Lessons from Yolanda: Saved by a dark cave, sustained by light

SEEING THE LIGHT Solar scholars show how a TekPak would have lighted up their dark refuge.

SEEING THE LIGHT Solar scholars show how a TekPak would have lighted up their dark refuge.

With one of its rock faces turned to Marabut town in Samar, Tinabanan Cave serves as a prominent landmark among locals on the narrow road connecting their coastal village to the highway. The cave mouth is modest, some 2.43 meters (8 feet) in height. Inside, two caverns the size of ballrooms reveal themselves, the packed dirt floor leading to several tributaries that time had hollowed out in the dark.

Once an ancient sanctuary against raiders and colonizers, the cave became an emergency refuge that saved the townfolk from the storm surges of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan). Outside the cave on that howling morning of Nov. 8, 2013, the strongest typhoon to hit land so far engulfed the entire coastal community.

Suzette Bagonas, 42, and Lorna Ortillo, 60, officers of a local women’s group, mobilized their members to urge neighbors to leave their homes beside the sea following warnings from news reports and the local government.

Recalled Ortillo: “We didn’t have an evacuation center but we knew where to go.”  Most of the townsfolk sought shelter in the five caves scattered all over Marabut’s hills.

The cave where 1,176 residents took shelter is as high as a three-story building. To reach it, the townfolk had to clamber up 10 meters of clayish soil and limestone boulders, many of them carrying clothes, food, portable radio units and battery-operated flashlights.

Zero communication

As the rain intensified, mobile signals and radio frequencies eventually died.

“There was zero communication,” Ortillo said, recalling the moment when they were unaware of anything beyond the cave. They also had to do  everything within the safety of their enclosed shelter, including the call of nature. “The stench here was really bad,” Bagonas recounted, giggling and pointing to the corners that served as improvised toilets for the townfolk.

When they climbed down the cave the next day, they saw the nearby sitio wiped out, with only two concrete structures left standing. According to a report by the local government, all of Marabut’s 15,946 houses were destroyed,

“All (of our stored rice) were submerged and became like porridge when we attempted to cook it,” Ortillo said. “We had money but we had nothing to eat, a painful lesson on food security we won’t soon forget.”   Most locals survived on coconut meat and coconut water for days before relief goods arrived, she added.

“Did we ever feel that we were powerless?” Ortillo asked. “Of course we did! There was no electricity!” The Samar grid was crippled, and the whole town grappled with darkness.  Although the community did disaster-planning meticulously, they had overlooked its energy needs during emergencies, she said.

EVACUATION DRILL Marabut folk carry Tekpak units as they clamber up Tinabanan cave.

EVACUATION DRILL Marabut folk carry Tekpak units as they clamber up Tinabanan cave.


“Someone brought a generator, and there were rechargeable flashlights,” Ortillo recalled, adding that although gas lamps were also used, they made the situation inside the cramped and enclosed cave even more uncomfortable.

Advocates of renewable energy have noted that energy needs are a constant oversight during emergency situations, with communities going back to options that contribute to massive weather disruptions which spawn the likes of Yolanda.

Portable solar-powered electricity has therefore been proposed to be an integral component in disaster-preparedness programs and humanitarian work.

Said Arturo Tahup, project coordinator for the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC): “Using solar technology ensures that lighting (our homes), charging our phones as well as medical and rescue equipment can be done without relying on dirty fuel.”

Ortillo and Bagonas are two of the hundreds of Yolanda survivors that ICSC trained as “Solar Scholars,” residents who can serve as first responders during disasters by using TekPak, a portable solar-powered pack that can power bulbs, mobile devices and other community needs.

As solar scholars, Ortillo and Bagonas learn basic electricity and electronics—how to harness the power of the sun and the photovoltaic system. Their new skills also include knowing how to compute and assess the power needs and energy consumption of the community.

They learn as well how to operate TekPak in a hands-on simulation exercise like the community evacuation drill recently done inside the big cave in Tinabanan. A single TekPak costs P30,000 including labor and spare parts which are locally available, making the solar-powered suitcase easily serviceable.

Marabut town has since made solar-powered evacuation drills routine to make sure that the community is properly equipped in future emergencies.

“What we need is for people to have the capacity to rise from the ruins of Yolanda. By using clean energy, they address the causes of these disasters,” Tahup said. —WFS WOMENWRITINGWOMEN

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