Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Part 20: Storm Warnings

"And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered"

~ Genesis 7:19

"Long as I remember, the rain been coming down. Clouds of myst'ry pouring confusion on the ground. Good men through the ages, trying to find the sun;
And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain?"
~ Creedence Clearwater Revival

This is my version of Dad's favorite story, one that he will gladly repeat to anyone who will listen. Of our trip in August of 1972 from Tacloban to Baguio.
In the Philippines there are essentially two seasons. Dry and Wet. Being a tropical country, the Dry season usually was never completely without rain. And in the Wet, well I always thought that the slogan for Morton salt was written by a Filipino because "when it rains, it pours".

"Rainy Season" generally begins in June and runs through December. To put it into perspective, the average annual rainfall for the US is around 30 inches, while in the Philippines the average is around 90 inches. Some years it started earlier, some years it ran well into February. During the bad years travel could be tricky because of the heavy rains and typhoons. Weather in the Philippines was always dramatic. Monsoons, typhoons, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes. In August of 1968 we survived the "Ruby Towers" earthquake that hit Manila. After 7 years in the Philippines, we thought we had seen the worst of it. We were wrong.
The 1972 season was especially bad, starting a little late, it soon made up for the delay. Torrential downpours, two major back to back typhoons. By mid July, fields had become ponds, then turned into lakes. Crops rotted in the fields. Little creeks became rivers, rivers turned into oceans. There was heavy flooding everywhere and in the mountains with the flooding came landslides. By the beginning of August parts of the lowlands were under 15 to 20 feet of water. For the month of July, Baguio recorded 188 inches of rain. Transportation ground to a halt. Flights out of Tacloban to Manila and from Manila to Baguio were sporadic.
To get me to school on time my parents decided I should leave a week earlier than originally scheduled. In early August, my Dad and I flew from Tacloban to Manila. At the airport we found out that some other stranded Brent students were booked on a flight to San Fernando, La Union, located at the foot of the Cordillera mountain range where they would charter a bus up the mountains to Baguio. Dad made a reservation for me on that flight and we caught a taxi to the Guest House in Malate.
The waters of Metro Manila were fairly deep in some areas, but our Captain navigated his cab well, finding the shallower streets, valiantly plowing through the deep waters when he had to, but finally had to stop a few blocks from the Guest House. Dad carried our luggage on his head and we waded waist and sometimes chest deep through the streets the rest of the way.
Once there I had a few days to kill before the departure, so I went with Dad on his expeditions to get supplies. We waded the streets again and caught a bus to Quiapo, the next day we went to the Mission Headquarters in Quezon City. Everywhere we went the stores were flooded and being cold and wet all day was the norm. The night before my flight to Baguio, I went to bed with a high fever and when I awoke two days later I had missed the flight. The rains turned heavy again. I was stuck.
After I recovered, Dad and I went out to the airport to see what we could find. Mostly we found canceled flights and when the planes did fly they were already fully booked. I got on standby for every flight and we waited. The lowlands were completely flooded now, bridges were out and no buses were traveling to Baguio. We spent our days at the airport, waiting for the rains to let up and the flights to Baguio to resume.

One day at the ticket counter, the agent said he heard there was a pilot of a twin engine Cessna 310 who was going to fly up empty to Baguio to pick up someone who was stranded. Dad got directions and we went over to talk to the pilot. Money exchanged hands and we got on board.
Finally, back to Baguio!

Looking out the window as we flew, it was like the ocean had covered the land below us, with just the tops of trees and houses sticking out of the water. Here and there we could stranded people sitting on the roofs of their homes. It was raining again, but not heavily. As we got closer to the mountains the little plane was buffeted by the wind. The pilot increased power to his engines and we rose up to 5ooo feet. Every so often one of the engines would cough and sputter, but always came back up again and after an hour we saw Loakan Airport. This airport has cliffs on either end of the runway and is noticeably concave. As we began our decent, the left engine sputtered, then stopped running.

“No problem” said the pilot, “we have two”. That is when the other engine quit. The whistling sound of wind passing around the plane filled the cabin. It was very quiet. None of us said anything as we watched the ground rapidly rise up to meet us. We glided down on to the runway and coasted up just short of the terminal.

"Welcome to Baguio!" The pilot held the door as we crawled out, he was all grins as if this happened all the time.
I caught a taxi to school while Dad stayed behind at the airport to figure out how he was going to get back to Manila.

At the ticket counter he was told there were no open flights for weeks; Dad was feeling pretty frustrated. Then
Philippine Air Force One and Two landed. On board were President Marcos, reporters, Congressmen and assorted dignitaries who were out assessing the flood damage across the Philippines. One of the persons in the entourage was from Leyte and recognized Dad and went up to see what he was doing here so far from home. When Dad told him of his troubles the man said "I'm with the Congressman! Ride with us!" Dad grabbed his suitcase and pink briefcase and away they went.

First they toured the landslide damage around Baguio and surrounding towns. Then back to the planes where they embarked, crisscrossing Luzon, landing at various airports when they could, getting out to survey the damage, eating and sometimes spending the night. Ten days later they were back in Baguio (where the Cessna pilot was still working on his plane). It took Dad almost two weeks to get back to Tacloban from the day we left.

As I mentioned before, Dad loves to tell this story. I have heard him recount it 15 times in one day. In all the papers and on TV, it was big news in the Philippines at the time. It caused quite a stir, having the President, assorted Congressmen and some white guy inspecting the destruction. If you come across images from that event you might be able to spot Dad, he is the CIA looking guy with the horn rim glasses, crew cut and a pink briefcase.


  1. The 1972 monsoon was miserable! I don't know how the news agencies decided that last year's floods in the Philippines were the worst since the 60's. Did they forget 1972?
    Baguio had 150 inches of rain in 25 days. The flooding in the lowlands didn't go down for weeks! Travel was nonexistent, just as you recalled.

  2. You're memory is so amazing and the things you mention really get me thinking. Like when you said the "Ruby Towers" earthquake - I hadn't thought about that for decades!!! thanks Mark. What I remember vividly about the rainy season was the landslides that ocurred on the road to the mines - sometimes coming home from school we'd have to get off the bus on one side and climb over the pile of mud to the other side to catch a vehicle home. And then we wouldn't have to go to school for several days!! We had rataan furniture and would bring the large furniture pillows in from the front porch (screened in only) and put them in the living room, and we'd make "forts" out of them for playing in and under!

  3. Jim Halsema's book "E.J.Halsema: Colonial Engineer" he mentions Baguio average annual rainfall of 185 inches.

  4. Travel in the Philippines during the typhoon season could be so hair-raising, it's taught me never to complain about the few times I've had to endure traffic jams on well-drained European roads.

    Days after the 1990 Baguio earthquake in which my mom was killed, we were in Manila trying to find all sort of ways to get up to Baguio for her funeral. Kennon, Naguilian and Marcos Highway were closed, and Loakan airport (the runway was badly cracked) was only open for rescue missions by American C130 planes and smaller chartered aircraft. We finally wangled a lift on a small Cessna chartered by Texas Instruments to bring 'relief goods' to its factory up there. The old rustbucket was an 8-seater. Tim, my aunt (who was 8 months pregnant) and I were the 10th, 11th and 12th passengers, and we and our luggage were literally shoe-horned into the plane and the doors slammed shut. We ended up sitting on a large wooden box surrounded by large jerry cans of petrol to run TI's emergency generators in Baguio. During the flight up to Baguio we could see the Luzon landscape below through holes in the airplane's rusting floor. We had to circle Loakan airport for about an hour before we were given permission to land because of the number of other planes queued before us. I remember praying that we wouldn't run out of fuel. When the plane finally landed in Baguio, the pilot warned us we would have to jump out because he had to fly out straight away to allow all the other circling planes to land. We were roughly pulled out of the plane by ground staff and our cases flung to the ground. It was only then that we noticed the large box we were sitting on being unloaded with the greatest of care. On the side of the box, in large black and red letters, were the words DANGER: DYNAMITE.