Masaya pa kaming nagkakape noon.”It’s been eight years since Typhoon “Pablo” (international name: Bopha) hit Mindanao, but Jessa Fuentes, 22, still remembers her ordeal like it happened yesterday.
On that fateful morning of Dec. 4, 2012, Fuentes lost her entire family to Pablo, the strongest typhoon to ever hit the southern island.
At 5 a.m. that day, winds were already howling and heavy rains poured outside their home in New Bataan, Davao de Oro (then known as Compostela Valley).
Her family, who knew that a place like theirs had never been hit badly by flood, opted to wait until the rains subsided. Fuentes, then 12, decided to have coffee with them.
Little did she know that it would be the last time they were going to do so together.
An hour later, Fuentes heard screams from her neighbors amid the strong winds. “Likas na, malakas na ’yung sapa,” she recalled them shouting.
In panic, Fuentes’ parents told her to take her cousin Grace to the nearest evacuation center. She complied, even bringing her pet cat.
Fuentes let out a sigh of relief when she and Grace arrived at the barangay hall, confident that the building’s elevated location would protect them from Pablo’s raging floods.
But to everyone’s shock, the flood brought in rising waters and debris from their neighborhood’s destroyed houses, including Fuentes’ own. The debris was headed right in their direction.
“Nasaksihan ko rin kung paano inanod ng tubig ang mga tao. Humihingi sila ng tulong pero wala kaming magawa kasi pati kami nilalamon na rin ng tubig,” she recalled.
As the floodwater continued to rise, Fuentes held her cousin tight. But they were no match for the flood’s strong current. They were separated, and that would be the last time she ever saw Grace.
Fuentes felt numb. She couldn’t move her body as she was carried by the flood.
Within the next few hours, it was horror everywhere she looked: a swimming pig struggling for survival, dead dogs and a naked woman hysterically looking for her newborn baby missing in the floodwaters.
Fuentes’ uncle Rolando later heard the news of how Pablo wiped out his relatives in New Bataan. He took Fuentes in and brought her to his hometown in Ilocos, where she now lives.
Almost a decade on, Jessa is now graduating from the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) in Batac, Ilocos Norte, with a degree in environmental science. And it was her horrid experience of survival that inspired her to pursue the course.
“I want to be part of the protection and conservation of our Mother Earth because of what I experienced. I do not want the future generation to face the same disaster as I did,” she said in Ilocano, a language she learned since she moved north.
Her old home province of Davao de Oro has been traditionally known as “typhoon-free,” experts from the University of the Philippines’ National Institute of Geological Science found in a 2015 study.
Because this was common knowledge to Fuentes and her family, they never thought Pablo’s impact would be as deadly as it turned out to be.
Now having studied the environment further, Fuentes suspects that the abuse of her home province’s ecosystem was a factor behind Pablo’s extremely destructive wrath.
“Since New Bataan is surrounded by mountains and forests, people got involved in illegal logging and mining. I suspect that is the main reason our community was devastated by the typhoon. Since we were far from the city, these illegal activities were unregulated by the government,” she said.
Findings by an office of the United Nations involved with the recovery plan for Pablo victims seem to confirm her suspicions.
In 2013, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that Eastern Mindanao had “significant mining and logging activities” before Pablo hit the region, mainly due to the abundance of natural resources there.
“We should not abuse nature. When Mother Nature strikes, she does not respect anyone,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes has become an active green advocate.
As a member of MMSU’s Environmental Science Association, she has been actively joining tree-planting and coastal cleanup activities.
Her experience with Pablo has also cemented her plans after earning her degree. She said she plans to do volunteer work in campaigns against illegal logging and mining, as well as work for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
As of this writing, she is editing her thesis. Commencement exercises are slated soon, but there is still no definite date yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I believe God made me experience the disaster as a way of telling me that I should pursue my aspirations [for the environment] in Ilocos,” Fuentes said. —CONTRIBUTED INQ
The author, 20, is a student of Mariano Marcos State University. He is a fellow of Green Beat Islas, an online environmental journalism training program of Association of Young Environmental Journalists and the US Embassy.