Light, whether emitted by the sun, a blanket of stars, or lamps, is a luxury on this island province in the Philippines. At 5 a.m. on Nov. 1, Typhoon Goni made landfall on Catanduanes, an island southeast of the capital Manila known for its beaches, lagoons, and waterfalls. It reportedly toppled 90 percent of the island’s utility posts and transformers, leaving residents without power. It was only a day after Goni’s initial storm that people finally made contact with the rest of the country, carrying the bad news via a small satellite.
Residents watched from their small windows as their community was ravaged by the wind and rain. According to one resident, the only safe place in his home was a small bathroom, where he prayed to be spared. Another, held on tightly to his air conditioning unit, knowing full well that once it is ripped off the wall, the rest of his home would go with it. Many fled to relatives’ homes as evacuation centers were full. Consequential landslides blocked roads, which locals say was brought on by illegal logging in the area. Reports say the storm surge climbed up to 5 meters in height, damaging 90 percent of the island’s infrastructure. An estimated 25,000 homes were destroyed, 45,000 others were damaged, and the livelihoods of the people turned to dust. Many, if not all who were severely affected, were already struggling to begin with.
One of the major sources of income on the island is abaca farming — a material obtained from plant leaf stalks — that sells for about PHP70 ($1.46) a kilogram. But the typhoon destroyed these farms too, and residents believe it will take a full year for them to return to a fully usable state.
Catanduanes still has many residents in the dark today. Although the Department of Energy had targeted 100 percent restoration of power by last Christmas, many believe it will only be back in some areas in six to eight months.
I visited Catanduanes in December to distribute solar lamps and charging hubs with on-ground volunteers. Diosdado Tropel, an 82-year-old resident of San Miguel town, welcomed us into his home one night, staying quiet as he opened the door. Inside, it was pitch black, and all we could hear was the sound of Tatay Diosdado looking for a flashlight that, when turned on, flickered across his home.
He gently woke up his wife, Rosario Tropel, to come meet us. Locals call them “Tatay (father)” and “Nanay (mother),” as a sign of respect. Nanay Rosario climbed out of their sleeping quarters and headed straight to a mirror where she combed her hair in the dark. There were pictures of their family above her reflection. With a lamp hanging on the wall, we sat in their living room as the couple told us that their children have also struggled. Apart from some lamps, all they had was the light in the sky.
Kerosene lamps are now a staple for many in Catanduanes. For lower income families, this is one of the most accessible options for light. But fuel to power a lamp for a day can cost up to PHP40 ($.83), something many still can’t afford, leaving them to spend days without light. When they do use the lamps, residents said the kerosene burns their noses, something they have to tolerate over dinner, as a red light looms across the dinner table. They end their meals with soot covering half their faces. It affects their health too, with children coughing when the lamps are lit. The World Bank estimates that breathing kerosene fumes is equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes a day.
During our visit, Catanduanes was blanketed with falling stars. We learned that older seafarers on the island used the light in the sky to navigate their way through the seas and back home to shore. The solar lamps we distributed, now some of the brightest on the island, are powered by light from the sky too. We watched as people blew away the flames in their kerosene lamps. A second of the familiar darkness was followed by a surge of light. The moment after felt like something had been taken off their shoulders. The homes previously filtered with red had slowly regained their color.
We plan to distribute another round of solar lights in January. Some essentials like lamp posts are now powered by generators from local government offices too. I hope everyone on the island of stars will soon see the light again.
Ivan Torres is a filmmaker and photographer.