Tuesday, December 3, 2013


 THE EARTH TREMBLED, THE DAY TURNED INTO NIGHT. The fearsome volcano in calmer days, as it looked from  Fort Stotsenburg (now Clark Field) in the first two decades of the 20th century. The caption reads: "West End Stotsenburg, Showing Mt. Pinatuba (sic)".

 The onslaught of the twin catastrophes in the Visayas—first, the earthquake in Bohol, and then the powerful super typhoon Yolanda—brought back horrific memories of Pampanga’s own disaster that are forever etched in the minds of Kapampangans and in our province’s history. The images of utmost destruction and of hopelessness recall those of ours, which happened over 20 years ago, when Mount Pinatubo was roused from its 300 year- sleep after and erupted with all its fury in 9-15 June 1991, threatening to ravage everything in its path.

 To make things worse, a crossing typhoon (Yunya) dumped rain on the region, resulting in a rain of ash that covered all of Pampanga. It also loosened debris on the slopes of the mountain and depositing mud on the plains. Rivers and streams swelled with lahar and pyroclastic materials, which overflowed and engulfed whole towns, erased roads, vaporized trees, buildings and bridges. When the eruption simmered, Pampanga and neighboring Zambales and parts of Tarlac became virtual wastelands, with hundred and thousands of people displaced, and its economy shattered.

 But hardy Kapampangans allowed themselves only a short time for grief and despair. Days after the big bang, with Pinatubo still smoldering and with the earth still shaking, Kapampangans rolled up their sleeves to clean up their roofs and homes.

 Itinerant Negritos who had come down to the lowland for safety, walked around communities in droves, offering their services to clean galvanized rooftops, cut trees, sweep streets, clean mud-caked cars and dig up backyards and doorsteps. I remember employing a band of enterprising Aetas to clean my roof and its gutters, a job that was done quickly, thoroughly. 

The eruption had also destroyed Abacan bridge in Balibago—a vital link to Angeles where many employees from my town, Mabalacat, come to work. Foot bridges made of bamboo quickly appeared, which one can cross to get to the other side, where jeepneys for the city proper await. One could also opt to be ride an improvised cart, to be carried by paid lifters. For years, this became the mode of transport for many people.

 Enterprising minds put up backyard businesses that capitalized on the catastrophe. In Bamban, pumice stones ejected from Pinatubo were encapsulated in clear plastic and sold as souvenirs while lahar ash was molded into religious sculptures. Larger stone pieces were turned into garden sculptures that found their way in landscaping and gardening shops around the country. Bestsellers among Americans were the T-shirts that had silk-screened messages alluding to Pinatubo: “I Was There When Pinatubo Blew Its Top”, “We Have Ash Fall, But No Cash Fall”. Even a favorite watering hole on the red light strip was renamed “International Lahar Bar”.

Suddenly, there was a Pinatubo drink, a Pinatubo song, a Pinatubo this and that. Just when Kapampangans thought the worse was over, in came 1995 when the most destructive lahar inundation buried Bacolor, raising the town level 37 meters above sea level. The cascading lahar also came dangerously close to the cities of San Fernando and Angeles. Refugees relocated to the higher grounds of Mabalacat where resettlement centers had sprung up. To create a sense of familiarity, they named the streets of their new community after their own in Bacolor, in their hope to replicate and regain what they had lost.

 The cataclysmic Pinatubo eruptions in 1991 would have deep and far-reaching effects that would last for decades. No other natural disaster could compare to the extent and impact of devastation wrought on a province and its people. There are permanent marks and scars to remind us of that nightmare—the half-buried San Guillermo Church in Bacolor, the changed landscape of Bamban, the vanished rivers of Guagua and Mabalacat, and the building ruins of Clark Air Base.

 Pinatubo had united us, rallied us, transformed us into better people, wisened and toughened by our collective experience. One need only to look around us to see the milestones in the progress we have reached, from the day we decided to bounce back to rebuild our future. We have not just risen from our fall, but today, we, the people of Pampanga, stand proud and tall. The people of Yolanda-stricken Visayas will certainly do the same.

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