When the big supertyphoon hit south of where I live in the Philippines, and all my friends and relatives were emailing me if I was okay.

Why, yes, I answered: The Signal 4 super-typhoon hit south of us.

But we were badly hit by an ordinary Signal 3 typhoon a few weeks earlier, which destroyed most of the local rice crop, most of the local chicken farms (luckily no chickens in our when it hit), a lot of houses, and left us without electricity, internet, or cable TV for three weeks.

The “supertyphoon” was a signal 4, but a “signal 3” is pretty bad too:

signal 3 storm

  • Winds of greater than 100 kph up to 185 kph may be expected in at least 18 hours.

  • Many coconut trees may be broken or destroyed.
  • Almost all banana plants may be downed and a large number of trees may be uprooted.
  • Rice and corn crops may suffer heavy losses.
  • Majority of all nipa and cogon houses may be unroofed or destroyed and there may be considerable damage to structures of light to medium construction.
  • There may be widespread disruption of electrical power and communication services.
  • In general, moderate to heavy damage may be experienced, particularly in the agricultural and industrial sectors.

This typhoon did just that, but few people died, so it didn’t get many headlines. Sigh.

This is not the first typhoon we’ve had go through our area: we had one two years ago, plus a couple of tropical storms that hit north or south of here that caused flooding or local damage.

But I did learn one thing from this typhoon: In case of emergency, bring your cellphone.

The morning after the typhoon, when the neighbors were removing tree branches from the streets to go to the palenke (open air market), and wading through the streets, which still had water a foot deep, I went to see if our neighbors needed anything.

Some who lived near the river had taken refuge with relatives and needed a change of clothing and some blankets, but most of the neighbors were okay. But when they saw we had a generator, they asked us to re-charge their cellphones, so they could keep in touch with their families, to let them know they were alive, where they were staying, and to report on the local damage to their homes.

The “first responders” here in the Philippines are friends and family, not FEMA, so keeping in touch is important. And everyone has a cellphone to text: even our farmers and maids have one, and buy a “load” for 25 pesos (about 60 cents) to keep in touch with family.

The day “our” typhoon hit, the forecast was that it was signal one (heavy rain), and would hit during the night. Our teenaged granddaughter was therefore given permission to travel to Manila (a 2 to 3 hour drive) with the driver who was making deliveries to attend a concert with her friends. The idea was that he would pick her up afterward, and get home before the streets in Manila flooded.

But at suppertime, the forecast changed: we should expect a signal 3 typhoon in the middle of the night. So plans changed: They arranged to leave Manila at 8 pm, which should have gotten them home by 10 pm if the traffic wasn’t heavy.

I was up and down all night watching for the car, and finally at 3 am my daughter in law told me she had a call from my granddaughter that said they were safe, but had to take refuge in a gas station.

The story was that they made it up the highway without problem, but when the changed to the smaller local roads, they found a major bridge was too dangerous to cross due to flooding. We have relatives in the area, and it is only about 10 miles down the road from our town, but 10 miles might as well been 100 miles, since the roads were blocked with debris and water.

So after talking to her mom, the driver decided to wait at a gas station and sleep in the car until morning. Our cars always have blankets and pillows, and the gas station store had lots of food, so no problem, we thought.

But at 10 PM the rains became very hard, and the water started to rise. When the water level hit the floorboards, the driver wisely decided it was time to move, and move quickly: first to the store, and then as the water level continued to rise quickly, to the roof of the store, where they ended up spending the night out in the open with some other stranded travelers and the gas station attendants.

So when they fled the car, our granddaughter, like a typical teenager, grabbed what was most important for her life: Her cellphone. The blankets, her computer, the food, the money were all left behind, but she had her cellphone: and was able to alert her worried mom that they were alive and well.

In the morning, she told us the water had receded, but that the truck had been completely submerged, so if they had stayed inside, they would have been dead. The truck couldn’t be driven, but thanks to the cellphone, we contacted a friend in that township who managed to rescue them until the roads were clear and the bridges were safe, and we could get there in a jeep.

So will a cellphone change your life? Yes: because there are aps that could save you by alerting you of dangerous weather, be it flooding from heavy rain, typhoons or (in Oklahoma) tornadoes.

The irony for us was that the app was for Manila, and the typhoon hit our area further north (the eye went through our town shortly after midnight).

So lesson one was to pay more attention to the alerts.

But lesson two was the importance of a cellphone during an emergency.

Our granddaughter’s cellphone not only left us knowing she was safe, but allowed us to know where she was and to get her rescued in the morning, as soon as the roads were clear.

So a cellphone might not be as important as food and water in an emergency, but a cellphone is small and easy to carry and could save your life, so don’t leave home without it.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and fishmarket.


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