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Escape from Siargao: A story of daring, sharing & caring

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 24, 2021 5:00 am Updated Dec 23, 2021 11:43 pm

Bank executive Risa Baltazar Nepomuceno’s only daughter and youngest child Bella was in Siargao when Super Typhoon Odette roared through the popular resort island. At 12 noon before Odette made landfall, Risa was able to talk to her daughter. She hoped and prayed it wouldn’t be the last time.

“We did a video call so I could help her prepare and plan possible escape routes under different scenarios — storm surge, landslide, flood, caving in of the house. I shared with her my own experience with Yoling in 1970, when our roof was blown away. I asked her to wear her helmet, have her inflatable go-bag and a surfboard close by.

How to pick up the pieces of a broken land?

“Before Odette made landfall, we had our last call and I was assuaged by the fact that her friends and a family joined her so she had other people with her. They were busy tying down mattresses on the glass windows and sliding glass doors.

“When the storm hit and communication was lost, I took to monitoring the news and found some comfort in the low casualty numbers. I had faith in my daughter’s street smarts, resilience and resourcefulness so I was not very scared,” shares Risa.

As Odette was storming Siargao, and the morning after when virtually no one had contact with the island, Risa was also storming the heavens.

“All in all, I was worried, but at peace because I had faith in my daughter and faith in God as our family and so many friends were praying for her. Would you believe I also prayed to St. Anthony to find her?”

Bella’s teammates from the Philippine Rugby team mobilized to locate all their teammates in Siargao and were constantly communicating with Risa as they had a contact with a satellite phone on the island. For worried parents, even “sightings” are a godsend.

Bella Nepomuceno and friends Anna Bongato and Veronica Limcaoco at the NAIA 2 on Dec. 19.

“I received three confirmations that she was sighted alive the next day. So knowing Bella, I was confident she would eventually find her way out,” recalls Risa.

On Dec. 19, Bella landed in Manila after her great “escape” from Siargao.

“It was the best gift ever!” exclaims Risa. It was her Christmas gift in advance.

How was it like to stare death in the eye, and fight it? When all the walls around you have given in, and you only have a mattress, and your will to live, to shield you from the fury of the storm?

Bella’s story

“My friend, Kat Andrews, and I had heard about the typhoon the week that it was about to hit. Days prior, we were trying to figure out the best place to be when it would arrive. Having heard stories of Yolanda and Hurricane Katrina, we were most worried about the storm surge that could happen so we were looking for places that at least had a second floor where it would be safe.

“Originally, we were going to stay in Catangnan at Sinag Hostel but my cousin and her husband, Mara and Momon Fortich, from Cagayan de Oro, told me that it might still be too close to the shore. They offered to let me stay in their place in Tawin Homestay, where they were renting long term. I went there the night before but Kat decided to stay in Sinag Hostel.

“The following morning as the rain and wind were getting heavier, she decided to follow and I had two other friends, Ron Limcaoco and Anna Bongato, that followed as well. My cousin’s friend, Kim Honasan and his family, followed, too.

“On the second floor where my cousin’s apartment was, the walls were of plywood. There was one wall that was all glass windows, and the ceiling was hiero. As the weather continued to get stronger, my friends and I felt it wasn’t going to hold up so we went down to the first floor, and luckily found an apartment that was open. Kim said he would follow if he felt that things were really getting bad.

“We got the mattresses from my cousin’s apartment and brought them down. Now on the first floor, we did as much as we could to fortify the room — we tied down the curtains in front of the glass windows in case they would shatter and we used the mattresses to cover the windows and the sliding glass doors, which we propped up with a wooden bench and surfboard leashes tied across the curtain rods.

Part of Siargao Island after Typhoon Odette wreaked havoc on Dec. 16, 2021.

“The wind was getting stronger and pushed the air conditioner into the room so we dashed to the bathroom and were about to cover the entrance with a third mattress when we heard someone knocking on the glass doors. We peeled back the mattress and saw a guy from apartments from the same area asking if they could stay with us. We quickly let them in and at the same time, Kim and his family came rushing from the second floor as well. We ended up being about 15 to 18 people in the room.

“At first, we thought that what we did was enough. The rain was coming in and we could hear things flying off from the second floor but the windows and glass sliding doors were okay. We were waiting for the eye to pass over us before the wind changed direction so that we could clear the debris in front of the veranda but it never did.

“Before we knew it the wind’s direction changed, from blowing against the glass windows to the opposite side of the room, blowing against the sliding glass doors. It was so strong that it took five of us to push against mattresses to keep the glass from breaking — me, Miguel, Kim, Ron, and Dodong.

“Kat was in the bathroom looking through the window slats to tell us if a gust of wind was going to hit and keep an eye out for any debris that might fly our way. We were able to keep the glass from breaking for about 45 minutes before a huge gust of wind came and just broke the glass. It exploded and pushed us back about two meters from where we were standing!”

How did the plucky group of 15 survive the furious typhoon and its devastating aftermath? How did Risa survive the agonizing waiting game for news of her daughter?

As Odette was roaring, Bella and her companions took shelter in an apartment in Tawin Homestay. In their shelter, they ran into the bathroom and grabbed a mattress to cover the entrance. They stayed there for the next four to five hours until the typhoon passed.

Another Odette survivor Anina Favis Agudo from a different neighborhood in Siargao described its wrath so succinctly: “The whole house was vibrating like there was a constant earthquake happening. It was so loud outside — like you were beside an airplane turbine.”

The typhoon passed, but Bella’s ordeal wasn’t over. 

 TOGETHER WE SURVIVE: They made it through the worst of the typhoon huddled in one apartment, friends and new friends.

“Fortunately the Crisostomos, the family staying in the unit next to us, were very prepared,” recounts Bella. “They had boarded up their windows with plywood and kept their door and one window open so the wind could just pass through. They cooked soup and rice for everyone and even let us sleep in their unit. They were so generous to feed a total of about 30 people, including the caretakers of Tawin Homestay, and their own family. 

“The next day, Friday, we woke up and could finally take in everything that had happened. The trees had either fallen over or broken in half. There was debris everywhere, from broken glass, to a refrigerator, to storybooks that were blown away from the second floor. The whole roof and awnings of the units were gone. 

“When everything was cleared we took the scooters towards the Tourism Road to get to General Luna and check on our friends and the residences that we evacuated. We swerved around fallen trees and posts, ducked under wires as we passed by all the destruction that was left behind. At some point, we had to park the scooters because the road was impassable. We walked the rest of the way climbing over trees, debris and rubble. We passed by houses that were completely wrecked and collapsed, establishments that used to be landmarks were completely unrecognizable. Everyone we passed was just trying to salvage what they could or they were walking back from where they evacuated to check on their homes.”

Disappointing news fell over them like a pall that Odette had devastated Cebu, Surigao, and Butuan as well, which would have served as another way out from Siargao via boat or ferry. 

 STILL STANDING: A tree stands like a sentinel before a church.

“Once I heard it, I mentally prepared myself to be in Siargao for the next four weeks and started planning what needed to be done to survive. The days prior we heard of people trying to go to the port to see if there were boats and any person we saw that we knew that was going to try to get out of Siargao, and we gave our loved ones’ contact details so they could message them for us to say that we were okay.”

Later that night, they heard news from the local government that a C-130 had come in that day to drop off relief goods and took on passengers for its way back to Manila. He mentioned that there would be another the next morning, Sunday (Dec. 19). 

Bella and her friends quickly packed everything they had and rented a van to the airport the next morning. It was probably like a scene from the exodus from Saigon and Afghanistan.

 “There were already at least 150 people before us,” recounts Bella breathlessly. “We saw some people we knew at the start of the line and they said that the capacity for the C-130 had already been maxed out and they were one of the last ones who could get their names on the list.”

Bella and her friends were prepared to camp out in the airport and leave all their belongings behind in the hopes of finding space in the C-130 due the next day. Then, an unexpected gift from the skies!

 ‘We passed by houses that were completely wrecked and collapsed, establishments that used to be landmarks were completely unrecognizable.' 

“A PAL plane landed a little while later and one of the employees was looking for our friends, Ron and Anna, along with another PAL employee. PAL had apparently been looking for them (PAL employees) since the day before. They were brought to the airport and we told them to just message our loved ones that we were okay. After a while, the same employee came out looking for us. Ron and Anna had asked that we be allowed on the same flight home with them and that’s how we were able to fly home.” Walang iwanan.

On Dec. 19, Bella was back in the loving arms of her family.

What was their life raft, so to speak, during the perfect storm that hit the island?

“What helped me survive was the act of kindness, generosity, and selflessness of every person that I encountered on the island.”

Bella left all her material things behind but a smile lights up her face like she has gained everything else.

“I’m grateful that God protected the people on the island from a storm surge. I’m grateful for everyone that I encountered on the island. I’m grateful for having the privilege of being able to have another place to go home to. To some extent I feel like I cheated, that I could just leave such a devastating situation and go back to my old life.”

She hopes that those who were left behind will be taken care of and appeals for help for their sake. 

And for Risa, her mother, my grade school and high school batchmate at the Assumption Convent, she is grateful for many things “despite the seeming tragedy.”

“The kindness of strangers, the gift of family and friends who reached out, prayed, helped and comforted. I was reflecting that the best in us comes out when ‘bad’ things happen. We wonder where God is and you find Him in people.”

As Bella recounted to her mother, in Siargao, there was also a storm of kindness.

“No looting, just sharing and caring.”