Style/Travel Diaries

Siargao: ‘Mommy, are we going to survive?’

Yes, they did, and another miracle is under way—how people are rebuilding this paradise island

Long before 'Odette': Surfers head out on a beautiful morning in General Luna.

The author with husband Kim and son Indy in their ‘bahay kubo’

(Long committed to a life by the sea, Nicole Serrano Honasan, her husband Kim, and their now eight-year-old son Indy had relocated to Siargao from Boracay in 2018. The entrepreneurial couple opened a restaurant, a café and shop, and a school, mainly for Indy and the children of families that had also opted for the laid-back life in the Philippines’ surfing paradise. The community is close-knit and dynamic—and met one of the biggest challenges of their lives last December 16, 2021, when Typhoon Odette (Rai) made landfall in Siargao with a peak of 160 kph winds. This is from the account Nicole later shared with family and friends on social media. -Ed.)

Everyone we knew was already talking about the typhoon that was coming in two days. I insisted on boarding up our house after seeing how strong the wind forecast was. We received zero to vague instructions in Purok 5, while people in the areas of Malinao and Catangnan were already advised to evacuate. We made plans to leave the house the night before the storm and stay on the second floor of our cafè, a solid concrete building.

It was literally the calm before the storm on the evening of Dec 15. No rain, and absolutely no wind. It was eerie how quiet it was.

I was constantly checking Windy (an app) and the Department of Science and Technology’s (DOST) Pag-asa Facebook page, where they were giving hourly updates. Storm surge warning had risen from low to high. We decided to evacuate to higher ground and called our friends Joseph Fernandez (owner of Tawin Homestay), and Momon and Mara Fortich (who rented the biggest unit upstairs). I knew the wind was going to be massive, but it was a choice between that and a possible storm surge. We chose wind.

Evacuated to Tawin at 4 am, December 16. By then the rain was non-stop, and the wind slowly picking up. There were seven of us—Kim, Indy, and myself, and four long-time members of our staff who were like family to us. We brought our essentials and then some. We were met by Bella Nepomuceno, who, like us, also evacuated from GL (General Luna). It was a two-story building, with four apartments for rent on the ground floor. We stayed at their residences on the second floor.

More evacuees came, friends of Bella, who, like her, were on holiday in Siargao. They arrived two hours before landfall, right before it became impossible to drive on the streets. Three of them actively did a survey of our building and decided that the apartments downstairs were a better option, since the structure there was all concrete. I had asked Joseph about this the night before, but we were advised that all rooms were already rented out. Luckily, they found one that was vacated. Several bed mattresses were brought down to the apartment to board it up. We were invited to come with them, but Kim turned down the offer. He even made a joke, saying that we would just head down when the roof flew off.

At exactly 11 am we knew Odette had arrived. The tree outside our window that had been wildly swaying left and right was now forcefully bent at an angle. Other than that, we could barely see anything. But the wind, we could hear. It howled like an animal.

At exactly 11 a.m. we knew Odette had arrived. It howled like an animal

Fifteen minutes in, parts of the roof started to collapse. We knew we had to evacuate, and we had to do it immediately. The thought of running out in the storm with Indy was frightening. The seven of us ran outside and escaped to one of the four rooms downstairs. There were 16 of us, including one child, Indy, plus three dogs: Lola, Russ, and a stray.

During the first three hours of the storm, conversation still flowed as we huddled inside the 15-sqm room. People took turns holding the mattresses and a surfboard that were covering the windows facing the northwest. We knew the wind would escalate and was going to shift, this time through our front door.

During the most intense part of the storm, the strongest ones in our group placed bed mattresses on the glass doors, and for almost an hour pushed with all their might to stop the wind from breaking them. At this point, Kim and Bella were shouting instructions as the doors were about to break. At around 2:30 pm the doors gave in. Some ran to the bathroom and most of us moved to the bunk bed, the strongest area in the room. Built into a three-sided concrete wall, it gave us shelter from the monstrous wind. But with our room now open, we had to use the mattresses to shield us from the storm and the flying debris. This went on for another two hours, when anyone hardly spoke. It was at this time that Indy quietly asked me, “Mommy, are we going to survive?”

The wind was relentless. There was no sign of weakening. It wailed so loud, it sounded like a woman. Kim was falling asleep from exhaustion and from the cold. He was also the only one who held the mattress as I held a pillow to shield Indy. I could sense him wavering at this point; the things he was saying all sounded like “last words.” I could sense that the same thing crossed everyone’s mind at that moment.

With no internet signal, there was no way to check how much longer the typhoon was going to last. We felt so helpless.

Finally, at 5 pm the storm began to slow down. Before dark, some people started going out and checking on neighbors. Kim and the rest started clearing the debris. Broken glass was everywhere, and the floor was flooded with ankle-high rain water. Some of our clothes and footwear were nowhere to be found. Outside it looked like a war zone. We saw the roof of our homestay at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of trees on the ground, trash everywhere. We could no longer recognize Tawin.

In ‘Odette’s’ wake: Above, the roof is blown off the Tawin Homestay, where the author, her family, and others sheltered. Above, right, the roof is also blown off the author’s second-floor café, the flooded ground floor filled with debris. Topmost, what’s left of the Island of Siargao Learning Academy

Everyone feared for all those who were in town, unsure if there had been a storm surge that took place. The next day, some people left with their motorbikes and bicycles to check the situation. They came back after a few hours to report that roads were unpassable except by foot; only a few places in GL experienced a mild storm surge, but everything was devastated. We got reports that our restaurant was gone, that this and that resort were completely destroyed. By some miracle, there were no casualties.

We got reports that our restaurant was gone….by some miracle, there were no casualties

By the third day there was already movement. The first chartered rescue flights came in, taking women with children and seniors. Secretary Martin Andanar and his team were already on the ground. We were holed up in Tawin with one of our friends, Iñigo Jaldon, whose uncle, Baby Jaldon, arrived via helicopter from Davao’s 911 Emergency with a satellite phone. After almost 72 hours of no contact, a few of us were lucky enough to call and tell our families we were safe.

Water was our immediate concern. A few island residents banded together to get access to clean drinking water. For three days we were rationing what we had set aside before the storm.

Before the end of the first week, we got outstanding support from a few private individuals. James O’Donell of Greenhouse started to run boat trips to two ports, Cantilan and Hayanggabon, ferrying passengers and some of the first relief goods into the island. Karlo Pacheco and Jacquee Oliva were among the first to mobilize relief operations for Catangnan, the barangay where Cloud 9 is located.  Mike Cancio set up a satellite signal at Lamari (a boutique hotel), providing communication access to people mobilizing relief efforts. Yeb Saño and Albert Lozada of Greenpeace came with the help of Jof Sering, a resident who was currently off the island and mobilizing relief operations from Italy.

On the sixth day, the Philippine Navy arrived with their vessels, and with the help of Jake Miranda, ensured all trucks carrying relief goods were given safe and speedy passage to Siargao. Alex Gari of Bravo, Javi Garcia of My Siargao Guide, and Minggu Marcelino of Big Belly Siargao combined efforts to power up the island’s biggest water station, using generators from restaurants and resorts that weren’t being utilized. By the end of the second week, medical teams had arrived from Butuan, Davao, and Manila, providing free medicine and services to the people. By third week, Lokal Lab, an NGO based in Burgos, one of the hardest hit areas located north of the island, had collected over P20 million in cash and in-kind donations, half of which would go to immediate relief aid (food, water, shelter) and half to long-term programs like the regrowth of forest areas and livelihood rehabilitation. This was not to mention all the efforts from individuals and groups who launched their own fundraising campaigns to rebuild within their communities. The continuous relief work from Siargao’s community/private sector has been truly amazing.

By the fourth week, we saw our very own Siarelco and rescue teams from neighboring provinces South Cotabato and Cagayan de Oro working nonstop even in heavy rains to restore our power lines. Currently, the island is still running on generators.

Yes, Indy, we survived.

Yes, Siargao still needs your help.

To help rebuild homes for senior citizens and PWDs: 

c/o Ikit Agudo
For in-kind donations and proof of payment, please send to Instagram: @ikit_agudo

Bank details:
Jevy Mae Agudo
BDO savings account 0033-8022-0072
Swift code: BNORPHMM
Address: Brgy. Catangnan, General Luna, Siargao Island, Philippines

To help children deal with the trauma (a project that will bring volunteer therapists to the island):

Island of Siargao Learning Academy
For in-kind donations and proof of payment, please send to Instagram: @cbbsiargao

Bank details:
Ana Regina Agudo
BPI savings account no. 3029-0649-96

Paypal
aninafavis@yahoo.com

About author

Articles

Island girl since 2005. Co-founder of True Yoga in Boracay, where she lived for 16 years, before moving to Siargao in 2019. Currently teaches yoga at Lotus Shores Siargao and runs The Beachbaby, a vegan and vegetarian cafè in General Luna.

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