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Birthday Gift from a Storm

August 27, 2011

As I sit at my computer awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Irene amidst the constant TV reportage chattering in the background, my thoughts travel back to a storm that I will never forget. I have vague memories of severe storms from when I was a child, though the only lasting image is that of using candles for light. But the storm of which I speak was a memorable one of epic proportion and great consequence to many. The storm was Typhoon Sening.

I had arrived in the Philippines in September of 1970, eager to begin my two year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. The first weeks were spent in orientation, first in Manila, and then in the province in which I was to be stationed. The final step was a meeting at the regional Peace Corps headquarters. That is what brought me to Legaspi in the province of Albay in early October.

When I arrived, there were many nervous faces, for the news of an impending typhoon circulated rapidly. Typhoon. Sounded pretty exotic. Little did I know what a terrible event was about to occur. Typhoon is the name given to hurricane-like storms in the Pacific. We had been very well prepared for the culture and language of this new land, but nothing could have prepared us for what followed.

I was staying in a sturdy wooden structure built in the era of the American occupation of the Philippines before World War II. We were told to stay inside and under no circumstance venture out or be near the now shuttered windows. Since it was my twenty-second birthday, we had a small celebration as the rain began falling. As the night progressed, the wind picked up, and soon the now-pelting rain was striking the corrugated metal roof like machine-gun fire. An eerie howling whistled through the building as we huddled inside through the night. Midway through my fitful sleep, I bolted upright, awakened by a loud boom. At first I thought perhaps it was only a dream, then BOOM! No, it was real, and was beginning to repeat steadily. I crawled in fear to the Filipino who was staying with us, and he answered before I even asked.

“Coconuts. They blow from the trees and strike like cannon balls. Stay away from windows, no?”

Yes! I rejoined my fellow volunteers with this news, and we spent the rest of the long night overcome with the feeling of helplessness that the power of nature has the capacity to impose.

Late the next morning, an odd thing occurred. The wind ceased as did the deluge, and a strange silence enveloped the area. We decided to venture outside to have a look. It was the eye of the storm. As the clouds moved rapidly above us, we stood in the half light, somewhat like that which appears just before dawn, and surveyed the destruction around us. The nipa huts of the local townspeople were in various states of disassembly, some missing roofs, some minus several walls. The ground was strewn with debris, both natural and manmade. I had never seen anything like this. The call to return came, for the remainder of the typhoon would soon descend upon us. The term “hunkering down” would forever take on new meaning for me.

Sening's aftermath

The following day we received instructions for a new and unscheduled duty, the distribution of chlorine to the towns along the seaside to purify the water and hopefully prevent disease. The journey was startling, passing scenes of unbelievable total destruction as we picked our way around the bloated corpses of animals. This was to be the true test of our language skills, as we had to explain in the local dialect, Bicol, the amount of chlorine to be added. Too much would cause painful diarrhea, and too little wouldn’t keep them safe from the danger of cholera.

The official results of the storm were not surprising given our personal experience of it. Typhoon Sening was the worst in thirty-six years with winds that clocked 170 miles per hour. There were 768 deaths, thousands of injured, and countless lives affected for months to come. The food shortages because of the destroyed crops, the lack of shelter, and the destruction of what little infrastructure there was to begin with (including the schools in which we were to be teaching) were all borne with amazing grace by the people of our new home.  For the next two years, I bore witness to the scars left by Sening and the grit and perseverance it takes to overcome such loss, and I carried those memories back home.

I  do not mean to disparage Irene or make light of all the voices of doom that fill the airwaves. However, having had the opportunity to look at the world from a vantage point so removed from that of our relatively pampered existence as Americans, I gained a new appreciation for all that we have here: the safety of our homes, the ready availability of life’s necessities like food and water, and the presence of quickly responding help when disaster does befall us. That was Sening’s birthday gift to me.

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