A resident stood on the remains of his destroyed home in Tacloban, Philippines, on Nov. 15.

Jes Aznar • New York Times,

My city in the Philippines, badly governed, now gone

  • Article by: GINA APOSTOL
  • November 15, 2013 - 6:17 PM


Tacloban is my city. I grew up directly facing the Pacific Ocean, on the Philippines’ eastern shore, which takes the brunt of the yearly monsoons. Geography and history provide the textbook nickname of Leyte and Samar, the provinces hardest hit by Haiyan: “The Typhoon Path.”

I grew up knowing the natural signs of storms: cockroach hordes marching out of cupboard lairs as if in warning; cockpits losing roosters that preferred to perch on roofs than fight; the still alertness of lizards as winds rise.

Always, after, there was the great communal cleansing, children, housemaids and busybodies sharing stories; the familiar howl of Bruce Lee, our cowardly dog; the usual flooding of our walkway that doubled as a pigpen, housing a single pig owned by our neighbor Mano Bading, whose love for his pig we tolerated because we would eat it at fiesta; the examination of debris.

But this year’s post-typhoon cleansing has become an unimaginable orgy of grief. Friends who have escaped speak of strangled, directionless horror. No one is in charge.

Amid the drowned bodies, the country’s president, Benigno S. Aquino III (known to all as Noynoy), arrived on Sunday, two days after the storm, to survey the damage. Earlier, Aquino had expressed doubts about the province’s readiness for the typhoon: “Tacloban was not that prepared, shall we say, compared with other areas,” he said.

But the people of Tacloban, looking for signs of life beneath the matchstick rubble of their homes, didn’t need finger-pointing. Women are still looking for their dead babies. Sons are searching for drowned fathers.

Makeshift online forums remain a bedlam of voices seeking the lost. Horrific Flickr albums of looting and dismembered limbs pass like sewage on Facebook posts.

Sleepless relatives, looking for clues, scour strangers’ videos showing the dazed along the coastal highway. “Zombies,” as online comments describe them.

I, too, kept looking, for shadows of Dean, my brother, for the house on Juan Luna Street. I paused video for street names, store signs, roads — places I might recognize but did not. I kept ending up on other people’s tragedies, until I heard from Dean. Most of all, I heard the enraged anguish of my people, who appealed for order, but in the vacuum of leadership that marks this disaster, where should they begin?

Politicians’ faces were on signs; but on the streets, no help was in sight.

Our corner store’s election posters used to carry names as familiar as the storms. Tacloban is still run by relatives of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady whose lifestyle plundered the nation. Her nephew Alfred is the town’s clueless mayor. And in an ironic twist, the current president is the son of a murdered martyr, Ninoy Aquino, who was assassinated on the Manila airport tarmac in 1983, allegedly by Imelda’s henchmen.

The island of Leyte has always attracted opportunists. Magellan washed up in the Philippines in 1521, and islanders later killed him. Before President William McKinley began explaining what benevolent assimilation of the Philippines entailed, before the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, Tacloban was already in America’s column. In 1901, officials in Leyte, reporting to the first governor-general, William Howard Taft, wrote of “the intense interest manifested among the masses to acquire a knowledge of the English language.” In a 1901 revolutionary battle in Balangiga, a historic town that Haiyan has devoured, Filipinos raided the American garrison — but Tacloban remained pacifist. Gen. Jacob H. Smith, who ordered his troops to make the island “a howling wilderness” and was later court-martialed for the butchery of Balangiga, held firm sway in Tacloban.

Tacloban’s attachment to colonial powers persists. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s statue, celebrating his wading onto Red Beach in 1944, is still the crowning glory of the city’s parks — MacArthur remains untoppled.

My favorite hotel, the charming, antique Hotel Alejandro, which was submerged last week, was used by MacArthur, in the run-up to America’s victory against the Japanese, at the cost of thousands of Filipino deaths, whose wartime efforts are still unrepaid.

This history of surrender to awesome forces marks my city’s story. It’s how we Filipinos have survived.

At times our choices for survival are clever — like the learning of others’ tongues, a resilient ruse in unsteady times. But in our resilience, we also make our doom. We rage at politicians’ self-serving and blame their inept governance. But governance is the point. It is easier to blame nature for thousands of dead rather than the choice of incompetent leaders trailing a family history of unpunished plunder, of our continuing pillage of our forests, of our clinging to Western allies that spurn our demands for a forceful response to climate change.

On Red Beach, America will soon rumble onto Leyte’s shores with its ships, returning like MacArthur to Tacloban’s rescue, on the heels of a planetary emergency for which it feels no guilt or will to fix.

History is our tsunami.


Gina Apostol is the author of the novel “Gun Dealers’ Daughter” and an English teacher, and wrote this article for the New York Times.

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