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December 2014

December had a very scary start. For the first time ever I was to witness a Typhoon here in the Philippines. Known under the international name "Hagupit" and locally under Philippino name "Ruby" a low pressure system strengthened considerably and most projections would see it cross our island. Quickly it developed into a Typhoon of the highest category with sustained windspeeds over 200km/h and a diameter of just under 800km.
If you remember, just over one year ago the Philippines, and my province of Aklan, were devastated by Typhoon Hayan (or Yolanda as it is locally known). Yolanda killed more than 7000 Philippinos, drowning in storm surges, being hit by debris of their collapsing homes. Or drowning in floodwater. And now Typhoon Ruby was set to follow the path of Yolanda. Same time of year. Same track. Same category of Typhoon. Although predicted somewhat less powerful. But still, a scary thought. And what is the scariest, but also most positive, is the fact that you know it's coming. For more than a week we tracked the low pressure area across the pacific, watched it how it grew in strength to tropical depression, tropical storm, tropical Typhoon. We watched Philippine and international forecast agencies predicting it's strength and path. And timing.
What do you do if you know a massive and deadly storm will find you Sunday evening? What would you do, knowing this, but also knowing that you are on an island less than a quarter the size of the coming cyclone?

As it happened there was a lot to do. Being a volunteer in Disaster Management sure is a good job when disaster is predicted. First of all it was important to be HERE. There was an option to evacuate to Manila. But I wanted to stay. So the next question arises - am I wanted here? Definitely yes was the answer of my office mates. So I decidedly opted out of the evacuation option and was met with a surprising understanding and goodwill from our Manila management team. It was a relief because I knew that I really wanted to stay, absolutely wanted to. And there are many possible answers to the issue if management had insisted on evacuation.
Why did I want to stay here so badly? It was the strong feeling that Kalibo is my community now. It's not just a strong urge to support your own community but also the reverse - I did have the local knowledge here. And the support. In Kalibo I knew which places were safe enough to survive Yolanda, the strongest ever Typhoon. I knew people. I knew my presence here would be useful and got that confirmed by my office mates. I knew I would be in the office during the Typhoon which is a strong enough building to withstand any storm. I knew the behavior of the river and likely flood scenarios. I would be monitoring the river very closely. In Kalibo I felt safe.
In Manila I would have had nothing. Not knowing the place. No friends there. Nothing to do. And the suspicion that once I was evacuated so close to my assignment end date, it would have been unlikely I would ever return to a potential disaster zone Kalibo. And the knowledge that my friends in Kalibo were in trouble. No, I sure as hell did not want that.

So Sunday night was the date...

We started preparing early in the office and at home. I packed up most of my things. Left a big backpack full of essential items upstairs in the office of the Seals volunteers. Some clothes, some money, copies of documents. Some food too, and batteries. Another backpack with the most essential items would be in the Provincial Disaster Management office where I was. Those were some more clothes, money and document copies. But also the satellite phone I was provided with by the Australian Red Cross. And it's charger. Also a flashlight and lots of batteries. We knew after Yolanda Kalibo had no power for over one month! I would also make sure the very most essential of things would be on me, on person, in my pocket at all times. Just in case. Wrapped in a plastic bag was my passport, my credit card sufficient money to live for a while.
Everything else I left at my home, wrapped in black garbage bags and elevated from the floor. Although my room is on the second floor, I did not trust the roof. It's only made of palm leaves and even though it did not blow off during Yolanda it looked fragile. So off I went to the office, unsure when I would return home and which state 'home' would be in by then.
We spent Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday in the office. Full time. Conducting meetings with the Provincial Government, with the Mayors of all the towns in Aklan, meetings with the Incident Command Team to manage everything from evacuations to road clearing operations to relief goods. All the while monitoring the biggest international forecasting agencies, studying their trackmaps for Ruby, studying their predicted strength of the Typhoon, studying their predicted arrival date. Those were busy days. And there was not much sleep. Apart from Sunday night I went home for sleeping as my home is literally just across the road from the office. Temporarily moving the filled garbage bags from my bad for a few hours of uneasy sleep. Sunday night I stayed with everyone else in the office to monitor the water levels in the river. And Sunday night was when Ruby came closest to us. By then I still wasn't sure what to expect. But it was raining increasingly during the day on Sunday. The wind became stronger. Evacuees started arriving in our evacuation centre. Our car park was filled with vehicles. Army vehicles bringing soldiers to stay in the evacuation centre on standby. There were at least three big dump trucks of the provincial government on standby, used to carry goods but most of all evacuees from the low lying riverbank to the evacuation centre. There were 2 ambulances parked and on standby. Plus a varying number of Police vehicles. All ready for action. At all times our office was full of people. Talking in a foreign language I didn't understand. Planning. Hasting things. With all the army around you would expect a major coup happening soon. But no, it all came otherwise.
People saw Ruby as a prayer contest. As the forecast models started showing it tracking further and further north, away from us and towards the capital Manila they said that people in Aklan pray stronger than people in Manila and that this is why Ruby is pushed north. Whatever the reason, Ruby spared us and this started to become clear on Sunday afternoon. Although the uncertainty was still there. And the potential for big flooding. But as Ruby passed us on Sunday night / Monday morning 2am we were hit by a lot of rain, pushed at 45 degree angles by the strong wind. The water levels in the river went up but stayed well below critical levels for flooding. Monday morning the darkness went away and was replaced by a dark sky and rain. By Monday noon the rain had stopped. By Tuesday the sun was shining.
Ruby did cost lives. Almost 30. But not here in Aklan. A first damage assessment came up with only damage to agricultural entities and to one sea wall. What that meant became clear when I finally went on a motorbike ride around Kalibo that Tuesday. Especially along the Aklan River half of all banana trees were down. But no damage to houses.
Ruby was a big scare whose bubble burst very quickly. But how would anyone know. And that is the greatest success, the biggest lessons learned from previous disasters. The local governments, Provincial and Municipal, did an outstanding job preparing. Almost 80000 people in Aklan got evacuated. Essential machinery was placed at strategic locations where most likely problems could occur such as landslides, road wash-offs etc. The government was on 24hr standby, including the Governor himself who was frequently visiting the office and evacuation centre, who participated in our meetings and contributed, knowledgeably and informed to the preparation effort. You can see that people understand disaster here and although resources are limited, they are used wisely based on lessons learned from times past.
When I went back home on Monday my home was under a few cm of water. Although all windows and doors were closed and the roof survived undamaged, the strong winds of Ruby had pushed the rain through the small gaps under the door. A few minutes brushing the water out and mopping the room was all of my recovery effort needed.

Typhoon Hagupit / Ruby moving towards our small island

The first planning meeting of the Incident Command Team in our Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office in Kalibo

Our carpark outside started filling up with vehicles on standby. The big dump trucks were used to carry evacuees to the evacuation centres. Literally by the truck load.

The Incident Command Team meeting on Sunday, just hours before Typhoon Ruby reached us. It now attracted lots more participants into our small office.

Our Admin Angels working into the night

My boss giving a TV interview just outside our office.

Inside the evacuation centre at our office. It's a big basketball stadium. People started trickling it by that time.

Sunday evening before it got dark. A picture just outside our office. The rain had started and the wind picked up considerately. However, there would be another 8 hours before Typhoon Ruby reached it's position closest to us during the darkness of the night.

The day after. The main damage here in the Province of Aklan was done to Banana crops.

The remainder of December has passed in a total different mood. Not just that it was the main holiday period of Christmas and New Years. But also because it was a real holiday for me.

Almost from the day I bought my motorcycle back in March, Jayfree and me were talking about doing a motorbike tour in December. As time flew past, December came ever closer and finally it was time. Time to go. And we went. After finishing up all the Christmas Parties one afternoon we strung our bags to my little motorbike. And Jayfree and me took off. We had two weeks to explore the Philippine's main island of Luzon. It will be the first time to do this tourist trip not just for me but also for my brave back rider.

Our plan was only to go up North, to the famous World Heritage listed rice terraces of Ifigao Province. And to catch all the highlights along the way. Two weeks of freedom. The following pictures show the highlights of the trip:

Along the way, near the town of Tagaytay we found a castle!

Beautiful lake Taal. This lake is actually a volcanic crater of an ancient eruption of the Taal Volcano. The volcano is still active, it is now an island in it's own crater lake. An island continuously growing with the ongoing volcanic activity.

The Philippine Eagle, a symbol of the state

We rode this car to the trail head for the Mt Pinatubo climb. The two ladies on the left were our hiking partners for the day.

Riding a 4WD to the trail took us through amazing volcanic landscapes.

Mt Pinatubo spectacularly erupted in 1991. It is considered the second largest explosion on our planet in the 20th century. The debris, mostly lahar and ash, covered the surrounding landscape and even 23 years later deliveres an awesome scenery. The 'mountains' in the background of this photo are not mountains but just heaps of ash eroded over the years.

The route of the 4WD track and later the hiking trail follows a small river. It was this river that eroded it's way through the plateau of deposited ash, leaving behind almost vertical walls of soft crumbly white volcanic ash.

The ash walls getting higher the closer you get to the volcano's crater. Underneath it are buried the villages, forests and infrastructure of the people who once lived here. Fortunately mass evacuations saved most of the people just in time.

Mt Pinatubo is still active today as can be seen by the sulphuric springs ejecting yellow water.

Up at the crater you can see not so much ash any more but an exploded landscape of volcanic rock. Mt Pinatubo lost 260m of it's height in the explosion.

Jayfree and me, happy to have completed the hike to the summit

Today's crater lake of Mt Pinatubo

On the way back we traversed more ash covered riverbeds. The walls of lahar either side here would be around 50m high.

Dinner after the hike - barbecued chicken feet and vinegar dip.

Baguio City is considered the summer capital of the Philippines. High up in the mountains the climate here is cool all year round. So often the government resides here during the hottest months in the year. This picture shows the major shopping centre in Baguio.

In fact the climate around Baguio is so cool that the area is famous for strawberry fields.

Northern Luzon Island is awesome for motorbike riding. The roads wind their way up the mountains beyond the 2000m mark. Quite often steeply enough to conquer it in first or second gear only. But even a small 125ccm with two heavy people and two large backpacks can make it up.

The small mountain town of Banaue is famous for World Heritage listed 2000 year old rice terraces. Unfortunately during the two days that we spent there the everpresent fog did not allow a clear photo of the terraces. However, in between the clouds we got a good idea of their immense scale.

Some other, much smaller rice terraces could be found along the route. The fog mainly stayed on the Banaue side of the mountains so the valleys to the west were beautifully sunny and clear.

It was so very cold. Going up to the coldest Latitudes in the Philippines. Up beyond 2000m elevation. During the coldest season. You can imagine...

The small town of Sagada features historic hanging coffins. In the old times people did not get buried but just hung up a cliff wall. Like in this picture.

It was New Years Eve when we were in Sagada. It was so cold. So we stayed indoors until the celebrations started outside. Eating nice fresh fruit from the market. NYE ccelebrations were held around countless  log fires.

Up on top of the world - the Mountain Province

Back in the area of Baguio. You can see in the back of the picture that we still were above the clouds.

A whole different picture presented itself to us in Manila. The Mall of Asia is the largest shopping mall in Asia. Featuring an ice skating rink in the tropics.

In Manila

Manila is different. Different to the rest of the country. 12 Million people live here, 25 Million including the surrounding areas. It's modern, fast, high rise, noisy. And quite a challenge to ride through on a small motorbike. But it also features all the western amenities. Cinemas, shopping malls, tourist attractions, a long and rich history. Jayfree's sister lives here. So we spent two days relaxing in the capital...

...enjoying tourist Attractions such as the Manila Ocean Park...

...or 3D movies.

The end of the trip, a RoRo ferry back to our own island.

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(c) 2014    marco hoffmann