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Deadly mix for disaster

No flood warning, high tide, darkness


12:35 AM December 19th, 2011

By: Inquirer Staff, December 19th, 2011 12:35 AM

WIPEOUT Rampaging waters from the Cagayan de Oro River swept away this entire community of some 400 households in Sitio Kala-Kala, Barangay Macasandig, in Cagayan de Oro City. BOBBY LAGSA/INQUIRER MINDANAO

The absence of a flood warning, high tide, darkness and a false sense of security proved disastrous for people of northern Mindanao when Tropical Storm “Sendong” came over the weekend.

Add illegal logging, rapid urbanization and mining, and the result was deadly for residents of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities, government and Red Cross officials said.

Entire villages were washed away, homes flattened, bridges broken and vehicles upended.

The death toll from the flash floods on Sunday rose to at least 711 in Mindanao. Hundreds remained missing.

The Philippine Red Cross (PRC) said it was a combination of factors that led to the tragedy.

“It’s unusual for Mindanao; a month’s worth of rainfall fell in only a few hours; people were already asleep; the storm hit pineapple plantations that don’t absorb water; it was high tide and waterways were heavily silted. It was unprecedented and overwhelming,” said PRC secretary general Gwendolyn Pang.

In Cagayan de Oro, the bodies, many bloated and bluish and frozen in grotesque poses, continued to pile up in funeral homes. Senior Supt. Gerardo Rosales, city police chief, said 474 bodies had been recovered. A total of 482 persons remained missing.

Officials said 214 died in Iligan, 15 in Bukidnon, five in Compostela Valley and three in Zamboanga del Norte.

The government and the Red Cross appealed for help to feed, clothe and house more than 35,000 people huddled in evacuation centers as soldiers battled to recover bodies.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said that President would fly to the devastated areas on Tuesday.


Nereus Acosta, presidential adviser on environment, said the deforestation of watersheds in Lanao del Norte and Bukidnon, which feed into the major rivers of Mindanao, had worsened the effects of heavy rains.

Since there were fewer trees to hold water and prevent erosion, the flow of rain water from upstream to the lowland areas turned to be stronger and more destructive.

“We can really see how vulnerable we are. When you tamper with the watersheds and the forests, we become vulnerable,” Acosta said.

Acosta said small-scale and illegal mining played a role, too, in the tragedy although it was “minor” compared to deforestation.

He noted there was some small-scale mining near the city, which could have contributed to the siltation of the river.

Leo Jasareno, Mines and Geosciences Bureau chief, said the topography of the two cities also rendered them prone to massive flooding. These are low-lying areas with reduced capacity to accommodate rushing water from the deforested upstream rivers.


Jasareno said the two cities’ capacity to hold water had been reduced due to rapid urbanization. This decreased the area for water runoff and caused the siltation of the Cagayan River, he said.

“The tributaries could not hold the load from Cagayan River. It has to go somewhere,” he said.

Acosta also noted that the heavy rains from Sendong caught the local officials unawares. While Mindanao receives rain at this time of the year, typhoons, which often move northward to the Visayas or Luzon, usually do not pose a threat.

Some local officials became “complacent” and it appeared that the Cagayan River did not have a warning system to alert authorities and residents of overspilling, Acosta said.

“They said there had been floods before but nobody died. We’ve had floods for the past two Christmases now,” an exasperated Acosta said.

Less water than Ondoy’s

Northern Mindanao usually experiences some rains at this time of the year but not as much as the downpour dumped by Sendong.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) said Sendong carried less rain than Tropical Storm “Ondoy,” which put 80 percent of Manila underwater.

Ondoy poured 300 millimeters of rain in six hours. Sendong, on the other hand, dumped 180 mm on Lumbia Airport in Misamis Oriental in a span of 24 hours starting at 8 a.m. of Dec. 16, according to Pagasa data.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said residents of areas in the path of Sendong had not been warned about the extraordinarily large volume of rainfall expected from the storm.

“There was no (warning) about the amount of rainfall. But Pagasa was accurate about the passage of the storm, about the coverage of areas that could possibly be affected by rains,” said Edgardo Ollet, NDRRMC operations center chief.

He said the agency passed on Pagasa’s storm warning advisory to local disaster management councils of the affected areas in Mindanao and the Visayas.

But the local councils evidently did not expect flash floods of Ondoy-like proportions.

“They did not prepare for this level or intensity of the storm because these places had not experienced the level of typhoons like those felt in Luzon,” Ollet said.

There were reports that local disaster councils had not been convened before Sendong’s arrival, with local officials being quoted as saying that storms don’t usually pass their way.

Educate people

The PRC urged local government units in the area to be prepared for disasters by ensuring that people know how to handle disaster situations.

“The best way to prepare is educate people about the effects of the changing climate in their own language. And to communicate that they can help reduce the risk of disaster and hazards. Community people should be empowered with knowledge and information as well as training,” Pang said.

PRC chair Richard Gordon said lessons had been learned from previous floods “but the storms nowadays are getting stronger and there is insufficiency in the arrival of information about them.”

The flash floods came in the dead of the night and during high tide.

PRC data showed that 20 towns and cities reported damage to life and property due to floods and landslides. A total of 75 villages were affected, including 18 in Compostela Valley; 17 each in Cagayan de Oro and Zamboanga del Norte; 15 in Iligan; and eight in Dumaguete.


Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the government would do an assessment, including who should be held accountable for the massive loss of lives.

“At this point, we should not focus first on accountability but rather on helping [the victims],” Valte said.

She acknowledged “conflicting” reports on whether proper warnings had been given on time. But she noted that Malacañang had gotten as early as Dec. 14 Pagasa’s advice for people in areas to be affected by Sendong to prepare.

Despite the warnings, some people did not heed them because they did not want to leave their homes and because their areas were not prone to flooding, Valte said.

Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez urged the President to lay down the ground rules for forced evacuation to prevent loss of lives in disaster areas.

Rodriguez said it was about time the government used the military and police to compel residents to leave their homes.


In Iligan, 10 survivors floating in the waters for at least 30 hours were rescued eight miles off the coast of Initao, Misamis Oriental, on Sunday morning.

The Philippine Coast Guard, in a report, said the survivors were all from the city’s Barangay Hinaplanon. It added that several bodies were found near the area where the survivors had been plucked.

Employing volunteers among its fisherfolk, the local governments of Kauswagan and Bacolod in Lanao del Norte also deployed sea patrols to scour the waters.

Kauswagan Mayor Rommel Arnado said he organized eight patrols after receiving information some fishermen saw people still floating in the sea.

On Saturday, many of the survivors rescued and bodies recovered were from the waters off the coasts of Lanao del Norte and Misamis Oriental towns near Iligan.

The city social welfare and development office said 447 Iligan residents were still missing.


In Bukidnon, at least 15 people died and dozens of others, including a  police official, were missing.

Eleven died in Baungon municipality while four others drowned in Libona town as torrential rains swelled rivers and submerged 32 villages until Sunday, according to Arsenio Alagenio, provincial disaster risk reduction management head.

One of those missing was Insp. Charlito Penuliar, leader of a nine-man rescue team from the police regional office in northern Mindanao. He was swept by floodwaters as he crossed the Bubunawan River, which separates Baungon and Libona towns, Alagenio said.

“His head bobbed twice as he was swept by the rampaging river, and moments later he was gone,” the disaster official said.

All the victims died from the flood although minor landslides in the land-locked province were reported. Alagenio said some of the dead were swept out to the sea and found among the bodies recovered in Bonbon, Cagayan de Oro.

Water crisis

An impending water crisis is looming as the Cagayan de Oro Water District (COWD) is yet to reestablish water connection to several affected areas in the city.

COWD chair Joel Baldelovar said the water supply had been reduced to 20 percent of the 300 million cubic liters it used to supply to the city.

Councilor Dante Pajo, chair of the city’s health committee, called on residents to boil their drinking water.

Residents have been lining up at water refilling stations across the city. Fire volunteers have started rationing water.

Valte said the provinces devastated by Sendong were in desperate need of clean and potable water as well as portable toilets.

She said the social welfare department had started to send bottled water to Mindanao. Manila Water sent water tankers and the Local Water Utilities Administration will soon bring “portable potable water canisters to replace the water systems in Cagayan de Oro temporarily,” she said.

Iligan was in need of portalets in evacuation centers, Valte said, noting this was mentioned by Mayor Lawrence Cruz.

She said Maynilad had offered 1,500 500-ml water bottles while the Red Cross had offered collapsible water containers.

Gordon said 1,700 aid parcels containing ready-to-eat food and nonfood items, such as blankets, utensils and drinking cups were on their way to Cagayan de Oro and Iligan from the PRC chapter in Davao City.

Two water sanitation and filtration units, each with a capacity of 3,000 liters an hour, were on their way to Cagayan de Oro and Iligan to provide evacuees with clean drinking water, Gordon said.

Sendong, with gusts of up to 80 km per hour, was hovering about 60 km west of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, and was expected to move out of Philippine waters late on Sunday. Reports from JB R. Deveza, Bobby Lagsa, Ryan D. Rosauro, Richel V. Umel and Frinston L. Lim, Inquirer Mindanao; Kristine L. Alave, Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Jerome Aning, Christine O. Avendaño, Gil Cabacungan Jr. and Jaymee Gamil in Manila; Redempto Anda, Inquirer Southern Luzon; and AFP and Reuters


In Cagayan de Oro, the bodies, many bloated and bluish and frozen in grotesque poses, continued to pile up in funeral homes. Senior Supt. Gerardo Rosales, city police chief, said 474 bodies had been recovered. A total of 482 persons remained missing.

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