by Erul John Ubas, Nikki Magbanua and Julius D Mariveles
KABANKALAN CITY, Negros Occidental, Philippines – Except for gloomy skies and a cool habagat wind that blew over the public plaza here, there were no howling winds and flying debris like in the same month last year when this first-class city bore the brunt of Odette, a Category 4 storm that barelled through the province’s southern corridor.
Odette left at least nine people dead here and scores more in the neighboring localities.
Whatever memories people in this city of 200,000 had about the storm, these were forgotten, at least even for a moment as the city took on a festive Yuletide air for the first time after two years under a pandemic and a superstorm.
“This is going to be the longest in southern Philippines,” Eric Tenerife, the publicist of sitting Mayor Benjie Miranda told DNX of the Tunnel of Stars in the middle of the public square that had, like many else in the world, become a howling empty spot for years as public spaces were emptied by health restrictions brought by the COVID19 pandemic.
Tenerife said the tunnel is made up of at least 125,000 multicolored LEDs sprinkled with star silhouettes.
Right in the middle of the plaza, a 200-foot star was lighted with two other giants – one at the City Hall, the other at the rotunda – that are echoed by smaller ones in the 32 villages here.
Miranda bills the event as part of the “Star City of the South” concept that hopes to echo a message of hope after long months of gloom.
Miranda, the newly-elected chief executive here who is on a fresh term, led the countdown in turning on the giant star followed by the tunnel and the floodlights.
Before the official ceremony, young and old alike danced zumba to the official Christmas jingle “Star City in the South” composed by award winning composer Johnny Ravina, a native here, and interpreted by Rhea Abello
“Aim high, Kabankalanon, kita maghili-ugyon!” the jumpy refrain of the song went as zumba participants, mostly women, some elderly, jumped up and down to the bouncy melody.
The crowd cheered as the Tunnel of Lights lighted up, breaking the pitchblack darkness in the plaza.
“This is very significant because we are remembering Odette this month but we are looking forward to better days,” Randy Sison, the administrator here told DNX.
Near the stage built on the southern end of the plaza, the Kabankalan Rondalla members stayed on even after they have finished leading the national anthem.
The vice mayor and most of the councilors joined Miranda on stage.
“This is our first time to go to an event like this during Christmas,” a mother, 46, from Talubangi tells DNX as she helps her two sons, 5 and 8, sit on a cement bench.
She said her house near the riverbank was swept by the flood last year.
Elsewhere around the plaza, parents, kids roamed, buying the usual plaza refreshments and snacks – ice scramble, bright yellow pancakes, popcorn – as children screamed at the man selling bright-colored balloons and pleaded with their father or mother to buy one for them.
December brings bad memories here but as the lights turn on in the Star City of the South, those might soon be swept away by the habagat winds.