On November 8th, the massive Typhoon Haiyan went ashore in the eastern part of the Philippines, taking with it the homes, livelihood and in some cases, lives, of some of its inhabitants. NYC residents and musicians Jessie and Robert Conopio Nelson, who have done time with Diane Birch/Head Automatica/Cold Cave and Trenchgrinder/Mutant Supremacy/Skullshitter respectively, were among those affected, watching from afar and waiting desperately to hear back from loved ones as the horrific images flashed on their television screens. Their stories are below.
How did you hear about the disaster, and at what point did you become genuinely concerned?
Robert: I actually didn't learn about the storm until a day before it was predicted to make landfall. I was at band practice and my friends asked me about my mother. They asked "You're mom isn't in the Philippines is she?" I was totally perplexed because it was so off topic as to what we usually talk about at rehearsal. I responded, "Yeah, been there since the beginning of October, why?" They proceeded to tell me about the storm and how it was one of the biggest recorded in history. I immediately looked up the storm and was both amazed by the sheer magnitude and deeply concerned. Reading on, I learned that the storm was projected to make landfall over Leyte island, where my mother is from and is currently residing. I got seriously worried. In the past, the Philippines has had quite a rough time during and recovering from hurricanes and typhoons.
Jessie: I was in LA at the time. A childhood friend called me at 7 a.m. His mother is Filipino as well, and coincidentally, is in the Philippines right now, like our mother. I'm barely awake at this moment, and he starts asking questions I wasn't ready to field, like, "Dude, have you spoken to your mom," "Do you know what's about to happen over there," "Have you been watching the news?" "A massive typhoon is about to hit the Philippines. Call your mom, make sure she's OK." I call her, it must've been 1 a.m. in Ormoc City. She said she was fine, just got done watching TV and was just going to bed. That's when I was genuinely concerned. She seemed too relaxed, especially because I could hear the rain pounding on her roof in the background. Had I not been so groggy and known I wouldn't speak to her for 3 days, I would've asked a lot more questions. I tuned into the news after speaking to her, saw that it was being predicted to being the biggest storm in recorded history, and that the storm's eye was to go direcly over her. That's when it sunk in that this could be really bad.
How long did it take from the moment that the typhoon hit until you finally received word of their safety?
Jessie: I tried calling her two hours later that same day, and the phone line was dead. This was to be expected. But it was three days before we heard any news of her condition. The news headlines didn't help. I was glued to my computer looking for updates but everything they were reporting was devastating—hundreds dead, then thousands dead, at one point they were estimating 10,000 dead, and still no word from her. We were on Facebook all the time, connecting with relatives that live over there in Cebu and less affected areas trying to get any information possible. No one had any contact with our family on Leyte Island for days.
Robert: I didn't learn about the whereabouts or conditions of my mother and extended family until two to three days after the storms passing (Philippines is 14 hours ahead). I spent the weekend trying to stay busy with work and keep my mind occupied to prevent myself from stressing out and getting overwhelmed by all the possibilities and possible outcomes of the storm. My brother, sister, step-brother and step-father were all communicating via text and phone trying to find a source of communication with my mother or family in the Philippines. On Sunday morning, I woke up rather early and sat down with some coffee and tried to stay positive. Thankfully, later in the afternoon, my sister received word via Facebook that our family had survived and that our mother was in good health. Hearing that, it felt like I was hit with a typhoon of relief. I was so happy.
How did you finally get in touch with your loved ones?
Jessie: After the storm, there were constant reports of thousands missing, people starving, and the looting starting just out of desperation. Still no word, and we as well, were getting desperate. At one point, we were coordinating our own relief/recovery mission. We were about to hire our own boat loaded with food, clean water, medicine, a vehicle to get it to our family once it landed, and a hired bodyguard. We were gonna have extra goods to toss off to stave off the looters, but were gonna have some muscle in case it got hairy. People get crazy when they're trying to survive, it was as if we were launching a special ops mission into a post apocalyptic world. Hours before we set this plan into motion, a cousin of ours called our step-father who had been home alone this whole time, and said that our mom was OK. To what degree, still wasn't known, but at the least she survived.
Robert: I didn't have a chance to speak with my mother until 2 a.m. of the 13th. She told me about the evacuation that happened, the destruction left in the wake of the storm and the conditions of her immediate social environment. I inquired about food and supplies as well as the looting and desperation. She told me that they have to wait in line for everything, that retailers are raising prices of food and supplies, gouging their own people. I was most relieved to hear that looting and violence had not taken place in Ormoc city (where she lives), and most of all, that she was safe.
When was the last time you visited the ravaged area?
Robert: My brother and I were able to visit our family and the Philippines about a year and a half ago during April of 2012. The common people of the Philippines live a tough but simple life. They lack many of the amenities that the western world often takes for granted, such as hot water, indoor plumbing, steady electricity (rolling brown-outs are common) and air conditioning. They work from sunrise and often well past sundown. Family and community are important. It's common to see generations living within the same property lines and sometimes the same home. I've only seen media footage of the living conditions and lifestyles of the people post typhoon. I can only imagine the hardships that the people are dealing with now. Especially with a lack of food and supplies.
Has your local community helped at all?
Jessie: In every way possible. I've never been so moved by our community. Our mom comes to visit us semi regularly, and when she does, it's cook outs every night. She's not the type to wanna stay in a hotel, see the sights, she could care less. She wants to hang with her sons and do what we do. She last came to visit us in September, and she came with us to The Acheron to see Robert play, sat in the rain to watch me play soccer, and partied in the bar with us till 3 a.m. Not bad for a 64-year-old woman. This being said, our community in NYC has met our mom, eaten her food, and kicked it with her in the bars. I had no idea the support we would reach in this situation, but it's been immense. We made a video explaining the situation and shot it out to our friends, and the response has been unreal. Not just in donations, but volunteering to help in other ways, fund raisers, benefit shows, even better ways to utilize technology and our circle to make a bigger impact. What I think resonates is that people have met her and know us. This situation is personal and people can truly make a difference in our families recovery. We are in control of this drive, 100% of everything goes directly into our mother's hand instantly.
Has music, and in particular any of your individual projects, played any role in the recovery whether personally or towards efforts in the Philippines?
Jessie: The day that the typhoon hit, I was in LA working on a new project with London May and Hunter Burgan. I came to write with my mom's safety in the forefront of my mind. I dunno, I just started playing, and the guys jumped in. We wrote a song literally while the storm ripped over my mom, and that's all I could think of. So lucky I had a session to distract me... it was the best thing to do to keep me off the news. We'll see what happens to this song, but it's special to me. Captured a very particular, and unpredictable moment in my life. Music has always played a big role in our lives, our community is musicians/creatives. It's our own family here. Everyone came together. Robert and I are playing shows. So far, I'm playing a show with my friend Diane Birch on December 12th at Baby's Alright. There will be more to come for sure. The rebuilding of our family and the Philippines as a whole will be a long process. We're gonna continue playing music regardless. If it can benefit our mother, family, and our roots, all the better. I feel fortunate that we can use our hands, on our instruments, to rebuild our families lives. That's a blessing.