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.