After tragedy, Filipinos still cling to love of reading

by | Mar 9, 2014 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments


A school superintendent tells how his family scrambled to the upper floor of their house. How the storm burst the windows and rain gushed up the steps, swallowing furniture as it swirled higher and higher, like a scene from “Titanic.” How all of them — father, mother and four children — huddled in an upstairs bedroom as the roof blew away in the massive winds, so there was no hiding from the flood below and no hiding from the storm above.

Water rises. A district supervisor explains how one family took shelter in a school building, hoping for safety. But the roof had been built by the Japanese during World War II and had been fastened so tightly, even the typhoon couldn’t lift it. When the water gushed in, there was no getting out. The whole family, seven of them, drowned inside. It is hard for students to look at that building now, the supervisor says, knowing it was a coffin.

Water rises. You travel the landscape of this island province, under a sun so hot you need an umbrella, and you see miles and miles of debris, mud, roofless houses, trees bent in half. Vast stretches of a city that was briefly, in the 1940s, the capital of the Philippines, are now leveled amid scattered pools of water. Industry is gone. Housing is demolished. What little remains seems clung to the earth like a barnacle. People live in tents, huts or the frittered ruins of their homes.

The beast they call Yolanda was the worst typhoon to ever hit this island nation, and the strongest storm to ever touch land since we began measuring such things. It hit Nov. 8, a Friday morning, and the winds at one point reached nearly 200 m.p.h., the speed of an Indy race car. The rainfall totaled 11 inches in some areas — in half a day. Surges of waves, some as high as 13 feet, destroyed entire structures — including the airport — and virtually every home, store, office or commercial building, from kiosks to stadiums, was partly or completely ruined. Bodies floated in the streets. Many were buried in mass graves. In the mud, here and there, you now see scattered flowers and signs with blown-up photos — a smiling child, a hugging couple — paper headstones for loved ones in the ground.

More than 6,000 people were killed by the storm, some are still missing, and estimates have 16 million people affected, most to the point of homelessness. Electricity, even after three months, is limited. Clean water is a luxury. Toilets need help flushing. People point to treetops, saying, “We hung there until help came.”

It is horrible and stunning and apocalyptic in scale, but unlike an apocalypse, the city is still here. The region is still here. And the people are still here, wandering through the skeleton of their old lives, when Tacloban was a thriving, competitive city of 200,000, and Leyte Island was serene and dotted with tourists.

Now they gaze left and right, shaking their heads in disbelief.

Water rises.

Paper salvation

And water subsides.

We have come to the gulf island of Leyte because of the children, because, despite this almost unimaginable disaster, life goes on. Yes, typhoons have destroyed this city before (one storm, just over 100 years ago, wiped out half the population). But it always rebuilds. It will rebuild again. People cobble together their work and their church services. They hang their meager clothes on string lines.

And they reopen their schools. However they can.

On this day, we are visiting several of these schools to see how we can provide something precious, something that remains — despite a landscape of destruction — a most cherished possession among the people here.


Filipinos love books. They love to read. In a nation where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, and an average annual income is around $4,000 U.S., there is still a 95% literacy rate. Books are almost sacred. Even old paperbacks are covered in protective plastic.

But in Tacloban and other areas hard hit by Yolanda, the schoolbooks are gone. So are the libraries, washed away along with most everything else.

At the Pawing Elementary School in Palo Leyte, tents and plywood make for classroom walls. Yet the students are attentive and extremely well behaved, hundreds of them, standing in the heat during a welcoming ceremony. They sing a national anthem (“love of country” is listed as one of the purposes of education) and they join in prayer.

At one point, a teacher says, “We will now have some small entertainment,” and a boy with thick, dark hair and goggle-like glasses steps up and takes the microphone.

He can’t be more than 9 years old.

And he sings.

I wanna make you smile

whenever you’re sad,

Carry you around

when your arthritis is bad,

All I wanna do is grow old with you

It’s a funny song from an old Adam Sandler movie. When he finishes, he says a quick “thank you” in his high, sweet voice, and there is polite applause.

Adam Sandler? You wonder how the world can be so close and so far away at the same time.


“There are maybe 500 or 600 bodies buried here,” says Lilia Tejome, 64, who works in the Department of Education and has spent 44 years in the Filipino school system. She is standing over a muddy field near a school in San Joaquin.

The field is dotted with wooden grave markers and photographs.

A makeshift cemetery.

“When the super typhoon came,” she says, “we could not transport the bodies, not even to the churches. The roads were destroyed. It was decided these bodies should be buried here.

“Not all of them are marked. Who knows who is here? No one knows for sure.”

She grimaces and shakes her head. The burial ground is just steps away from the single-level building in which that family of seven drowned. At first you think, “So close?” but then you realize you can’t go anywhere here and not bump into a ghost. Every structure is beside another that is leveled, every neighbor has a tale to tell, of children being swept from parents’ arms, of friends or associates yet to be found. In such a setting, you rebuild where you can; if a building is standing, you use it.

So the current version of the San Joaquin school is filled with kids and teachers. And a few miles away, in the town of Tanauan, the rubble of the San Roque Elementary School is being dug and shoveled by bare-chested young men, even as children study math from dirty chalkboards.

The principal, Maria Incina, walks us to several classrooms in canvas-roofed structures. She walks us past some older women, ladling soup from a giant pot, because food remains precious, and the children and workers must be fed.

Finally, she walks us to a pink building, or what is left of a pink building, its roof gone, its walls seemingly bombed into craggy remains.

“This used to be the library,” she says.

Could it be rebuilt, she is asked?

“Yes,” she says, enthusiastically.

Could it be restocked?

“Yes,” she says, enthusiastically.

And how many kids would use it?

“Five hundred!”

Her cheeriness in this setting is so jolting, you almost expect someone to shush her.

Help wanted

But in truth, that kind of enthusiasm should be nourished. Built upon. Schools without books are only shells of schools, and there are enough shells already in this region. It is time to replenish.

And so, working with the National Book Store Foundation, a charitable arm of the largest book chain in the Philippines, I have helped form a project called D.R.Y. Libraries of the Philippines, with a goal of rebuilding 10 school libraries in the areas hit hardest by Super Typhoon Yolanda.

With such a deep love of reading in this nation, and so little for the youth to do now, libraries take on a far greater significance. Remember, there is little of the online world that we in America are so used to. Electricity is spotty. Computers are a luxury few children enjoy right now.

So rebuilding libraries brings a grateful handshake wherever it is suggested. As for the books? Well, “D.R.Y.” stands for “Donated Reading to Youth.” “Donated” because I e-mailed some fellow authors I know in the U.S. and asked whether they would join me in donating books from their collections.

I was stunned at how quickly they said yes.

Among those who agreed to send at least 10 copies of their books for these new libraries are Nicholas Sparks, Amy Tan, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling (“Harry Potter”), Jeff Kinney (“Wimpy Kid” series — Kinney offered 500 copies), John Grisham, James Patterson, Suzanne Collins (“The Hunger Games”), Lemony Snicket, Scott Turow, Sophie Kinsella, Dave Barry, Sam Barry, Ridley Pearson, Isabel Allende, Billy Collins, Greg Iles, James McBride, Roy Blount Jr. and dozens more.

So the library shelves — which will serve elementary through high school students — should be well stocked, starting with these authors and fattening through the National Book Store Foundation’s contribution of countless texts and schoolbooks.

That just leaves the building costs. The estimated price tag for the 10 new libraries is $160,000. The National Book Store Foundation has offered to match dollar-for-dollar donations, meaning that if we could raise $80,000, the project would be fully funded.

Just $80,000.

Sure, it’s a lot. Sure, it’s far away. Sure, there are causes closer to home. And money is tight. And everyone struggles. But here’s something to keep in mind: The biggest tourist attraction in this area is a set of 10-foot bronze statues seemingly coming out of the water along the coast. There are seven figures depicted. One of them is of American Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who 70 years ago made good on his famous World War II promise, “I shall return,” by wading ashore just down the road, at Red Beach, in 1944.

During the typhoon, only one of the seven statues was toppled. The others remained, including MacArthur, a symbol of endurance and kept promises. It is an important site here because it reminds the citizens that this can be what people do — reach across their nationalities to help each other.

We can do the same.

After we tour the battered grounds of the San Roque School, Maria Incina asks us to come into one more makeshift structure. There, inside, is a row of teachers, all women, all smiling broadly. A man behind them starts playing a guitar, and on cue, the teachers begin to sing:

Today is a new day

A most important day

We must be happy

For more than yesterday

Forget all the sorrow

It’s time to rejoice,

Today is a new day

A most important day.

It is as sweet a melody as I have ever heard in a classroom, and all I know is that if they can sing so optimistically in this tattered and torn landscape, then giving their students books to read and a place to read them seems like a small act of kindness.

Water rises. Water subsides.

People endure.

If you’d like to contribute, go to, or mail donations to: D.R.Y. Libraries Philippines, A Hole In the Roof Foundation, c/o DRMM, 150 Stimson St., Detroit 48201.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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