by Denise O'Leary

December 20, 2016. The Pacific

Hot mist rises from the hot ocean. Vapor condenses into a cloud. The wind creates a powerful, spinning mass heading straight toward the Philippines. Nina is born.

December 20, 2016. Pasacao, Philippines, early morning

The fishers line the shoreline of Pasacao. With flashlights and nets, they wade quietly in the low tide as they wait for the fish to swim near. Their nets sway in the wind. Low waves brush their calves. Nearby, the market vendors set up tents in silence, sandals clacking against the dirt road of the marketplace. Rows upon rows of fresh, green coconuts and spiky durian line the walkway. Women carry large, colorful baskets filled with rice and mangoes and rambutan. The baskets creak with the weight of fruit.

As the sun rises, roosters crow and the market comes to life. Residents of Pasacao try to get to the market as early as possible so that they can get the best produce available. Lolas and their children walk and padyak to the market with their straw bags. Today everyone shops for Christmas dinner.    

My sister, Ate Sheryll, walks with her children to the market. They will buy rice, banana leaves, garlic, peanuts, and a pig to roast on Christmas Eve. Every year, after midnight Mass, the Prado family roasts a pig to share with neighbors.  

December 22, 2016. The Philippines, typhoon warning


The storm surge is predicted to produce waves up to three meters in height. Thousands of people are evacuated from the coastal regions in Camarines Sur.

Pasacao is one of many villages advised to evacuate. No one wants to go. Everyone is afraid their homes will be destroyed. In 2013, Typhoon Yolanda displaced 3.9 million people from their homes. Most of the homes in Pasacao are built of wooden beams, straw, cement, and salvaged metals. Everyone’s homes will surely wash away. If they evacuate, everyone fears they are leaving lives behind. 

Tita Gemma does not want to leave. She owns one of the stands at the market. Her husband, Tito Jun, fishes, and Gemma sells what Jun catches. Jun is one of the only people in Pasacao with a boat large and strong enough to hold several pounds of fish. 

When the evacuation notice is issued, Jun decides to take their children to Naga City – to the closest evacuation center, inland from the coast, but he will return home. “I need to stay in Pasacao. I cannot afford to go to Naga – I need to make money for my family.” 

Gemma’s family is one of the wealthier families in Pasacao, but they still have to struggle to pay to get everyone in a jeepney to Naga. Most of the villagers can barely afford to evacuate. Prioritizing escaping over going hungry is a difficult decision. Few have the money to travel.

Christmas, 2016. The Pacific 

Typhoon Nina approaches the Philippines with winds over 180 miles per hour. Heavy rains crash into the shorelines and the inland roads of the Philippine Islands. Nina hits Camarines Sur first, as predicted. Luckily, Nina weakens as it travels over the islands and does not hit Manila full force.

Christmas, 2016. Post-Typhoon, Pasacao

Powerful waves crash along the now-submerged wooden marina. The streets are empty of people and everything is grey. Fishers do not swat at the flies that prey on their fresh catch. Green coconuts do not line the market. Broken padyaks are chained to fallen phone poles and fences all around the village. 

Everything in sight is deep in a viscous sludge. Ocean water floods almost every home on the coast and deep into the village. The frail houses on the very edge of the coast have washed away. Only the cement homes still stand. There are fallen trees across roads, and leaves blowing in the air. Street dogs bark incessantly. Fishing boats are washed up miles away from the shore. 

Gemma says that many villagers stayed in Pasacao. She and her neighbors go to the Saint Rose of Lima Church to pray and seek shelter from the ongoing winds and rainfall. “We wait inside forever. The babies cry because they are scared. We all pray to the Mother to protect us. We sing hymns.” Gemma is sad because this is the first Christmas that she will spend away from her family.

Christmas Evening, 2016. The United States    

I sit on my grandmother’s couch, now watching news coverage of the typhoon that has hit the Philippines. I have family there, but I did not even know there had been typhoon warnings. 

I didn’t know thousands of people had to be evacuated. I don’t know if my family is safe. I could have wired my family money to get out of Pasacao. I could even have paid to fly them out of the country. If flights had been available.

It is difficult to contact my family. No one has power in Camarines Sur. All I can see is the destruction that this typhoon has left – images of fallen trees and young kids walking barefoot in the heavy rains, in the sweeping mud. I feel helpless. I don’t know what to do from this other side of the planet.

New Year’s Day, 2017. Pasacao

“Denise, we survive.” Ate Sheryll is alive on Facebook. “We are in Naga City. We are with your Tita Gi and we are eating dinner. No lechon though.” 

Sheryll tells me stories of other villagers in Pasacao. There is no happiness, she says. Christmas is one of the largest celebrations in the Philippines, and many cannot celebrate the birth of the savior. “We are planning,” she says. “We will make a huge Three Kings celebration once we are back.” I can hear the strength in her voice. “There will be lechon and goat!” 


The Philippines experiences many typhoons during the rainy season, but SuperTyphoon Nina, Category 4 Nina was abnormal. It occurred very late in the season, when no one was prepared. The Philippines has developed systems to protect thousands of people, agriculture, and businesses from typhoons. When SuperTyphoon Yolanda hit in 2013, over 6,000 people died and more than 27,000 people were injured. The Philippines, despite major preparations over decades was not prepared to handle the damage these storms can do – or the loss of life they bring. The increasing ocean temperatures – the result of climate change – are increasing the frequency and the unpredictability of these storms. PAGASA alone (Tagalog for “hope”) cannot save everyone.

I still feel this incredible guilt for not being able to help my family evacuate Pasacao. I cannot replace the family time and money and lives they lost that Christmas. And I cannot fix the damaged homes of thousands of people.

My sister tells me the priest held a vigil for all of the houses that went into the ocean. The vigils around the village and in the United States are measured by the candles lighting the dark. People prayed in cramped rooms. Filipino parishes in the United States raised money to help their families in Camarines Sur. My mother sends money to my sister. 

If Nina had hit New York, we would not have escaped. New York City has an evacuation plan that depends heavily on public transportation and access to televised warning systems. When hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, the subway system flooded. Road tunnels entering Manhattan, leaving Manhattan were blocked by water. People around the city, even in Manhattan and Queens, had no power for days. The New York Stock Exchange closed. 

There had been no mandatory evacuation order. New York City, a world capital, cannot easily or inclusively implement evacuation protocols for the millions of people who live so close to the ocean – or even provide timely inclusive post-hurricane aid. The only thing bringing people together in the Northeast after Sandy was sympathy for victims. The communities in New York are diverse and separate, as they are in most of the United States. They do not compare to the unified empathy of community that seems endemic in the Philippines. 

I have not been to the Philippines in almost a decade. But I know what was lost. And I know what can be rebuilt. I cannot visualize the beautiful village of Pasacao without the lively marketplace or the small, straw houses on the coast. Even from here, I can hear people on the roofs, thatching.