Monday, November 5, 2007

BLAZING STORIES: Hope from the Ashes

How do you recover from losing everything you worked your whole life for?

If you are John Rodrigo, you try to move on with grace and hope.

The former U.S. Navy diesel mechanic and instructor worked hard for 20 years to realize his American dream: to be able to build a home and provide security for his family.

It took a while but through backbreaking effort and perseverance that Filipinos are world-famous for, the devoted husband and father was able to do just that.

But in just one day, Mother Nature intervened and burned down his dream.

Ramona residents John Rodrigo, 61, and Jeanette Rodrigo, 62, and their grownup children lost three houses, several cars and a lifetime's worth of possessions amounting to more than 2 million dollars to the devastating Witch Fire which burned 195,000 acres in San Diego County. The fire gutted over 640 homes, damaged 250, and injured many firefighters. Heavy Santa Ana winds knocked down power lines causing the fires, according to reports.

"My children were asking me, 'What are we going to do now?' Rodrigo said.

The houses of the Rodrigo children were gifts from their parents.

"Those houses, masakit talaga na nawala kasi 'yun ang pamana ko sa kanila eh. Di bale na sana kami ng asawa ko, kaso yung mga anak ko tsaka yung mga apo ko, kawawa naman, nawalan ng bahay."

What's worse, the two houses did not have fire insurance. It was their worst-case scenario realized: They couldn't get coverage for the 24 acre-farm due to a lack of fire hydrant.

"Wala sa water district eh so we have our own water well," he said.

Rodrigo's property was full of fruit-bearing trees, a barn, lots of farm animals, and wide-open spaces where his children grew up. He said he is sad that his grandchildren won't be able to enjoy their place the way they used to.

When I spoke with Rodrigo a few days after the fire, he was at a doctor's clinic, getting his wife's blood pressure checked.

"Na-high blood ang misis ko dahil sa nangyari eh," he said.

"But I told my family that we have to move forward," he said. "We have a lot to do. We can't keep thinking backwards. I'm hoping for the best."

"Pasalamat ko lang sa Diyos, walang nasaktan sa amin," he said. "We'll be okay."

Below is his account of how this tragedy changed their lives forever.
–Yong B. Chavez,

"Matagal na kami sa Amerika, yung misis ko, 1961 pa. Dati syang nurse sa Long Beach, ako naman nasa US Navy, 20 years ako doon.

We bought the land in 1976. Ako mismo ang nagtayo ng bahay namin. Bumili ako ng sarili kong gamit, even a bulldozer, at meron din akong kaibigan sa construction na tumulong sa akin.

In 1978, finally natapos na magawa ang bahay namin. It was on a 3,000 square feet land with 3 bedrooms, a second floor, and a full basement.

Blood, sweat and tears talaga pero sulit naman. It was a very nice place, very peaceful. We had all kinds of animals and fruits. My two kids grew up here.

Even if they have left to live on their own, they still lived near us. We gave them their houses: one has 2 bedrooms, the other has 3 bedrooms.

I'm retired, and my hobby is taking care of and fixing antique cars: a GTO 1970 and a Jeepster 1941.

We haven't experienced a fire before so when it happened, we were really surprised.

My son called me, sabi nya: "Dad, I think the fire is coming so I'll move the truck and then I'll come back."

However, once he left he was not allowed to come back anymore. Too risky daw. Sayang, kung pinabalik sya, we would have time to save the antique cars and other things.

But the fire was so fast. My wife and I evacuated as fast as we can.

Later on, we found out that all of the houses were gone.

Masakit talaga. Nawala ang bahay namin, ang mga tools ko, ang mga kotse namin, all of our trees, gone.

Pati yung mga wedding pictures namin at saka yung mga pictures ng mga apo ko, nasunog lahat. We were able to save our house deed pero yun naman we could have gotten a copy even if the original burned.

The other day was the first time I returned to the house. I knew what to expect already so I prepared myself before we went. I have to accept it. Mother Nature ang dahilan eh, so there's nothing I can do about it.

We were told not to touch anything. The water line was contaminated so I had our well repaired so that there will be good water available for our area. My neighbors also lost their houses. Only three homes were spared.

Our insurance guy is coming soon. I have to prepare a list of what we lost. It will be a long list.

Right now, we're staying at a friend's house. Another friend has lent us their RV. But after the insurance talk, I told my wife we have to look for a place to rent already.

We lost our house and we lost our sense of security. I really feel bad for our children, but I have hope that everything will still be all right."
-John Rodrigo, Ramona, Calif.

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