Living with Calamities

By Saranyoo Samakrathgit

SONGSONG, Batanes, Philippines – It was already around seven o’clock at night, but Rosa Ydel recalls that when they saw the first giant wave headed their way, she and her neighbors had quickly climbed on top of the roof of the tallest house in the village. But they spotted a second mad rush of water, so everyone started clambering up the bluff of about 500 meters that was just behind their stone houses. A third salvo from the sea almost reached the top of the bluff, but by then, everyone were already out of harm’s way. The belongings they left behind in their houses, however, would be swept out to sea; the next day, Ydel and her fellow villagers would return to houses that were either destroyed completely or would need extensive rebuilding.

Most of Ydel’s neighbors opted to leave this seaside community on the northernmost Philippine island of Batan after that tsunami in 1953. But Ydel and her family stayed, as did six other households.

Tsunamis don’t come that often in the windswept Philippine province of Batanes, and the one that erased most of Songsong more than half a century ago was actually the most recent that the people here can recall. But Batanes, which comprises 10 islands (the biggest of which is Batan), is prone to an assortment of natural calamities. Just like the rest of the Philippines, it has earthquakes every so often, including “swarms” or a parade of small tremors that occurs in a span of a week or so. Mt. Iraya, which is classified as an active volcano, lies just at the other end of the short runway of the airport in Basco, the provincial capital. And at least five times a year, strong typhoons batter the province, even as monsoon rains keep it soaked from June to September and render fisherfolk unable to navigate the rough seas. Fishing here takes place only from March to May – that is, barring a freak storm ripping through the province.

Remarkably, though, the tantrums of Mother Nature have rarely resulted in a high fatality count in the province. In fact, locals have a hard time recalling any deaths from any of the most recent typhoons, and maintain no one was killed even when a strong earthquake rocked the province in 2000. The 6.9-magnitude earthquake, however, did result in the collapse of the belfry of the Basco cathedral.

Clues from Nature

That few lives have been lost because of natural calamities here in Batanes is most probably due to the fact that the Ivatan – as the Batanes locals are known – have grown astute in dealing with Mother Nature. The typical Ivatan house, for one, is designed to withstand the angriest storm and most earthquakes. Built with limestone walls a meter thick, and roofed with layers upon layers of cogon grass, the houses are fortress-like with small windows on three sides; the windowless wall faces the direction of the strongest winds during typhoons.

Ivatans also rely on Nature herself to provide warning signs to her next fit – knowledge that has been handed down from generation to generation. Land reform officer and Ivatan Carina Escalona, for example, says that when the Arius tree sprouts new leaves, a storm is coming. (True enough, this writer witnessed rains two days after noticing the Arius trees here with new leaves.)

Uyugan town mayor Maria C. Ibay, meanwhile, shared other ways of “disaster-forecasting”: When worm-like creatures start going up from the beach to the road, this is a portent of big waves on their way. The distance these creatures move away from the sea, she says, also tells how far the waves will move inland. She adds that when the young shoot of a banana tree comes out twisted and deformed, Ivatan know a major typhoon is coming. Flowers called storm lilies also bloom when Batanes is about to have its latest round of bad weather.

“As far as I can remember,” says Ibay, “(there have been) no accidents because of strong typhoons and big waves. Even if there is no policy.”

To leave or not to leave

There is, of course, a provincial disaster coordinating committee in place. And even though local folk would rather rely on Nature’s clues, local officials down to those in the village level have been trained by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) on the proper monitoring of typhoons.

The truth is that any policy on disaster control is drawn up only after monitoring shows a potential for grave danger – and it is limited to whether or not people should evacuate. Dr. Julio Sabi of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOCS) says that although Batanes may be small in area and population, it is hard to evacuate because it is an isolated island and precisely because of the kind of weather. At present, the population of Batanes is about 20,000. There is only one scheduled flight per week from and to Manila, the capital.

That the Ivatan have not fled their disaster-prone land and rarely complain about having to put up with long stretches of horrible weather could be traced partly to the sheer beauty of the place. Nominated as a World Heritage site in 2005, its rolling hills and winding roads, quaint architecture, and breathtaking seascape could make even a visitor want to stay. Having a zero crime rate, warm and peaceful communities are also come-ons to the weary and not-so-weary.

Ironically, the province’s bid to be made into a World Heritage site may mean the traditional Ivatan house could be on its way out. A ban has been imposed on rock quarrying and the cutting of trees used to cook the lime used to build the Ivatan dwelling. That could force those wanting to build homes here to use concrete instead, but concrete houses are not as sturdy as those made out of traditional Ivatan building materials. For now provincial officials are thinking of importing limestone from other parts of the country. For sure, though, the potential loss of their architectural heritage is one disaster that the Ivatan had not been able to foresee

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