The Day That Changed It All: Sendong

Dawn of 17th of December 2011. That was ten years ago. I fell asleep around 1 o'clock in the morning after a five-hour bus travel from my hometown Butuan to the island metropolis of Cagayan de Oro. It was an unusual travel. Roads were blocked by gushing waters, falling trees and long queues of vehicles going to the city. I was not so alarmed because weather disturbance was not uncommon. The intensity is well-quite expected, but it has been raining continuously for hours.

The day before I had last lecture in the university before the Christmas vacation. It was raining, and a little bit cold. Nothing unusual. In the middle of my morning lecture, I received a text message. There was a change of plans. I will sleep on a hotel near the city center instead of the hotel nearby the river. I guess they decided it to be that way, because I was expected to arrive around midnight. Just like before I had a full day of lecture until 5 pm, then I take the first bus I get.

That simple change of plan saved my life. The room where I was supposed to sleep was flooded first. On nearby rooms, in the morning, they found dead hotel employees, trapped and drowned in their rooms. I should have ended in the same fate.

Witnesses of the flood are my students who are expected to take the Nursing licensure on the 18th. I was there to give moral support on those exam dates, while I was invited to give a lecture discussion on pharmacology on the 17th. I always had a hectic December, joggling two jobs at the same time. Never did I realize, that both I and my students needed to support each other. Personally, I consider these group of students special. Some of them were my first students, and I guess most of them know me as a lecturer on both educational institutions I was working with.

Typhoon Sendong struck. One of the deadliest, not necessarily one of the strongest typhoons. My lecture on the 17th was cancelled. More than 1000 individuals died in the middle of the night. All of my students were all accounted for. Some almost died. All of them went through a traumatic experience. I was spared. I was thankful I did not go through such experience. However, I somehow felt the guilt of not being there. But deep inside me, I knew if I was there, I should have died. I had no chance at all, like those hotel employees sleeping on the rooms adjacent to be my supposed death bed.

Chaos. Fear. Anxiety. Uncertainty. Loss. All of these words characterized 17th of December. In my mind, how could I ever help them? Nothing could ever appease them. How could I give them support? Literally they had nothing. Worse, they will take one of the most important exam in their life - the Nursing Licensure Exam. It is supposed to be a life-changer. They prepared for this for months, and now just threatened by a deadly typhoon. At that time, the only thing I thought was them. I can not contact my family either. I had only myself and them. I showed support to the last peso and energy I had. I knew then it was not enough. I had my limitations as a 24-year old. That time, I felt sorry for myself for I could only do little. Quite insignificant.

Well, that experience was not about me. It was them. I felt I was just an expectator. I was there from the time I saw them being unloaded from a truck to the time they ended their 10-hour marathon exam. I really felt sorry for them. I tried everything I could to lift their spirit, but I knew I could not just stop them from thinking of what has just happened, and ofcourse, of the outcome of the exam. 

I went home. Exhausted, mentally, spiritually and physically. I had nothing left for Christmas celebration. I spent almost everything, but I did not regret that. I just need to explain everything to my parents. I sat down with them after I arrived. I cried infront of my parents. I had a breakdown. I questioned them about how unfair life is. I questioned why some religious figures acted as if faith is only for the few they selected. I hated the play of power, money and influence in the middle of that situation. Everyone were positioning like gods right before my eyes. I can not believe what I saw, heard and witnessed.

Everything changed after that. I started exploring new employment opportunities thereafter, not being dependent to one or two. I started living, not just working. I realized life has so much to offer than those safe choices presented to us. I was still afraid of authorities playing on money, power and influence, but I learned to fight back. I guess, that was the push I needed to agree with the plan of me being sent abroad in search of greeener pastures. I dared to take more risks from that time on. My life changed tremendously since then.

Yes, ten years have passed. I woke up today, 17th of December in the year 2021 of another news of another strong typhoon hitting my hometown - Typhoon Odette. Many have lost their loved ones, homes and belongings. Honestly, it brought some tragic memories of Sendong. But I stayed calm, even there were hours I was not able to contact my family. I knew the reasons. I was once in that situation, but now, I am just sitting safely on my "new-found home" in Oslo. I felt the guilt of not being there, of not helping. I felt the guilt of no longer thinking of them - the people. Instead, I was just thinking of my family. Quite in contrast with my choice ten years ago.

Ten years have changed me. Sendong made me realize to live my life. Many of us should have died on that day, but we were spared. Why? - that is the question we can not fully get a sufficient answer. I cried then because life is unfair. Yes, ten years have passed but I can attest still that life is indeed unfair. Most of us can not do something against that. We are just insignificant. However, one thing is significant - us, ourselves. Not them. The greatest realization was I decided to just think of them, forgetting my primary task of living a life for myself.


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