The Tagbanuas are considered one of the oldest tribes in the Philippines. Mainly found in northern and central Palawan, the dark-skinned Tagbanuas are possible descendants of the Tabon Man, one of the earliest humans recorded in the Philippines.
The Tagbanuas are a simple, yet fiercely independent lot. They were never conquered by the Spanish, and the establishment of a Leper Colony in Culion during the American regime would only serve to isolate the island’s native inhabitants all the more. It was only after the intense evangelization efforts of foreign missionaries in the early 60s that development would start to set in for the Tagbanuas of Culion.
The leper colony would later be phased out with the onset of advanced treatment methods. This, coupled with the discovery of Coron as a prime tourist spot, would lead to the gradual development of the island of Culion. While the primary source of income remain with fishing and farming, the tourist trade has provided numerous opportunities for handicrafts and other modern production lines. Life was only starting to literally light up for Brgy De Carabao in southern Culion, with electricity finally reaching the the barangay in 2012.
Until Super Typhoon Yolanda hit the island with all its ferocity in November of 2013.
When Yolanda threatened to hit the country, alarm bells were sounded and authorities warned how strong this storm was going to be. Everyone was told to prepare accordingly. In Brgy De Carabao, Kapitana Malyn Credo would busy herself disseminating to people to prepare for the storm. This meant suspending classes, getting all the kids home, keeping all homes secure and strong, trimming down trees that were near homes, preparing additional provisions for any emergency, and preparing designated evacuation centers such as the elementary and high schools and the Health Center.
Leni Rodriguez hastened to ensure that her husband, Ronel, would not go out to sea to look for sea cucumbers. With 6 children, she worried that their small house would not be able to withstand the strong winds expected. Hence, they decided to vacate their home and seek shelter in her mother’s place.
Sixty-seven year old Pedro Fabian had a sturdy-looking house right beside the Brgy Health Center. Thrice married, Tatay Pedro ushered his 3rd wife to go and check on one of their sons in another sitio. But because he wanted to secure his crops in the farm in Sitio Nalbog, he decided to stay instead in his small temporary-type farm hut in the distant sitio.
Lilibeth Frias, with her 4 cheerful kids and husband Rudiato, decided to stay home. The two hastened to secure their small sari-sari store and discussed whether to proceed to the designated evacuation centers. She figured that with the school just right across the street, she could easily move there, should the need arise. She was more concerned for her store and her small home.
That fateful evening of November 8, Super Storm Yolanda hit land and proceeded to pummel Culion Island. When the strong wind started howling through, Lilibeth had a change of heart. Sensing that this storm would be far stronger than the previous storms that have hit them, she and her family hurried off to the Elementary School where many more families were already huddled. By 8 pm, there was a lull in the storm. Lilibeth transferred to another room together with other evacuees as their room had sustained broken glass windows and a damaged ceiling. She took a quick look at her home and saw that her home was still okay.
Leni also took advantage of the lull by bringing her family to the Health Center, taking along the mother with her. Though now overcrowded with 8 other families, Leni felt that the concrete Health Center was the best place to keep her family safe.
Tatay Pedro was less fortunate. At the very first strike of the wind, his small ‘payag’ had immediately collapsed. Luckily, there were no heavy stuff in the hut that could hurt him. With debris flying in all directions, he took refuge behind a big kasuy tree. When the storm died down, Tatay Pedro thought of taking the long walk back to the barangay. He was still thinking about it when the second half of the storm came bawling through at around 9 pm.
Lilibeth and her family prayed as the storm lashed hard on the classroom. One classroom eventually collapsed, while the roofs of some other rooms would be blown off. Over at the Health Center, Leni watched in horror as Tatay Pedro’s big house collapsed with a loud creaking sound. She wondered if Tatay Pedro was inside the house and just prayed that he wasn’t.
Fortunately, Tatay Pedro was not in the house, though he was all cold and wet at that time, taking cover under the kasuy tree. He would stay there, cowering in fear for the next few hours until the break of day.
The following day, they all came out of their respective shelters to survey the damage. Everywhere, there were fallen trees, broken electric posts, and collapsed houses. There was no electricity, and this would only get repaired after another 6 months. The road from Culion proper to Brgy De Carabao was damaged by erosion. De Carabao was now isolated, with no news from outside. That road would remain closed until its repair in January 2016. There would be no vehicular traffic in the barrio for the next 2-plus years. Fortunately, their source of water remained intact.
When Tatay Pedro arrived in the Barangay, there was nothing for him to come home to. His big wooden house had been totally ruined by the storm. Lilibeth returned to a house that was dangerously tilted in one direction, the roof gone, and their belongings scattered all over. When Leni went home, she found only the 4 posts remaining. The roof as well as the sides were all gone. Everywhere, there was massive evidence of the destruction caused by Yolanda.
For all three, as well as for the thousands of other victims in Culion, there was no other way but to start all over again. With no news from the outside world, they were left to fend for themselves for the first few days. But the Tagbanuas being the resilient people that they are, this difficult life was not a problem. They were ready to move on.
Indeed, for the first few months, very little support would reach Culion and Brgy De Carabao. Leni would convert her dirty kitchen to be the family’s temporary shelter. Lilibeth would use jacks to right her tilting home. Tatay Pedro would build a small temporary shelter on his lot. Life would go on, with or without anyone’s help.
One day, a Habitat representative came to inquire if they needed housing support. At first, they listened in guarded silence. They recalled how they had been promised shelter support so many times before, only to be left frustrated. This time though, there was Ermin Palao and the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) constantly egging the Provincial government, and the dynamic Barangay Captain herself, Malyn Credo, religiously following up the requirements sent her way. A few months after, an admin and technical group was sent to do an ocular on the barangay. Things were getting more encouraging now.
Last December 2015, they were gifted with a wonderful Christmas present. Habitat, with its partner 7-Eleven Philippines, would start construction of 160 housing units for the Tagbanuas of Brgy De Carabao. Two 2-room classrooms have also been packaged in the program. Coca-Cola Philippines has also checked in by promising to provide safe and clean water access thru a water reservoir project. The municipal LGU, seeing the surge of support, started repairing the road to the isolated barangay. Indeed, help for the Tagbanuas has finally arrived.
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