Indigenous Groups Hard Hit by Typhoon Juan

Typhoon Damage in Philippines

Typhoon Juan tore walls and roofs apart in the village of Lenzon. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Martin Rico had talked to his house before. A member of the indigenous Ibanag group in the Philippines, he considers a home sacred—and worth speaking to. On October 18, he told it goodbye.

“I am sorry I cannot save you,” he said to the house he built himself. He had tried to bind wire around its wooden poles as Typhoon Juan struck, but it was no use; the winds were too powerful. “I have to go now.”

“I let it blow away.”

Martin ran to a neighbor’s concrete house, where he and his wife waited out the storm. Four days later, he stands on his 100 by 100-foot plot of land, surrounded by wreckage. Long nails stick out of the 5-inch-thick beams from his house. It’s hard to believe wind alone could tear such logs apart from each other.

Martin is not young—his seven children are grown—and it will be hard to rebuild, even if he had the money. His wife sits disconsolately near a pile of fallen branches and salvaged wood, remembering the food stores they lost. “I cried when I saw how the rice had spilled,” she says.

Martin is one of many indigenous peoples hard-hit by a storm that spared wealthier people’s property. Strongly-built homes, and even many shacks, made it through Typhoon Juan (called Megi abroad) with some roof sheeting gone or windows broken. The poorest people, lacking good material for the foundation and other parts of their homes, fared worst.

Sylvestra de los Santos, a native Ilocano, also watched her family member’s thatch house blow down. Taking shelter in a concrete house a few steps away, the 87-year-old woman experienced a storm like only one she’d known before.  Typhoon Juan “sounded like a grenade going off on the roof,” she says, “but I was not afraid. I talked to God. I said, ‘If this is the end of the world, so be it.’”

Near the wind-razed thatch house, most of the fallen tree branches look ripped and ragged-edged, but some standing trees look like they’ve been cut by a chainsaw. They’re all bare as winter trees—except there is no winter in this warm region, Isabela, on the island of Luzon. People who live here are used to seeing green trees all year long.

Kids play on uprooted trees as Sylvestra talks more about the storm. She and her relatives—including Josefa, mother of twelve—are now crowded into the 25×15-foot concrete house.

Most of the indigenous people are farm laborers, working in other people’s rice and corn fields for $2.50 a day, or paying rent to landowners to till the soil. They borrow from moneylenders to buy what they need at the beginning of a growing season, hoping they will make a good crop and can pay back the high interest. The typhoon flattened some rice fields, soaking the grains, and broke banana trees in half. Many palm trees withstood the wind—and miraculously, their coconuts held on too. But unripe grapefruit litter the ground. Father Herman Bugati, parish priest in Martin Rico’s village of San Bonifacio, says that farmers will be able to realize only a fraction of the money they had hoped for.

Catholic Relief Services teams are traveling through villages like Martin’s to see what housing supplies are most needed. With construction materials, farmers won’t have to dig themselves deeper in debt to build livable spaces. And those who hold houses sacred will once again have a home to talk to.

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