Notes from weather-battered eastern Mindanao
A loud bang woke me. I realised after a few seconds it was the sound of the long bamboo pole that held down the tarpaulins sheltering me banging against the balcony outside my room with ferocious force.
Then came the piercing sound of the wind. It was here in eastern Mindanao – in a small two-storey house recently repaired after Typhoon Bopha blew away its roof – that I truly understood what a “howling” wind was.
As my phone buzzed with text messages warning of a Signal 1 storm (defined by the Philippine agency that forecasts and monitors storms as a tropical cyclone with winds of 30 to 60 km per hour) I watched people in flimsier shelters struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Some tarpaulins that had been weighed down by stones and bamboo or nailed onto roofs were coming off and flapping in the wind.
It was Saturday, Jan. 19, and it had been raining heavily for 24 hours when the wind picked up. Little did we know the grim weather would continue for another 12 hours.
By midmorning the next day, the area’s Cateel River had swollen so much that it had started to flood communities along its banks. Water was lapping at the sides of the road, and families who had recently returned to patch up homes that were damaged and destroyed by Bopha fled yet again.
By midday, the lone bridge that crosses the river and links Cateel and Baganga – two of the worst-hit municipalities in Davao Oriental province – was starting to erode. Residents lay down a metal sheet to cover the widening hole, making it barely usable for heavy vehicles.
My housemates, employees for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) doing disaster relief in some of the worst-affected municipalities, were supposed to have their first Sunday off since Bopha hit on Dec. 4, but they were called out for emergency assistance.
LIVES UPENDED AGAIN
I visited Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley nearly seven weeks after Bopha. Mindanoans had been warned before Bopha, but the severity of the storm still caught them by surprise. For a few days, there was a sense of relief: it seemed that the death toll was low and that the early warning had worked.
However, a week later news trickled in from places cut off by the storm, and the scale of the devastation emerged – almost 2,000 people dead or missing, more than 210,000 homes damaged, 1 million people in need of food assistance, and more than 6 million affected.
When I visited Davao Oriental a month and a half after Bopha, flattened homes, uprooted trees and twisted metal still littered the roadsides. Many schools, churches and government buildings still had no roof. Livestock roamed the streets, searching for food.
Yet there was also an amazing sense of community spirit amongst survivors like Evelyn Reyes, the owner of a plot of land on higher ground that is a stone’s throw away from the bridge across the Cateel River.
Also displaced, Reyes was letting some 200 people take refuge on her land. Her home is in San Alfonso village along the river, but like others, she fled in the early hours of Sunday. Many people were unable to bring the relief goods they had received over the past several weeks.
“They need food and shelter. They only have about two days’ worth of food,” she told me, pointing towards newcomers pitching makeshift tents in the pouring rain as buffalos and pigs grazed nearby.
Some had been there for weeks. In one tent, a family of six had not gone home since Bopha. The wife gave birth to a baby girl in the one-room tent on Jan. 10. “She’s healthy, but we haven’t been able to get medicine or check-up for her,” she told me.
ICRC only happened upon the plight of the flood victims on Reyes’ land because they were forced to stop nearby, their vehicle unable to pass a flood-affected stretch of road. It made me wonder about other spontaneous makeshift settlements that journalists and aid workers had not or could not reach. Surely there had to be more.
Many people I met, both aid workers and survivors, felt frustrated and helpless under the relentless downpour.
Gilbert, a 21-year-old student, who lives near the Cateel River and sadly surveyed the flooded scene the Sunday when I visited. His house, damaged by Bopha, was already half-submerged by rainwater that had spilled down the hill behind his home. If the river rose any higher and reached his house, there would be nowhere to go.
He and a few villagers were monitoring the situation and doing the only thing they could do – pray for the best.
Then there were those who live on the wrong side of Andap, a village in Compostela Valley. On Tuesday, Jan. 22, the only road linking them to the outside world was obstructed by logs, rocks and a raging torrent triggered by the previous night of heavy rain.
Villagers on the other side of the stream were completely cut off. Even military vehicles were unable to cross.
We had earlier crossed sections of the road littered with debris – first with a small car, then by hitching a ride on a four-wheel drive, but when we reached the blockage in Andap, we gave up. As we were heading back to the nearest highway, a large army truck that was supposed to be evacuating villagers zoomed past, splashing muddy brown water everywhere.
I did not see any villagers in the back of the truck and hoped they had left empty-handed only to ask for reinforcements.
Picture Credit: Evelyn Reyes, owner of a plot of land in Cateel municipality in Davao Oriental province that has given refuge to about 100 families who were displaced again due to bad weather. Reyes herself lives in a community near the Cateel river that was flooded again on Jan 20, the day this picture was taken, after hours of heavy rain. AlertNet/Thin Lei Win