‘It’s no more’: Philippine surfing paradise wiped out by typhoon

In this photo taken on December 17, 2021, a destroyed house stands along the coast in Ubay town, Bohol province in central Philippines, a day after super Typhoon Rai devastated the town. (Photo by Dave Responte / AFP)

by Ferdinandh Cabrera
Agence France-Presse

GENERAL LUNA, Philippines (AFP) – Resort and bar owners on a Philippine island popular with surfers and tourists were expecting a bumper Christmas holiday after Covid-19 restrictions finally eased. Then Super Typhoon Rai wiped them out.

The strongest storm to hit the archipelago this year cut a swathe through Siargao, a tropical paradise known for its sandy beaches, big waves and relaxed vibe.

Packing wind speeds of 195 kilometres (120 miles) per hour as it made landfall on the island last Thursday, Rai uprooted palm trees, shredded thatched roofs, smashed wooden buildings, and toppled power poles.

The widespread destruction left the island — voted the best in Asia by Conde Nast Traveler readers this year — unrecognisable.

“The day after the storm, we went outside and we were like ‘wow, this is Siargao now, it’s no more’,” Claudine Mendoza, 27, a sous chef at a beachfront resort, told AFP.

Uprooted coconut trees and destroyed house are seen next to a sinage in Dapa town, Siargao island on December 21, 2021, days after super Typhoon Rai devastated the island. (Photo by Ferdinandh CABRERA / AFP)

“Even Cloud Nine is no more, it was really devastated,” Mendoza said, referring to the island’s surf break where a wooden boardwalk — a favoured selfie spot for tourists — was swept away by the typhoon.

The storm is a bitter blow for tourism operators, hitting them a week before the Christmas holidays when many Filipino families typically head to the country’s famed beaches and dive spots.

Pandemic travel restrictions decimated visitor numbers to the island in the past two years, leaving many resorts, cafes, souvenir shops and tour guides struggling to survive.

But domestic tourism began to pick up in recent months as the government relaxed rules to boost economic activity — though it kept a ban on foreign travellers entering the country.

“Everyone was so happy, the island was lively again,” Mendoza said. “Then suddenly the storm came.”

This handout photo taken on December 21, 2021 and received from the Office of the Philippine Vice President on December 22 shows Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo (front 2nd L) inspecting an area hit by Super Typhoon Rai in Bais city, Negros Oriental in the central Philippines. (Photo by Handout / OFFICE OF THE PHILIPPINE VICE PRESIDENT / AFP)

Now, business owners face expensive repairs or having to start from scratch, and their employees an uncertain future.

Some are wondering if it is even worth trying to begin again.

“This typhoon is much worse for us than the pandemic — the pandemic didn’t cause any (structural) damage,” said resort owner Anton Alvarez.

“We think we have the capacity to rebuild but there’s no point in rebuilding if it’s just us — we need the whole of Siargao to rebuild.”

‘What will happen now?’

Tricycles speeds past fallen coconut trees at the height of Super Typhoon Rai along a highway in Del Carmen town, Siargao island on December 20, 2021, days after Super Typhoon Rai hit the province. (Photo by Roel CATOTO / AFP)

With electricity across the island knocked out, there is no signal or internet, which has hampered efforts of disaster agencies to assess the full extent of the death and destruction caused by the storm.

A least 375 people were killed on the islands hit by Rai, national police have reported — including 167 in the region that includes Siargao.

Farmers and fisherfolk have also seen their livelihoods destroyed, and thousands of families left homeless.

Elka Requinta, a marketing coordinator on Siargao, said the strength of the typhoon caught everyone by surprise.

“We didn’t expect it to be this bad,” said Requinta, 36.

“You have locals who were hit because I don’t think there was a call for any evacuation from the government.”

This undated handout photo received from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on December 22, 2021 shows a damaged building on Thitu island in the disputed Spratly Islands, days after Super Typhoon Rai hit the southern and central regions of the archipelago. (Photo by Handout / Philippine Coast Guard / AFP)S

It could take months for power to be fully restored to the island, making it difficult for business owners to talk to their partners and investors about the future.

Alvarez said he would like to reopen his resort within 12 months, but admitted that was “pretty optimistic”.

“What will happen now?” asked Mendoza.

“We don’t know.”