When December turns tragic
By Erik de Castro
December is normally a festive month in the Philippines with the Christmas season a big deal in this country of predominantly Roman Catholics. However, based on experience, heavy rains that can bring flash floods, landslides and lead to ferries sinking are also likely to happen during this period. For some Filipinos who have survived the worst kind of such disasters, December reminds them of the trauma they experienced.
Several villages in Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan City were caught flat-footed as they slept last Friday night when tropical storm Washi swept across Mindanao and Eastern Visayas, bringing strong winds and heavy rains that caused massive flooding, flash floods and landslides.
Early the next day, when a colleague told me that there were scores dead and hundreds still missing, I jumped from my bed, collected my disaster gear and asked for permission from Reuters to fly to the area. As soon as I got the approval, I rushed to the airport to get a flight. It was chaos at the airport as people were going home to the provinces for the holidays. The flight to Cagayan de Oro City was fully booked because flights were cancelled the previous day due to the storm. Many of the passengers were hoping they could finally get a flight, even more so after the disaster as they had to get home to check on their families. The names on the waiting list for stand-by passengers was already in the hundreds, with my name included. By luck, I was able to board one of the flights later in the afternoon.
Immediately upon arrival in Cagayan de Oro City before sundown, I went straight to one of the villages inundated by the storm. It was one of the villages near the riverbank, which became the main path of the flash floods. It was already getting dark so I hurriedly snapped some pictures. Even from afar, one could see the extent of the damage caused by the disaster. Nearly each and every single house near the river was toppled by the raging water with plenty of logs and debris from the mountain. Those that remained standing were nonetheless ruined.
In Balulang village, I photographed weary survivors covered with mud as they tried to retrieve some belongings which were soaked in mud as well. Aside from belongings, some of them were searching among the debris for bodies of family and friends, missing since the storm struck 24 hours earlier. Dead bodies were then lined up on the street for identification. Vehicles swept by the waters were scattered, some piled up on top of another, along with the carcasses of livestock. Typhoon victims huddled in makeshift shelters to cook their meals.
The next morning, I shuttled between Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities photographing the survivors as they tried to move on following the disaster. They cleared their houses of mud while soldiers and police worked around the clock digging among the debris for survivors and bodies. One of the sites they were digging up was the spot in a middle-class subdivision where a two-story house used to stand until it was toppled by a huge log. More than 100 people had sought refuge in the house to avoid the flood – until the log fell on it.
In another residential area in Iligan city, a typhoon survivor who owns a two-story house said that around 200 people from his neighborhood were able to run to his house as the flood water rose. He provided refuge to his neighbors on the second level of his house. However, he could not celebrate his heroic act because while he saved 200 lives, he failed to save his father who lived next to him because the old man was sleeping. He forgot about his father as he assisted his neighbors into his house.
Thousands of survivors and the new homeless started to fill up gymnasiums, schools and churches which served as evacuation centers for the victims. One church in Iligan City hosted both the living and the dead. It was a surreal picture of a Church adorned with Christmas lights illuminating a manger while families mourned the death of three children, whose bodies were inside small coffins adorned with candles. Some refugees, physically and emotionally exhausted from the entire experience, could be seen sleeping next to the coffins.
As more bodies were found, the death toll continued to rise. On Wednesday the death toll breached the 1,000 mark. In Cagayan de oro City, the local government decided to bury decomposing bodies in a mass grave next to a garbage dump as the stench grew strong. On the other hand, the city government of Iligan opposed a mass grave burial for the dead. Instead, local authorities facilitated the construction of apartment-type tombs where the dead could be decently interred.
In a coastal village in Iligan city, more than a mile long stretch of logs and debris were dumped by waters on the shore next to intact houses. Residents said the logs on the shore protected their houses and their lives, they became their savior, but they felt very sad for those who perished because of these logs.
It was all dark and gloomy throughout the coverage except for one unforgettable moment of joy. I was taking pictures of fishermen searching for more bodies and survivors in a coastal town near Iligan. When they came ashore, they apparently recognized me as a photojournalist and told me some good news: “We just rescued a two-year old toddler earlier and four other survivors. The survivors found the child inside a Styrofoam box floating in the water.”
Who would expect that amidst the bad news, there was still good news after all?