By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
PinoyJourn’s 2015 year-end series, Log 1
(Note: In a succession of stories, this blog revisits major events and trends witnessed by this writer, all of which made 2015 a year for the books.)
BALER, AURORA–We were prepared for the worst.
Our news team in Baler had met the night before. Everyone had to know what we expected from the typhoon and from each other in those crucial first hours, and what to do if the unfortunate happened.
But what caught us all by surprise was the arrival of Typhoon Lando (internationally Koppu) 7 hours before the time weather bureau PAGASA first predicted it would reach land.
Our 3 news gathering teams would take their posts in different vantage points around Baler before the supposed landfall time of 8 a.m. We had agreed to be up as early as 3 a.m. that Sunday morning to give them time to leave our hotel.
Our technical team would stay the fort at our lodgings and make sure our means of broadcasting the aftermath to the world would survive the typhoon’s onslaught.
We heard the town would switch off power as early as 10:30 p.m., but most of us had already gone to sleep when the lights did go out past 1 a.m.
It would be shorter sleep than expected for most of us.
The pitter-patter of the rain had grown louder. A hum–was it a generator or the wind?–had risen outside. Bangs and clashes increasingly sounded on the roof and walls of our inn.
Online, PAGASA had retracted the landfall point to between 3 and 5 a.m. When I relayed it to our lead reporter Jeff Canoy, he quickly woke his team and readied to leave for downtown.
It was 1:30. My contact at the digital news desk in Manila alerted me that PAGASA already announced a 1 a.m. landfall 100 kilometers north of us, in Casiguran. The tempest Jeff and the other teams were riding into was already the typhoon itself.
On the way to Aurora province earlier, our team had already been debating which town we would set up base in. We ended up picking the capital Baler since it gave the crews better access to most of Aurora’s 7 other towns. Staying in Casiguran meant crossing a mountain range and isolating us from the rest of the province.
Yet even the distance of Lando’s entry point did not spare Baler its fury.
At 2 a.m. in downtown, Jeff, his cameraman Romel and assistant Ronnie saw strong winds topple free-standing guard houses and make sheets of iron roofing dance in the street.
In San Luis, at the outskirts of Baler, Radyo Patrol reporter Dennis Datu and his team were trapped with a family inside their house. It was dark, Dennis said, and they constantly feared the roof was on the verge of being blown away.
Back at the inn, the wind kept blowing tree leaves and streaks of water into one of our rooms that had an opening under the air conditioner. The truck carrying our satellite equipment and the vans nearby were jiggling in the wind. We were still under explicit instructions to wait out the storm before setting up our dish.
Jeff recorded English and Filipino on-cam reports (a.k.a. look-lives) from an evacuation center using his iPhone. With no other means to transmit, he sent them along with other video to Manila via Internet.
We agreed that our teammates outside would return to the hotel before sun-up. By 4 a.m, Jeff and team proceeded back. Dennis and team were still stranded.
Fallen trees already blocked the road back. Jeff’s team feared our hotel had become isolated. So at each tree they drove into, they walked out and pushed away the trunks and branches they could.
Globe’s cellular signals were still up even after Smart’s already went out. We edited a portion of Jeff’s landfall video and used the available signal to e-mail it to our news desk.
Cameraman Brian Pimentel came back with bandages rolled over his right elbow after he accidentally fell on the stairs. He had gone near the municipal hall to shoot evacuees praying and sleeping the typhoon out.
When the sun came up, the rain had lessened but the wind was still strong. We were not sure if the worst had already passed, but by 8 a.m. the worst we feared didn’t happen–at least not yet.
We had a scare just after we finally set up our satellite and broadcast capability. The sudden calm in the weather, we heard, was only the eye of the typhoon going over Aurora.
The lull could portend an intense resurgence of the storm. We considered packing up our setup again.
But it seemed PAGASA was giving different bearings on the typhoon. At first they said the eye had already passed the area and had gone on to neighboring Nueva Ecija, but we were now hearing otherwise.
We found out later that Lando’s landfall toppled the agency’s Doppler radar in Baler, what should have been PAGASA’s closest instrument to determine the location of the storm.
The typhoon had actually weakened when it hit land. The strong winds were still formidable but no longer to fear. But because Lando was only creeping at a snail’s pace across the provinces, we still had to worry about the rain–and the floods.
At noon, Jeff and Dennis followed up a tip from police outside Baler.
The news teams found the Diteki river overflowing at a bridge in Barangay San Isidro in the town of San Luis. The waters reached to the knees when walking the bridge. But houses sloping down from the main road were submerged halfway through.
They came upon police and rescuers wading chest-deep at one of the lower points, clutching a rope on one hand, and for some, a child on the other.
The residents said they did not evacuate earlier when they saw the typhoon mostly brought winds. Not until the river overflowed and the water streamed down from the mountains did they scramble to get out.
Romel aimed his camera at an officer carrying a boy toward the police mobile at the bridge. Mothers and children plying the rope to safety. A carabao wading in the flood being led up by its owner. A half-naked elderly man shivering as a life vest was put on him.
It was the first video anywhere of a rescue operation during the height of Lando and its aftereffects. The images captured calamity, desperation, action, and heroism.
It was the heart of what could have been an extreme tragedy but did not ensue, thanks to some brave souls.
Our team’s shots from dark to sunup formed the top story of that day’s TV Patrol. But they were only the beginning of a weeklong journey that brought us to the nearby towns, to far-flung Casiguran and back to Baler.
There are first times for everything. Despite my six years in the force and a succession of the strongest typhoons, enduring the entry of one such storm never made my been-there-done-that list. Until Lando.
This time, though, the lessons of previous disasters made us more mindful to put the safety of the team and equipment first as we strove to be the nation’s first eyewitnesses to a storm that arrived at midnight.
Our minders in Manila congratulated us for delivering to all ABS-CBN platforms, including a pioneering synergistic standup on the noontime show “It’s Showtime.”
We credited it to the trust Manila gave us to decide for ourselves, our constant communication with each other and the teamwork that came from our respect for each other’s capacity and contribution to the team.
These we learn in the dull instances of the day-to-day deployment and draw on when the tempest rolls in and the stakes are raised.