He noticed Flori and bent down to carry her.
“Hey. How are you holding up? We’re going to get your family out of here, alright?” He smiled at my sister, and Flori replied by holding onto him and embracing his neck in fear of the flood. He took out his handheld radio device from his jacket.
“Sir, I found a family of three here. I’ll get them to higher ground. Will report to you in a minute,” he said onto the radio.
“Are you here to help us, Sir?” asked Flori with so much hope in her eyes.
“Yes, and you can call me Kuya Manuel from now on, okay? Help will come soon.” Kuya Manuel… He looked too young to be volunteering with the rescue team. He was out there helping other families that were stranded in their homes. I wondered if his
own family was safe.
“Sir, ma’am”, referring to Grandmother and I, “we are currently in a danger zone. It’s my responsibility to take you upstairs as quickly as possible.”
He came up to me while taking out a bundle of rope from his bag.
“Please listen closely. It’s not safe to step out. The storm is too stubborn. You have to work with me to get your family upstairs. I’ll get you guys out of the window and I’ll have you stay on the roof until the rescue boats arrive.”
He transferred Flori to my arms. I went straight to Grandmother and quickly led them to the second floor of the house. The storm sounded worse from up there. The trees planted closely to our house kept crashing violently against the walls of our house. The sound of the rain was still so loud, but we had no other choice because the water had already gone too high.
Kuya Manuel followed us upstairs shortly. The frantic look on his face was starting to become evident since his handheld device hadn’t picked up any replies from the other rescuers regarding the arrival of the rescue boats. He unraveled the bundle of rope to tie it around one of the bars of the window.
“Ma’am, will you be able to go onto the roof with your family?” Kuya Manuel asked Grandmother. “It will be easier for the rescue boats to spot us if we’re visible.”
“Yes, yes. I can manage,” Grandmother said.
The way to the roof was the most challenging. It was still raining quite heavily but not as much as it was a few hours ago. I was the first to go out of the window, and had to collect all courage since it was slippery. Holding onto the rope tightly, I stood with both my legs wide apart to keep my balance. Kuya Manuel managed to assist Grandmother and Flori. He advised them to never loosen their grip on the rope until help arrived.
I couldn’t believe that this was all happening. By the time the four of us made it to the roof of our house, I looked around. I took in my surroundings, no matter how traumatizing the sight was. Everything was submerged in the water. It was like the neighborhood turned into a giant swimming pool. There was a ton of wind damage and all I saw was the amount of uprooted trees being taken by the current of the flood. But I
regained strength as I saw rescue boats approaching from afar. I think that was all we needed, the assurance that we would be safe.
I let go of the rope with my left hand and started waving. Kuya Manuel was beside me, trying to contact the rescue boat for them to locate us faster.
“There is a boat coming our way, I was able to contact with my team members. One of the crews will be on the boat to assist you,” Kuya Manuel said while keeping an eye out for Grandmother and Flori.
“Thank you for coming for us, Kuya Manuel.”
“The boat is here. Listen to me, boy. Keep your family safe, okay? Our crew will take you guys to a relief agency. They’ll look after you there.”
Grandmother and Flori were taken in by the rescue team. They were given life vests. Though we were soaked in the heavy rain, there was nothing more important right now than surviving and leaving this place.
“It’s our turn, Kuya Manuel. We have to go.”
“Kuya Manuel, let’s go. There is so much flood!” Flori was now shouting at Kuya Manuel, but he just remained standing on the roof.
“You guys go ahead.” He tied the rope around his waist to make sure the wind didn’t take him away.
“What? No! There is enough room in the boat!” I said.
“The boat can only occupy 4 people, kid. There’s the three of you, and our crew.” I could not believe what I was hearing, this couldn’t be happening.
“Kuya Manuel! We are not leaving you.”
“Yes you are!” He looked at me straight in the eye. “One of my duties as part of the rescue team is to make sure that people don’t stay stranded. It’s my duty to make sure that they survive. There is no point in worrying about me, kid. This is my job. And if my job tells me to stay behind in order for a family to survive, then so be it.”
I didn’t know what to do, the storm was pouring down on all of us. But all of a sudden the noise became muffled and all I could hear was Kuya Manuel. “Go, kid, go!”
My vision became blurry as tears started to fill my eyes. We couldn’t leave this man. I looked at Kuya Manuel as he went back to do his job, tightening the ropes on the window. The crew on the boat had to stand up and get me out of the roof. It was the only way they could get me out of there. I did not want to leave without Kuya Manuel.
There were no other rescue boats around to pick him up. I begged the crew on the boat to take Kuya Manuel with us, but he only looked at me with so much sympathy in his eyes.
He probably knew. He didn’t even try convincing Kuya Manuel. The crew started the engine on the boat. And as we were getting farther away from the roof of our house, seeing Kuya Manuel on top of it in the middle of the storm, all that was repeating in my head were his words: “This is my job.”