Friday, December 23, 2011

Tragedy in our Midst

I know most of us are neck-deep in preparation for our Christmas celebrations but I would like to share these stories of two of my colleagues who were personally affected by Typhoon Sendong. Not to dampen the merriments but just a reminder to help our fellowmen.


When T left her hometown, Cagayan de Oro, a week ago, she had no inkling that she was not going to see it in the same state again. On 16 December, Typhoon Sendong (Washi) unleashed flash floods in the dead of the night, devastating the coastal city and causing widespread destruction its people have never seen or imagined.  

The raging floods swept away people and property, devastating 20 towns and leaving more than 1,000 dead. The damage was so massive that the Philippine government has declared a national state of calamity.

For the people in the affected areas, the losses were tremendous and the experience, daunting.
T’s husband and family, all based in Cagayan de Oro, were forced to seek higher ground as the waters rose quickly and entered their house, located near Cagayan River. They had seconds to escape in complete darkness. Unfortunately, a 70-year old aunt was unable to get out of the house in time.

"Everything happened very fast, and now things have changed forever," T says. Only two structures now remain standing in their compound which used to be home to five families. Their vehicle was submerged in the floods. Mud covers the few items that they salvaged. T’s family, now based in an evacuation center along with hundreds of homeless families, is slowly picking up the pieces of their lives. They want to start cleaning up, but unfortunately, supplies are limited. Fresh water is not yet available.

Amidst the loss and uncertainty, T tries to find hope. She is scheduled to fly back home before Christmas Eve as she knows that her assistance is needed there. She draws strength from the words and expressions of help and support from colleagues, family, and friends. Starting anew may be difficult, but with others’ help, she – as with the rest of the affected people—can build life anew. "We cannot stop hoping — it is the only thing that sustains us now," she says.


Article below written by another colleague:

For the past 3 days, as L and I drive to town to buy cleaning materials, food, and water, we witness haunting scenes and hear stories of devastation that we never imagined would happen to our very own community in Iligan.

Two hundred meters from our house, there is a new Honda Civic waiting for its owner—a professor at the Mindanao State University—to return. At around 10 p.m. on Friday, 16 December, the professor tried to save his car from the rising flood waters, before rushing back to his house in Orchid Homes to save his family. But along the way, he was struck by a log and now lies in a hospital fighting for his life. There are many other scenes that speak of this tragedy.

Until this weekend’s floods, Orchid Homes, a  housing development built over the past decade, seemed to be an idyllic place to live in. It is located on a peninsula bounded by the sea and the last bend of the usually peaceful Bayug River. About three kilometers upstream is the bridge on the national highway leading to Iligan, built about six meters above normal water level.

Logs and mud
Last Friday, close to midnight, a torrent of muddy water carrying huge logs from Bukidnon’s forests was raging 2 to 3 meters over this bridge. The water cut down all in a path almost a kilometer wide straight to the sea across Bayug Island, drowning riverside homes—including  our own—and sweeping straight through Orchid Homes.

“Never in my 65 years here has this river’s waters reached this height”, an old-time neighbor told me after the flash floods. The worst flood in this area was in 1982, he said, but the water level was at least three meters lower than this year’s floods.

There was a very short window of time for people to realize they were in danger and act. At about 10 p.m., Army reservists rushed to Orchid Homes and across to Bayug Island to awaken people and warn them to leave. However, many people did not wake up, apparently not believing they were in danger. By 10:30 p.m., the water was knee deep and continued rising over the next minutes. What surprised people was the speed and strength of the water current. Between 11:30 and midnight, the floods peaked, ripping wooden houses from their foundations and completely submerging many single-storey concrete houses.

To describe it, the scene was very similar to the tsunami in Japan that swept all in its path. However, this flood came in the dead of night. Other than cars and debris from destroyed houses, this flood also carried a deadly cargo of huge logs—over one meter in diameter and up to 10 meters long—which hit people and destroyed property. These logs were cut from the forests far away and are now strewn around our neighborhood.

A safe haven for all
Amidst all this devastation, we can only do our best to pitch in and help out. Thankfully, late last year, we extended our house and decided to add a concrete roof to create a large upstairs terrace. On Friday night, this was the highest point in the barangay.

Over 100 people, from babies to the elderly plus pigs and chickens took shelter on our terrace as the waters swirled through the house below. A neighbor, told me that her daughter was trapped in her bedroom and that her husband forced open the door so they could flee the rising waters and reach our rooftop. It is good to know that our terrace became a safe haven for people during the most critical hours.

Yet one cannot help but feel a strong sense of loss. I heard over 400 are dead and 200 are still missing in Iligan. When added to the 700 or more souls lost in Cagayan de Oro, Typhoon Sendong has led to one of the greatest losses of life in recent Philippine history.

Still, we have to move on. For now, we are focused on helping each other out. Many neighborhood children have cuts, so yesterday, L rounded them up so that they could be given tetanus shots by her brother’s nurse volunteer friends.

The new homeless
In between cleaning up and helping out, we visited the suspension bridge which was the link for Bayug Island residents for over 25 years. A few steel cables lying in the mud attached to huge foundation beams are all that are left. B and S, long-time residents who knew L from childhood, were sitting looking forlorn under two pieces of roofing iron, with just a plastic chair and a small bag of clothes—their house gone. R, a 7-year old neighbor, and his five brothers and sisters ate dinner at our house tonight, also homeless. People are devastated and suffering but realize that life has to go on.

Definitely, support for those left homeless is needed as people come to terms with their losses and rebuild their lives. I know that life will never be the same again for the people in our community, but I do hope that the process of rebuilding and recovery can begin soon with other people’s help.

Again here's a list on how we can all help.

*Articles and photos taken from our office website.
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