Thursday, May 10, 2012

Typhoon Ondoy Rescue Mission: Saving my own Family

Images of Ondoy victims like this made me worry abou the fate of my family members who were stranded inside my home 400 kms away from my unit of assignment in Camarines Sur. (Photo by oojazelo_Emo)
WHEN TYPHOON ONDOY started heading towards Manila on September 26, 2009 (Saturday), I was 400 kms away. 

My duty assignment that time was the headquarters of the  Army's 9th Infantry Division in Pili town, Camarines Sur.
During that period, we were busy wrapping up preparations for the upcoming commemoration of the unit's 5th founding anniversary.
Though the sky was gloomy, the scheduled inter-unit shooting competition pushed through.

At around 8:00am, I was in the firing  range with my teammates to compete in a pistol shootfest.
I was aware of the heavy rains in Nueva Ecija, Bulacan and Manila area but I was not really worried, knowing that typhoons are natural occurrences in the Philippines. 

I assumed that  it was just like another typical day with continuous rainfall accompanied by howling winds.
Alarm bells
I was preparing to execute my shooting plan at around 10:30am when I received a call from my wife, Bia, that  heavy downpour had started flooding the streets outside our residence.
I tried to calm her down and reminded her to close all the windows.
Ten minutes later, she told me that our floor was already "invaded" by floodwaters. I was surprised by the her latest news. There was only one incident that floodwater intruded our elevated residential compound.
 I sensed that my wife was so worried. She told me that she had turned the main electricity switch off, before sending our son to our cousin's room located in the 3rd level of the building.
Seeing the fast rising floodwaters, she frantically collected some important belongings. She took some clothes and secured our family documents. She also remembered to take her favorite 9mm pistol.
It was about another 10 minutes after her last call that she rang me again for her updates.
"The water is now entering inside our car!"

I was shocked. It never happened before. And, it was too quick!
"Climb upstairs and take care of yourself and our son. Be watchful of the rising floodwaters," I told her.
By that time, I couldn't concentrate on my shooting anymore. I was distracted and lost my motivation to finish my favorite game.
The next update from her was more shocking: "The water level has reached our car's windshield!"
I know it was already becoming serious. She told me that the water kept rising.

My instincts told me that I must head home to save my family. The only problem was that I was too far away in the Bicol Region.

Hearing the alarming events in Manila, I sought the permission of my boss to rescue my own family.

I was glad he readily allowed me to leave.
Dashing towards home
It was around noontime when I was told by the airline ground crew in Naga Airport that all flights were alredy cancelled.  I felt helpless but I decided to try booking a bus ride to Manila.
I was delighted that there were no cancellations for all land trips, but many stranded passengers took the bus too!
I was lucky to get one of the last remaining tickets of the 9:00pm bus trip. As I waited for my departure, I monitored the TV updates.
It was around 4:00pm when I received another call from my wife who was already in the topmost level of the building.
"The water is now approaching the second floor!".  I couldn't believe it.

 "What? How come?"

I know it was already an emergency situation. We were all helpless.
"Let's pray that this will not get worse. I will come to you by early morning tomorrow," I told her.
 During that time, I was already deeply worried that my family will be swept away by the floods. My worries were aggravated by the TV updates showing the whole neighborhoods submerged in floodwaters.
To avoid aggravating my stressful moments, I tried to take a nap.

It was a  painful waiting moment, I couldn't sleep. By that time, I already wished that I can fly. 
Despite my desperate attempts to sleep away my worries, I remained wide awake. 

I felt like being punished by God.
 Deep in my mind, I was bombarded with lots of "what if's?". What if my wife and son will perish in the floods? Will I still be happy to serve the Army? What if they go missing? What shall I do?
Before my departure in Naga City at around 9:45pm, I tried to reach my wife through her two cell phones.

"The subscriber could not be reached," said the recorded auto-reply. I tried to reach common friends in nearby villages but all of them were becoming flood victims too!

As we inched our way towards Manila, the TV updates about the floods kept coming.

I was horrified by the sight of a family of 4 on top of a house that was swept by raging floodwaters only to disappear after the house was torn to pieces.

I also saw movie actress Kristine Reyes nervously clinging to the rooftop of her house in Marikina. There were images of people clinging to small trees and even the high-tension electric wires.

The last message from my wife was that that the water level had risen, approaching the 2nd level.

Seeing all the TV footages, I was engulfed by fear-------------I might lose my whole family in the floods!

My own disaster response operation

Arriving at around 4:30am (September 27), I overheard that many people were still trapped in the floods.

Having lost my communication link with my family, I just prayed that they were safe and sound in the topmost and last level of the building.
Seeing a convenience store, I decided to buy some emergency provisions that are needed to survive for at least a day--I grabbed some chocolates, noodles, biscuits, oatmeal.  
I was lucky that a kind-hearted taxi driver agreed to take me towards Manila area, driving his car through flooded streets, as if he were piloting an amphibious vehicle.
When it was already impossible to push through, I decided to disembark. It was only about a kilometer away from home. I saw several vehicles stalled in the middle of the street.

I was gradually walking through the murky floodwater when I realized the extent of the damage around me. I saw cars turned upside down, people staying on the rooftoops.

I was told by the people that the floodwater had gradually subsided but several villages were still inaccessible.
When I reached Pinaglabanan bridge, I saw a crowd of people staying there as they waited for the water level to come down.
As I came near a big family of more or less 10, I realized that everyone was soaking wet.

I was touched by the sight of young toddlers who kept on asking for food from their mother. She  couldn't provide anything, but only her tight embrace.
I decided to leave some of the chocolates and biscuits with them. "Hati-hating kapatid," I said. I saw the faint smile on their faces despite the desperate situation they were in.
After about an hour of waiting, I couldn't wait to come home anymore. I still didn't know the fate of my beloved family.
I was among the few who braved the waist-deep floodwater. Seeing no other references but lamp posts along the roadside, I prayed that I will not get sucked by a manhole and disappear. I was also full of oil slick and mud but I continued, one step at a time.
About a hundred meters away from home, I saw people crying.

"His grandma drowned last night," a teenaged girl said.  It made me more nervous about the situation of my family.
Comparing the water level to the elevation of the buildings, I estimated tha the floodwater level was still about 5-foot deep.

An entreprising man with an improvised floating banca became an answered prayer when he approached me, offerring a ride for a fee. 

Charging me  P100.00, he loaded my backpack and provisions on his raft while I swam with him until we reached the gate of my house.
By that time, water level was already down to the  first floor. My car was still partly submerged in the floodwater, looking more of a submarine than an off-road vehicle.
Looking up, I called on my wife, hoping that I can still hear her voice.
After a while, I saw her coming down alive and kicking!

I was so happy that I kissed and hugged her like there was no tomorrow. Climbing upstairs, I was finally relieved seeing my son in deep slumber.
That moment became one of the happiest moments in my life.
I couldn't describe my   feeling of happiness, of being relieved from all of my worries.
I felt happier than being awarded combat medals by a 4-star General. I was even happier than the moment I received my awards and trophies in Malacanang Palace!
I realized that my happiness is home!
That was  my unforgettable DRO (Disaster Response Operations).

It was the rescue mission to save my own family.
That experienced motivated me to keep helping others in need.
For that reason, I became more motivated to serve my country through the military service. It encouraged me to do more for my country as a public servant and protector of the people.

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