After her country was hit by three tropical storms in rapid succession, Karen Axalan reflects on the strength of women who live in disaster-prone areas.
Yearly, an average of 20 typhoons visit the Philippines. In each year of survival, women become tougher.
My family and I recently survived the Tropical Storm Kai-Tak, while the rest of the Philippines got hit with two more. In a span of two weeks, three violent cyclones, namely Kai-Tak, Tembin, and Bolaven (locally known as Urduja, Vinta, and Agaton respectively) ruthlessly plagued different regions of the Philippines.
On December 17, Tropical Storm Kai-Tak, a slow-moving typhoon, affected an initial estimate of 244,000 families, causing around 29,000 families to leave their houses and stay in evacuation centers or at the homes of relatives with safer residences. Kai-Tak left the country with landslides, flash floods, and damages to infrastructure. As of December 19, around 50 casualties were reported, and 34 people were missing.
Not long after, and just a few days before Christmas, Tropical Cyclone Tembin, the 22nd typhoon to enter the Philippines in 2017, expelled an even deadlier wrath. It affected almost 168,000 families, reaping more than 250 lives. More than a hundred are missing. Many of our countrymen spent their Christmas Day retrieving the cold bodies of family members who were buried under muddy soil.
On New Year's Day, instead of celebrating with fireworks, many Filipinos were actively monitoring the arrival of Typhoon Bolaven, the first to threaten our country this year. It followed Tembin's path. As of this writing, it added two people to the rising death toll, affecting almost 8,000 families.
"The Filipino spirit is storm proof."
This is what we usually say to calm the whirling fear inside us. Surely, we know when to brace ourselves, and when to enjoy a cool rainy day. We are resilient, true. But we get exhausted, too. In fact, deep inside us we are worried about what another typhoon could do.
Early last year, our family moved to Tacloban City—the place that was mercilessly devastated by the fiercest cyclone recorded in the world: 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan. My husband, a development worker, secured a job here for the resettlement and livelihood sustainability of the homeless survivors.
Of the three recent storms to hit my country, our family was greatly affected by Typhoon Kai-Tak. My husband and I were prepared when this cyclone was approaching the city; however, we underestimated its intensity. It was almost stationary as it continued to increase its strength. Due to its unpredictable time of landfall, the possibility of storm surge, or a dangerous rise in sea level, was considered. The city disaster risk and reduction team advised us to evacuate.
My hands shook in fear as I hurriedly dressed my 4-year-old son and my 3-month-old baby. I gathered extra clothes, food, toiletries, utensils, gadgets, and chargers for packing. In that moment right there, I wiped my tears as I felt angry that I had to bring my children to Tacloban; angry that my children were being exposed to this danger. My fear was due to the fact that we were exactly where Typhoon Haiyan took place.
As a mother, my mind was already preparing for the worst. I was thinking about how it would be difficult to swim in a flood with a baby in my arms and about the dangers of hypothermia. But help was coming, and there was no flood in sight. I calmed down.
I began to ponder how troubled the women in disaster-prone areas are, especially during calamities. I felt their fear, their confusion, their anxiety. At the same time, I imagined their prudence, their fortitude, their gumption.
I thought of these women—the pregnant, the nursing, the menstruating—who deal with inexplicable discomfort in their bodies, yet selflessly fight for the survival of their children, siblings, or elderly parents.
I remembered the women with disabilities and mothers whose children have special needs. I thought of the extreme difficulty they face as they all together move to a safer place.
I remembered the women who just gave birth, whether naturally or through caesarian section. In both cases, these women are still in pain while getting up and braving the winds of unwelcomed weather.
My personal panic shifted to admiration for these women who had face numerous storms in their lifetimes. Yearly, an average of 20 typhoons visit the Philippines. In each year of survival, women become tougher.
When our family arrived at our evacuation place, a two-story house, the floodwater was almost knee-deep. As I secured my boys on the second floor, my first instinct was to check the windows for our exit plan in case the water were to rise higher. I was worried because during the storm surge brought on by Typhoon Haiyan, sea water poured into the city, leaving even the two-story houses submerged.
At the height of the typhoon's wrath, I pleaded to God to protect women and their loved ones, specifically those living in flood-prone areas with houses made of lightweight materials. As I heard the blowing wind forcefully ripping apart the houses' roofs, with windows breaking, and dogs howling, I told God that if my children died in that storm, I would no longer fight to live. At the same time, I made a vow to use the little survival skills I have to keep them alive even if it costs me my life. I wondered how many mothers shared the same apprehension I had.
Then I remembered the news about mothers dying to save their children during flash floods, and the story of one mother who used her body as a cover to save her child when their house collapsed from an earthquake.
Together with their children, women are considered a vulnerable sector. But this does not mean they are weak, for they are capable of caring for others while dealing with pain of their own, be it physical, psychological, emotional, or the like.
Women in disaster areas are heroines in their own right. They are a blend of the brave and tender who carry the burden of securing innocent lives in their own vulnerable houses or inside noisy evacuation centers.
They feel afraid, too. But they put on a fearless front to ease the tension, tiredness, and trauma of their confused children.
They are hungry and thirsty, too. But they skip a few more meals and drops of drinking water to feed famished family members.
They get tired, too. But they offer their shoulders as pillows and arms as blankets to provide calming comfort in the midst of chaos.
These heroines are our mothers, sisters, and daughters during calamities. I have yet to grasp the perspectives of women rescuers or relief coordinators, nor the terror of the women who are molested or taken advantage of at evacuation centers. Even then, perhaps there is no greater horror than the sorrow of a mother holding a dying baby in her arms due to lack of access to basic supplies during disasters.
At present, I may not be given a platform to speak on behalf of the women living in disaster-prone areas, but I have my sons to raise. I will inculcate them with the respect and the rights that belongs to these women, and teach them to pay attention to their needs and protect them.
This year, the first of the expected 20 storms has already wrecked havoc in our country. It is somewhat terrifying that these typhoons will not stop coming, and they are becoming stronger and more destructive than before. As more cyclones approach in 2018, I wonder how many mothers in this side of the country are perturbed, yet prepared, to face another set of perpetrators.
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