Guest Columnist: The Scars Left by Typhoon Ketsana/Ondoy on My Family in the Philippines

By Odette Keeley, New America Media news anchor and producer

Residents of a flooded village cope with a fifth day under water after typhoon Ketsana swept Bulacan province in the Philippines. (Photo: Catholic Relief Services/flickr)

Residents of a flooded village cope with a fifth day under water after typhoon Ketsana swept Bulacan province in the Philippines. (Photo: Catholic Relief Services/flickr)

As Tropical Storm Ketsana’s –“Ondoy” in the Philippines– destruction made headlines all over the world on Monday, Sept. 28th, I could not reach my family in the Philippines. Power and phone lines were down in Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces where my family lives, and cell lines were clogged.

My sister in Los Angeles, “Ate” Reby, had only gotten a text message from my mother the night before: “Reby, pinasukan ng baha yung bahay. Lubog yung kotse. Kami ng daddy na-stranded sa bubong…” [Floods entered the house. Our car is submerged. Your father and I were stranded up on the roof].

Reby and I thought it unimaginable that they would be trapped on our own roof, which tops a two-story house on the highest point of the subdivision. Finally I reached my sister Jocelyn and in subsequent conversations with my mother, both of us often breaking down in tears, we were able to piece together their terrifying tales. For the first time since any typhoons hitting the Philippines, my family found themselves in Ground Zero, as if they were in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

My mom and dad, both 77, live in Park Place Executive Village, Cainta City in Rizal province, east of Manila. My eldest brother Angelo lives with them, my other brother, Pio Jr., lives a street away, and my sister, “Ate” [a Filipino term for elder] Jocelyn, lives with her family in the next town, Brookside. These towns were two of the most heavily flooded areas after Ketsana.

My sister “Ate” Reby now lives in L.A. and I reside in San Francisco.

Ketsana brought massive damage, pouring a month’s worth of rain in just 6-9 hours, inundating Metropolitan Manila and nearby provinces with water sometimes reaching depths of 20 feet. Ketsana killed almost 250 people and affected about 4.4 million, including my own family. Meantime, the Philippines’ northeastern Luzon provinces is still reeling from the aftermath of Typhoon Parma, which hit just days after Ketsana. This second storm, which caused major landslides, left more than 300 dead, and has affected 2.5 million people in the region.

As was their routine every weekend, my parents had gone to the market just outside their village that Saturday, Sept. 26th, at about 8:00 am Philippine time. The rains from Ketsana had started that morning, but after a few hours, it began to pour nonstop, submerging houses and cars. My parents learned later that 3 separate dams had been released, causing the unprecedented floods and strong currents.

At the front gates of the subdivision, they hired 2 pedicab drivers, who physically pushed the “trikes” through the rampaging flood. They crossed several blocks but could not go any further. My mother described the water as an ocean’s tidal waves, raging all around them. Luckily, they found themselves near a house that belonged to a fellow church member, who called them in. But this house was a bungalow and inside, the flood was chest-deep, with furniture and household items floating all around. They decided the safest place for them was the roof, so the men went up and hoisted my mom up to the roof.

There was a total of seven people, including the owners of the house and their relatives, trapped there, with only umbrellas shielding them from the heavy rains. After 4 hours, my mom and dad were soaked and shivering from the bitter cold, feeling the onset of hypothermia. One of the owners’ sons decided they had to find another house with a second story. He swam through the raging waters to get a strong rope and together with garden hose, tied one end to the next house’s gate and then swam back to their house and tied the other end to their gate.

They then swam through the rising flood, using the ropes to keep them from drowning. My father, a retired army colonel, helped my mom hold on. Two other men, village residents who were helping people in the flood, kept pulling and lifting her up from the water when she would almost slip or go under, preventing her from being carried away by the strong current. Several times, my mom cried out that she was drowning, but her saviors said: “Nanay, huwag po kayong bumitaw. Hawak po namin kayo. Hindi po namin kayo hahayaang malunod. [Mother, please hang on, don’t let go. We are holding you. We won’t let you drown.]”

Finally, they reached the next house and stayed in the second floor. That neighbor fed my parents some hot soup, the first bit of food they had eaten in about 11 hours. After some time, my parents looked out at the dissipating rain and thought they could finally get home if the water current had subsided. They left this second house and headed out to the flooded street. It was about 9 pm and outside, the flood water reached my father’s chest, and my mother’s neck. They tried to walk and swim several blocks home but they started being fearful that they would fall through a manhole and drown, so they decided to find the nearest house to shelter them. They found this third house, also with a second story. Another parishioner who owned it recognized them, and signaled them with flashlights to come in. There, they were given dry clothes and they finally slept.

Throughout this day and night, my parents and siblings had no contact with each other and had no idea what was happening to all of them.

My eldest brother Angelo was at first all alone in our parents’ house, and as the flood entered the first floor, he salvaged as much as he could of our belongings, as the water rose up to his knees. My other brother, Pio Jr. was trapped in his car in a faraway town, unable to get home and slept in his car overnight. His wife and three kids, including a one-year-old baby girl, had to wade through the flood to reach my parents’ house. They all stayed in the second floor with my eldest brother.

My other sister Jocelyn has a second floor in her house, so she and her two young children stayed there in safety. But her husband was trapped in the next town and couldn’t get home. My sister was panicked and heartsick not knowing where he was, and her young son, watching the waters enter the first floor of their home was traumatized, asking her: “Mommy, mamamatay ba tayo?” [Mommy, are we going to die?]. Her car was also submerged in the flood and severely damaged.

It was only the next morning, Sunday, that my parents were rescued by rubber boats. They found our home in shambles and their car submerged in the garage, almost totally wrecked. My brother’s house was underwater and his two young children fell ill from the storm.

My family has been cleaning up for the last week and a half, inside their homes and outside in the streets, but my mom says our once-quaint suburb is a picture of disaster. The streets are littered with various household items and wrecked vehicles, and a massive stench from sewer waste, dirty flood water and dead animals permeates everything. Cleaning out the debris inside our home, my mom’s feet and legs got infected from the contaminated water and thick mud.

As “Ate” Jocelyn and I talked more in the coming days, we would often cry on the phone, sisters torn apart by a vast ocean, unable to hug and truly comfort each other. It was she who remained strong, comforting me as I kept getting more upset and guilt-ridden that I wasn’t there with them.

But our tears were also tears of gratitude that they were alive, that God had protected them and had sent angels through our neighbors who saved our parents’ lives. And because of them, we count ourselves infinitely more fortunate than those who lost their loved ones in the storm. My brother had in fact heard that one of their neighbors, just a street away from them, had perished.

My sister Reby, my husband, Patrick and I immediately sent money to my parents and siblings so they can fix their cars, homes and get any medicine they needed, especially antibiotics for my mom’s infected feet and legs. My mom told me the lines at Western Union and other remittance centers were very long, with many people getting money from their loved ones from the United States and around the world. My husband’s family also sent prayers and help in the boxes I shipped home.

When I was asked for a TV interview for ABS-CBN International -The Filipino Channel’s “Balitang America”, a daily newscast I had previously produced, I did not hesitate. Sharing my family’s story of survival was the best way I knew to thank personally the brave and kind residents of Park Place Village who risked their lives to save my mom and dad’s life in the storm, and showed them true compassion.

In this interview, I expressed my pain of being far away from my family, unable to directly help them, as many expatriates whose loved ones were affected in this calamity feel. But my family looks forward to the day we can all personally thank these saviors for what they did so selflessly. Filipino-American and Philippine media have been reporting on various aspects of the typhoons, including inadequate urban planning and abuse of the environment.

But although Ketsana had laid waste to the metropolis, there were also many things that turned out right.

On the House floor the morning of Oct. 14th, Rep. Jackie Speier’s House Resolution 800 was heard and passed.  It expressed deep sympathy to the typhoon victims and urged President Obama to continue providing financial, logistical and emergency relief assistance to the Philippines, adding to the almost $4 million already given by the U.S. government to the Philippines.

In the Philippines, thousands of volunteers came together to aid the flood victims, including at the Ateneo de Manila University. Many schools participated in this effort, including my alma mater, the University of the Philippines. This trademark Filipino “bayanihan” [communal unity] spirit shone like a beacon in the storm, and was not only effective on the ground, but also on the web, using technology to save lives. I interviewed Esther Chavez of for our radio show, “New America Now”, who shared that social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and Plurk proved vital in alerting rescuers to save flood victims and providing ways to help.

Here in the United States, Philippine embassy and consular officials kept the community abreast with guidelines and advisories on the typhoons. I also spoke with Greg Macabenta, publisher of Filipinas Magazine and national chair of the National Association of Filipino-American Associations, who said that various chapters of the organization coordinated closely with the Philippine consulates in their area for fundraisers and ways to send help home. Filipino media partnered with service agencies, including ABS-CBN Foundation and LBC in sending donations and money to victims at either no cost or special rates.

In Manila, GMA Channel 7’s own foundation also organized donation outreach to flood-stricken areas. Here in the United States, community bridges like Lorna Dietz kept the critical information about the calamity flowing on the web and effectively mobilized Filipino Americans.  Various fundraisers and benefit concerts all over the country have also raised tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

Typhoon Ketsana taught Filipinos many critical lessons. There is more awareness now about the importance of home and car insurance. My parents and siblings have none, and will have to shell out $15,000 or more to fix their cars. My brother is also planning to construct a second story for his home, because during Ketsana, having one meant the difference between life and death.

Yesterday, the first major storm of the fall season hit San Francisco, and as heavy rain pelted my car on my way to work, I drove more carefully but with hardly any concern for myself. Instead, I was envisioning Typhoon Ketsana’s fury that my family had faced, and the terror they had felt, not just for themselves, but for their children and each other.

The flood waters may have left my family’s homes and receded from their streets, but the physical and emotional toll of this monster typhoon will forever scar my family and me. Perhaps my pain as an expatriate will stop once I am back home with them, helping them rebuild and replace the dark memories of their ordeal with Ketsana.

* This article was originally published on New America Media’s EthnoBlog. Reprinted here with permission.

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