It’s understandable that in a country of over 7 thousand islands Filipinos in the capital city haven’t heard of many of the smaller ones. But Sibuyan Island seems like a different level of remoteness. Trying to find some information about the island I was assigned to before I was deployed, I went to a bookstore in the most well-known mall of Manila (which is a city built around malls and shopping): the mall of Asia. This mall is supposedly the 10th largest in the world, has an ice-skating rink, it has 6 movie theatres, and a ferris wheel. It also has the rare sight of a shiny (albeit small) bookstore, where I searched in vain for any information relating to Sibuyan Island. I asked the staff to look up Sibuyan by name in their database, and had to spell out the name for them, only to find that they had no materials listed. Even finding just a simple map was impossible, as the Romblon province is not a very high tourist destination therefore the bookstore had no provincial maps in stock.
During the two weeks of training I spent in Manila before going to my assigned site of Sibuyan, almost all the Filipinos I met asked me what I was doing in the Philippines. When I replied that I would be working for 9 months as a biologist on Sibuyan Island, every single Filipino I talked to then asked puzzledly “where is Sibuyan Island?”.
So given the lack of forewarning of previous typhoons, and the remote nature of Sibuyan Island; it was an absolute shock to see the small Sibuyan Island’s name listed on the national news agency as directly in Ruby’s path 24 hours before the super typhoon was expected to landfall on my island.
About 48 hours before Typhoon Ruby (local name: Hagupit) reached the Philippine Area of Jurisdiction, it was already all over the news. Despite the 17 typhoons that had already hit the besieged country this year (which has a pending volcanic eruption to boot), Ruby gained attention because it was predicted to be a “super typhoon”, and make initial landfall over the same area that the last super typhoon hit – Typhoon Yolanda which left over 6 thousand dead and a large wake of destruction in its path.
Having spent 4 months living in the Philippines, at first Ruby took on the same abstract meaning as the previous 17 typhoons that hit the Philippines during my time here. That is to say, I barely noticed it. Living in a protected area office at the edge of the forest, on a small isolated island that is just one of the 7 thousand plus that comprise the Philippines means that quite a few national and of course global events pass by without notice. It took an email from the United States to inform me that a ferry sunk not far from where I was in the central Philippines. Or that a massive earthquake rocked Indonesia, with tsunami implications for Filipinos in the outer islands.
Previous typhoons I only heard about from locals as the storms were dumping rain over me. One day a few months ago I commented on the nasty weather as I headed back from some fieldwork on the other side of Sibuyan Island, and I was informed by my coworker that the rain stinging our faces was actually Typhoon Mario. Of course being that the park office where I lived had no newspaper, no internet, and a few television channels available only in Tagalog, a language I do not understand or speak; I didn’t know of Mario until he was (lightly) hitting me.
Ruby was different, in that even a few days before landfall it was the talk of the small town near the protected area where I go several times a week to purchase food and supplies. Although the Philippine Islands receive on average about 20 – 30 typhoons per year, a super typhoon does not come along every day. And so like news in any small town, Typhoon Ruby was on the lips of the women in the marketplace, the men trudging to work, and generally brought up in normal everyday conversation, discussed by those just trying to chat and pass the time, which is pretty much everybody in Sibuyan. A few days before landfall the Peace Corps activated their emergency response plan, which called for all 160 Peace Corps Volunteers to consolidate in designated “safe areas” … except for myself and the other volunteer on Sibuyan, we were told to stay put instead of meeting up with the rest of the volunteers in the provincial capital.
The projected path of the typhoon varied according to which model you consulted. The European model said one thing, the national Filipino agency PAGASA said another. But either way the typhoon was expected to pass through the province I live in – Romblon, which is one of the most remote and poorest provinces in the Philippines.
The instant I saw that Sibuyan was directly in Ruby’s path, the super-typhoon ceased to be an abstract object and became imminently real and threatening. I canceled a planned trip to the other side of the island to a town fiesta that I had been invited to. I went back to the town market for the third time in three days to get a few more days supply of food. I kept everything plugged in and charged for the inevitable power outage.
The protected area office was designated as the local evacuation center, and so over 24 hour before the expected landfall in Sibuyan a few families had already arrived. They were neighbors that I knew, who live crammed into very simple wooden shacks perched at the edge of their rice fields. I doubted their houses could even withstand a normal typhoon, let alone an extreme one centered on Sibuyan.
As more families evacuated to our shelter, reports showed Ruby slowing down and it’s expected landfall time in Sibuyan kept getting pushed back from initially Saturday morning, to Saturday night, to Sunday morning then Sunday night and finally early Monday morning.
This meant lots of waiting. The people passed the time cooking the coffee and large sack of rice that the local government dropped off for evacuees, chatting, and sleeping. I was a little more bored and less sanguine about the whole affair. I walked back and forth through the rain between the Visitor’s Center where the evacuees were and the house I was staying in with a few other park employees. Twice I biked through the rain and wind to the coast in order to see how high the waves and storm surge were. But mostly we just sat around, “like waiting to be punched” as one of my coworkers described it. Rebecca, a forester at the park office who had woken up at 3:30 am to cook food to bring to the evacuation center for herself and her children, commented that this was the first time she had ever been evacuated.
In the end, we were lucky as cooler monsoon winds from the northwest weakened and pushed Typhoon Ruby north of Sibuyan where it was downgraded to a tropical storm. We received about 36 hours of constant rain, and some wind gusts but the storm was weaker than some previous ones I had already experienced here. By 7:30 am almost all of the estimated 50 evacuees who spent the night at the protected area office had already left to return to their homes. By the afternoon the power was back on and the road to town was passable, and aside from a few fallen trees there was no evidence of any damage aside from a little flooding in the low-lying areas. When we went to town to get some fresh food, the people of Sibuyan Island were saying goodbye to family and friends who stayed over for the typhoon, cleaning their houses, laboring in their rice fields, sweeping fallen branches and leaves from the road, cooking hot meals, and continuing on with their lives.