A family’s ordeal during Typhoon Odette

When the super typhoon passed over an island in the Philippines, a teenage mom and her family were trapped in a building and struggled to survive

Jude Ortega
A family staying inside a classroom that is serving as an evacuation center
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Louie Pacardo
03 January 2022

As Typhoon Odette battered Dinagat Islands in the afternoon of 26 December 2021, Nelly Cariño, a housewife in her 50s, kept looking out the window, checking if her daughter, granddaughter and the baby’s father were safe in another room across the yard.

Nelly’s family was staying in Cuarenta Elementary School, the designated evacuation centre for residents of their village in San Jose. Local authorities warned the residents that Typhoon Odette (international name Rai) would be strong, but when it arrived, its strength was far beyond what the residents had expected and prepared for.

Nelly’s fears worsened when fierce winds rocked the school gym. The structure, built with light materials in the middle of the school, eventually collapsed. Evacuees fled to an adjacent building which also collapsed.

“I watched them, hoping to see the members of my family,” Nelly recalls. “To my horror, the three of them didn’t come out. They were trapped.”

A woman walking outside a classroom
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Louie Pacardo
Nelly Cariño walks to the classroom where most members of her family have evacuated. More than a week after Typhoon Odette wreaked havoc on Dinagat Island, the family still can’t go home. They don’t have enough resources to rebuild what they have lost.

Fleeing from danger

Nicole Angela Cariño, 17, was not aware that her mother worried about her. She was herself preoccupied with her daughter, 3-month-old Alia. Nicole cradled Alia in her arms. The baby slept soundly as Typhoon Odette raged outside.

When the school gym crashed against the classroom, Nicole’s husband, 26-year-old Mike De Jesus, acted quickly. “He tried opening the door,” says Nicole, “but it would not budge against the rubble outside, so he rushed to the other side of the room and kicked the window.”

The family were isolating in their home as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. Mike was able to get his family out by kicking the window, resulting in injuries. “When we noticed that the building might also collapse, we moved to the principal’s office near the road,” says Nicole.

Destroyed school buildings
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Louie Pacardo
Only a comfort room is left of a two-room building destroyed by Typhoon Odette. Evacuees were trapped in the building when a lightweight gymnasium in front of it crashed against it. Fortunately, the evacuees were able to leave before the building collapsed as well.

The other evacuees welcomed the family. They helped Nicole protect the baby. “They covered me and Alia with mats and pillows because water kept coming in through the holes in the roof and the cracks in the windows,” says Nicole.

When Alia woke up, she smiled at the people around her. They cooed at her, and she kept smiling. “Never did she show a sign of distress,” says Nicole. “She kept us entertained, distracted from what was happening outside.”

When the typhoon left at about 6:30 PM, Nelly looked for her missing family. She was not able to see them in the dark and amid the crowd. When she went back to the room that she had stayed in, Nicole greeted her with a tight hug. They both cried in relief and exhaustion. “I had really thought I lost them,” says Nelly.

Bird's eye view of a town with houses damaged and destroyed by Typhoon Odette
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Louie Pacardo
After the onslaught of Typhoon Odette, residents of San Jose, Dinagat Islands province, had to rebuild their houses with the debris that littered the streets. Roofs with mismatching parts are a common sight all over the town.

The aftermath

More than a week after the ordeal, the Cariño family is still staying in the school. They don’t have enough resources to rebuild their houses. Mike lost his job and Nicole is in Grade 11. The modular learning system during the pandemic allowed her to continue her studies even if she was pregnant and later while taking care of her baby.

Without any partition in the room or a designated breastfeeding area in the evacuation centre, Nicole has to nurse Alia in full view of other people. “I’m used to doing it,” she says. “I see other mothers do it, so I stopped being so conscious about it.”

A road below a hill with coconut trees
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Louie Pacardo
More than a week after Typhoon Odette battered Dinagat Island, the grass has started to grow and the trees that managed to stay upright have sprouted new leaves. It may take years, however, for the coconut trees to recover and bear fruit again.

Her biggest worry is that Alia is not getting enough sleep and might get sick in the evacuation centre. They share the classroom with several other families, and noise is inevitable where they are.

Add to this, the other people staying in the room have been falling ill with fever, cold, or cough, or a combination of those. “It must be because we had been wet during the typhoon,” says Nelly. But given that the pandemic is still here, it’s difficult to tell if people are getting sick because of the poor conditions in the evacuation centre or a result of COVID-19 spreading. 


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