Filipino-Canadians in Yolanda’s aftermath: Rowena and Leonora Lagunzad

By , on November 12, 2013

The Lagunzad sisters (Leonora on left, Rowena on right), in uniform for a Christmas concert with the Singing Nannies.
The Lagunzad sisters (Leonora on left, Rowena on right), in uniform for a Christmas concert with the Singing Nannies.

November 08, 2013: A day the Philippines – and the world – will not soon forget. This was typhoon Yolanda’s heyday. Haiyan, by international standards. She was vicious. She was violent. And she was unstoppable.

She made landfall – all 650 kilometeres of her – in the Visayas region of the Philippines with a fury that has been described as monstrous; catastrophic, and world-record breaking, in fact. Packing winds of 235 miles per hour, gusts of 275 miles per hour, and a storm surge the height of a 4-storey building in the areas she hit hardest, Yolanda was a category 5 natural force of death, destruction, and devastation.

The images of her aftermath can best be described in one word: Horrific. Perhaps, two words: UTTERLY horrific. Yolanda barreled through six central Philippine islands, obliterating buildings, flattening homes, uprooting trees, reducing bustling towns to piles of rubble, and leaving dead bodies strewn along her path. Survivors looted stores, in a desperate search for food and drink, amidst a backdrop of seemingly post-apocalyptic ruin.

The hardest hit was the city of Tacloban in the eastern province of Leyte. Next in her line of fury was Samar province. Also hard-hit was Coron in Palawan.

Manila was spared – but not from the scathingly insensitive self-absorption of some, who deemed the media coverage “overblown” and “hyped”, and who continued on their merry, trivial way sans a shred of shared humanity. Many have since eaten their unseasoned words, and must have balked at how awful an aftertaste these left in their own mouths.

Thankfully, there are more who have responded in compassion and sympathy; rekindling the hope in humankind’s worth.

The death toll is feared to reach 10,000; especially in Tacloban City. Even evacuation centers were not spared, having been washed away by the raging waters of the storm surge.

Scores remain missing, unaccounted for, unheard from; and the nerve-wracking plight of those who anxiously await word continues. Theirs is a crisis of a different sort: One that is more internal, besieging the mind and soul.

Such is the case for Filipino-Canadian sisters, Rowena and Leonora Lagunzad, who – although safe in the comforts of their Canadian home – have gone three days, as of this writing, without knowing the whereabouts of their entire family.

In search of a better life

Rowena and Leonora hail from Tacloban City. They – like many others – moved to Canada in search of a better life for themselves and their entire family. The burden of migrant Filipino workers remains such: Upliftment of self, immediate family, even the extended family.

Rowena was hired directly to Canada, while Leonora was a domestic worker in Singapore, who moved to Canada to join her sister. Both are now employed in a home-based daycare center for children.

The sisters recount that life in Canada has been good, and that they are well-able to provide for family back home. They have managed to give their parents the happiness of a comfortable enough life, and to put their younger relations through school. For this, the sisters are grateful.

All that, however, now hangs in the balance, as they wait for news of the welfare of their parents, brothers, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles; all of whom reside in Tacloban City.

As I listened to the interview, I heard many things: The din of their young wards playing in the background; the tinge of veiled fear as they answered questions about their loved ones; the hope in their souls; and the willful determination to rise above circumstance.

Children of the storm

The sisters recalled how – growing up in Tacloban City – they were no strangers to storms; having witnessed several howlers, including Category 4 typhoon Undang in the ‘80s.

“Walang kuryente for 2 months, pero walang water surge; walang ganun. Pero washed out pa din talaga yung school rooms namin (Power was out for two months, but there was no water surge; there was no such thing. Nonetheless, our school rooms were washed out.),” Rowena recounted.

They concede that although they knew at the time that the storm wreaked havoc, they were too young to truly know the extent of the havoc.

Not so this time.

“Na-shock kami sa nangyari, hindi naming akalain ganito ang mangyayari (We are shocked about what has happened, never realizing that the damage would be this great.),” they said; painfully and fully-aware of the miserable state of their hometown.

In a tone of fatalism and realism, they added: “Pero hindi mo naman sasabihin sa bagyo “Wag ka dumating sa Tacloban’! (But then, you cannot very well tell the storm ‘Don’t hit Tacloban!’).”

Sitting, waiting, searching, hoping

It has been three days since the Lagunzad sisters have heard anything of their family’s well-being and whereabouts. Three long days.

They look at online lists of survivors and missing persons. They watch the news. They rely on friends and relatives in Cebu and lesser-affected areas. They watch the news again, until they grow weary of seeing unburied corpses.


“Wala, parang ubos na yung aming idea kung saan kami maghahanap, (There is nothing; it’s as though we’ve run out of ideas where to search.)” they said.

They prattle off a list of first names of their missing kin; I cannot keep up: Constancio, their Dad. Irene, their mother. Constancio Jr., their brother. Edwin, another brother. The list goes on, and is – sadly –quite lengthy.

They do all they can to remain optimistic, but not knowing is taking its toll.

“Mahirap. Basta malaman lang namin (It’s difficult. But as long as we find out of their status) – we will accept the good part or the bad part of it,” they shared.

“Positive nalang kami, kahit masama na ang news; sino ba naman ang may gusto ng masama? (We stay positive, even when the news is bad; whoever wants bad news, anyway?) We do what we can to stay positive. Ang worry, wala naman magawa. Kung may magawa ang worry to find them, we’ll do it until mahanap sila (Worry can do nothing, really. If worry could produce results, we would not stop worrying until our relatives are found.),” they added.

“Kung tayo ay magmumukmok, ano ang idudulot ng pagmumukmok? (If we brood about it constantly, what good will this do?) Whatever pa ang nangyari sa kanila, they won’t be happy na makita nila ang pagmumukmok (Whatever has befallen them, they won’t be happy to see us constantly brooding.),” Leonora followed up.

When asked if they had plans of returning to Tacloban to search for their family, both sisters said that this would not be advisable at the moment, given the uncertainty of the situation in the city. But they have given it a maximum of 3 weeks to one month; in which time to hear from their family or for a semblance of order to be restored to the city, whichever should come first.

“Kung hindi namin sila makita within a month – mahaba na yan – no matter what, uuwi kami. We have to find out kung ano yung sinapitan nila. (If we do not find them within a month – and that’s the maximum length of time – no matter what, we will return home. We have to find out what has befallen them.),” they said.

Rainbow after the storm

Optimism and hope, prayer are all they have left. These keep them going.

They long for their relatives to give them a sign or let their whereabouts be felt; “paramdam”, as it is called.

The sisters appeal to the Philippine government to speed up search and relief operations, and to properly bury the corpses littered helter skelter. It is disrespectful to the dead, they say, and it is disturbing to see.

It is their desire that the Canadian government send clean water and military teams to help with operations, if possible.

Still, their biggest desire remains: That they would see “a rainbow after the storm. A light shining in darkness,” they revealed. And this, they desire for all those affected, not just for themselves.

One of the sisters (I cannot place the voice) laughs timidly and says: “I like that rainbow…”

So do we.

We, at the Philippine-Canadian Inquirer, join the world in doing what we can do to help our brethren in need. We unite in faith and prayer for all those suffering, and for healing to be upon the Philippines. And we keep hope alive, alongside all those still searching for loved ones, for resolution.

UPDATE: Rowena Lagunzad was interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with the facilitation of Philippine Canadian Inquirer. During the interview with CBC’s Susan da Silva, Rowena’s parents called to say they were safe and doing okay. The interview was aired on November 11, 2013 at CBC’s 5pm and 6pm news.

Lagunzad sisters interviewed by Atty. Melissa Remulla-Briones, PCI Editor-in-Chief
Audio files transcribed by Angie Duarte, PCI Writer on Staff
Article written by Angie Duarte