In a country so used to storms, no one took the weather warnings seriously. Fishermen never moved their boats away from the coast. Poultry farmers never covered the avian cages. Women and children who live in small palm huts just meters beside the sea never shifted to higher ground.
Storms come and go. The island has experienced so many. It will persist.
But when Typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) hit the slender island of Bantayan, Philippines, on the morning of 8 November 2013, it redefined the concept of storms. It educated simple folk on the meaning of “storm surge” or the power of Mother Nature.
An estimated 6,300 perished that morning, though the bodies of most have not yet been recovered.
As for Bantayan, Typhoon Haiyan’s fourth landfall, 90% was wiped out. The earth was stripped bare and coconuts lost all their cover. For a time, there was no shade available to protect its now homeless people from the heat. Tents donated by foreign aid were designed for countries with cooler climates. Potable water was scarce. And the island was 45 minutes away from ready supplies.
An unlikely hero
In one part of the island though, an area called Oboob, an under-appreciated tree shrub emerged as a savior. Growing in brackish water, it provided just the right covering to protect the shoreline from the storm’s direct impact. It guarded the beach front from the fury of the oncoming waves, and any land erosion thereafter.
The mangrove locally called Bakawan Lalaki was an extremely underestimated plant on the island. Fisher folk never understood its many uses; instead cutting it for firewood or charcoal. The Zoological Society of London has constantly sung praises to its many advantages. A tactile tree with a complicated root system, the mangrove serves as breeding ground for fingerlings, crabs, and oysters. Like any tree, it also serves as the lungs of the island, absorbing carbon, and releasing oxygen.
Its environmental impact was never really grasped until Haiyan happened. But sustained winds of 295 kph and gusts of 360 kph changed all that. The mangrove saved Oboob and its shoreline from devastation.
To Never Forget
Grassroots organizations have noticed the emergence of more mangroves and beach fronts around Bantayan. Oboob itself has replanted the beach forests lost during the storm. There is a walkway now from the shoreline to the mangroves used as educational platform for tourists, and outsiders. That part was also solidified as a marine-protected area. No one is allowed to cast their nets there to give the sea, and the trees, time to recover.
More importantly, it’s the local fishermen and coastal residents – teenagers and mothers – who have shown the most initiative, building for themselves a series of community-based social enterprises to sustain themselves, and the environment, after the storm.
One organization in Oboob moonlights as tour guides for researchers and scientists studying the importance of the tree shrubs. Another creates necklaces and sculptures from the deadwood that drifts to shore.
For a time, Bantayan was the focus of foreign aid. Helping the island and the people recover, tents, boats, hygiene kits, construction materials, water, shelter, agricultural supplies, clothing, toys, etc. poured in. For a time, the locals relied on these, building a culture of dependence and dole outs.
Three years on though, after outside help been weaned out of their system, the people of Bantayan are slowly realizing everything they need has been with them all along.
Text by: Johanna Michelle Lim