I WAS ON OUR FARM when the ground began to shake beneath me. I raised my arms to steady myself against the motion. From the rise, the forested hills seemed to sway around me. The narrow cement path I stood on was littered with brush I had just cleared. I was putting in a new irrigation line to reach our fields, recently planted with lettuce, spinach, papaya, and turmeric. I braced my feet and replaced the machete to my hip. When the shaking stopped, I went back to work, but this time with renewed purpose. Since last night, the earth had been rumbling, but this quake felt stronger and I was anxious to get back to the village to check on my family and neighbors.
After a few minutes, a woman rounded the curve in the road. It was my neighbor and she walked slowly with her bicycle uphill, heading to her field deeper up the mountain. As she approached, I saw on her face the time-worn expression I often see on my fellow Ivatans as they confront uncertainty or calamity: a half-smile, eyes alert.
Did you hear? she asked. There were deaths in Itbayat earlier this morning. She told me her Aunty, who lives next door to us, but is originally from Itbayat, received news from her home island, located 50 kilometers to the north. Her house there was damaged, with a massive crack down one wall. Some relatives were missing. I hurriedly packed my things, strapping the kalapay, our traditional farm basket, across my back. I remembered previous earthquakes that had struck in the 1980s and ‘90s, damaging walls of homes and dislodging pipes underground. Could this be as bad? I thought. The reality, it turned out, was much worse.
I live with my family on Sabtang, one of the three inhabited islands of Batanes, the smallest and most remote province of the Philippines. We are close enough to see, from the hill above our village, Itbayat to the north, near the epicenter of the early morning earthquake that struck on July 27, 2019. The earthquake I felt up on the farm hit at 7:37 a.m. and was magnitude 5.9, according to Phivolcs, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. It would be just one of more than 200 that would hit Batanes in the span of three days. While our island of Sabtang was spared damage or injuries, the residents of Itbayat were not so lucky. The earthquake at 4:16 a.m. turned out to be especially devastating. It was magnitude 5.4, but hit closer, just 12 kilometers away from Itbayat. Before dawn, walls of ancestral homes tumbled. Roofs collapsed. Both the hospital and the public school were badly damaged. The island’s historic church, Sta. Maria de Mayan, lost its prominent tower, as it first crumbled, then later, came crashing down.
Nine people were killed, including a 10-month-old baby and a 5-day-old infant. Dozens more were injured. Many families fled their homes – homes which had kept them safe through many past typhoons suddenly posed lethal risks. The survivors would be left without electricity or running water for days, huddled at the town plaza as aftershocks rumbled across the ocean.
When I got back to our village of Savidug, I gathered with neighbors in the street, exchanging what news we had. At one point, as we stood outside our homes, the ground moved again. Electrical wires tossed above. My neighbor held the side of her house to steady herself. When it stopped, we rushed back inside our homes.
Batanes is known for its remoteness, and Ivatans are no strangers to hardship. We are 681 kilometers from Manila and 235 kilometers from Aparri, on the northern tip of Luzon. But we are just 150 kilometers away from Taiwan. Our islands are surrounded by the strong currents of the Pacific Ocean, the Philippine Sea and the Bashi Channel, to the north. Nearby lie underwater volcanoes and seismic rifts. Our mountains are ridged with volcanic craters. We are reminded daily of the power and force of nature as we glance at towering Mount Iraya, a volcano that last erupted in the 15th Century. It rises 1,000 meters on the north side of Batan island, just outside of Basco, the province’s capital.
Some 17,000 residents live across the province, most of them Ivatan, the recognized indigenous tribal group that has made the islands their home for centuries. Most residents live in Basco, which has the main airport and shipping bay for vessels that carry goods from Manila. Our island of Sabtang has just 1,600 residents. In our village of Savidug, there are just over 200. (When our neighbor had a child in 2017, followed just two months later by our own daughter, we joked of a population boom coming.)
The province, famously, is battered by strong winds and typhoons. Most recently, Typhoon Ferdie, a Category 5 storm, ripped through the islands in September 2016 leaving major damage in its wake, but no casualties. The isolation and harsh conditions have built an enduring sense of self-reliance and communal commitment among Ivatans. We still gather regularly to repair roofs together. We rely on communal pastureland and cogon reserves. We work as a group to fish, to plant and harvest crops and to prepare for our fiestas and other religious and cultural events.
But the island of Itbayat is even further north than Sabtang or Batan island, even further remote. Though in recent years Batanes has received a surge of tourists, very few visitors ever make it to Itbayat. Its high cliffs and rugged terrain make it hard to access. When I visited in 2011, I saw the local people’s friendliness and cooperation on full display. I was there to document and record Laji, the oral poetry of Ivatans. And as I visited the elders in San Rafael, one of their main towns, people welcomed me warmly and shared stories. Their version of Laji was also distinct from the style on Batan or Sabtang islands. It had different melodies and lyrics – and a haunting quality that residents said was influenced by isolation.
When the earthquakes on July 27 struck, this resiliency was on full display. Neighbors, many just in sandals, grabbed crow bars and shovels and rushed to damaged homes. They began clearing debris together. In one case, a group pulled a survivor from the rubble, carrying his limp body though thick dust and across piles of rocks to safety.
Across the islands, the rest of us called, texted and shared news on social media. There were stories of hope, such as the group of fishermen who donated their entire catch to survivors in need of food. And there were signs of despair, such as the 71-year-old widow who narrowly escaped with her life as her house crashed around her. After the quake, she was left to care for her daughter and four grandchildren. “Sometimes, I feel deserted,” she told a reporter as she took refuge in the town plaza. “What is my life now? What will become of me?”
One particularly troubling image emerged: it was a photo posted from Itbayat of people gathered in the plaza. In the foreground, white sheets covered the outlines of three bodies lined up on the grass. One of my aunts, who lives in Basco, where the second quake was felt strongly, posted: Ichasi po yaten… Have mercy on all of us.
On Sunday morning, July 28, we watched from our bedroom window as military planes flew overhead and a convoy of helicopters carried President Rodrigo Duterte to Basco, then to Itbayat to oversee the recovery efforts. (He would be followed four days later by a visit from Vice President Leni Robredo, who helped distribute aid.) In Basco, Duterte pledged 40 million pesos for recovery, aimed primarly, he said, at building a new health clinic on Itbayat. Though welcomed, the funds fell well short of the estimated 293 million pesos in damage that the earthquakes left. More than 900 families, or nearly 3,000 people, had been displaced or affected, according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development – a staggering number, one that essentially includes the entire population of Itbayat. One barangay, Raele, was left with nearly every structure “totally damaged,” according to the Department of Public Works and Highways, which assessed the damage in each of the island’s five towns. By Saturday night, a mass funeral for six people had taken place. More would come.
The people of Batanes led the local response. Musicians in Basco held a benefit concert, called Musikahilyan, a word play on the Itbayat term for “town-mates,” kahilyan. Nurses and medical staff across the province mobilized. In Savidug we gathered supplies and put together boxes of canned goods and food to send to Itbayat. Families here are deeply connected. In addition to our neighbor, whose home was cracked, another neighbor across the village mourned the death of two relatives. And our neighbor next door, who is also from Itbayat, described attending the school that was badly damaged and his repeated efforts to seek up-to-date information about his family.
Two nights after the strongest quake, another rumbled through. Though much milder, it still shook the walls of our home. It hit in the middle of the night. The village was quiet and dark. When the shaking began, I quickly lifted my arm above my 20-month-old daughter, who slept between my wife and me in our bed pushed against the wall. My body turned to shield her. When the shaking stopped, we fell back asleep.
The next morning at breakfast, my wife reminded me of the quake. I realized that, in my drowsiness, I had forgotten the incident. I then remembered my attempt to protect my daughter, who continued to sleep soundly next to us. It was instinct. In practical terms, it was probably ineffective, but the act, however simple, made me think of my fellow Ivatans in Itbayat who also were trying to protect their families, their homes, their communities, in the face of powerful forces. They now confront the difficult task of rebuilding, of healing and of recovering. And we should all be there for them, our kahilyan, in their time of need.
Positively Filipino, August, 2019