We had been warned of Cagayan River’s fury
(Editor’s Note: The author writes for the Inquirer’s Opinion section. He is a Mindanao anthropologist, historian, and educator, and is a member of the national advisory board of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.)
I was born in Cagayan de Oro, as were my parents and most of my ancestors. The first of our forebears to settle here came in 1780.
This is the city of my roots. I thus know firsthand that Cagayan de Oro had never been in the typhoon path. The only aberration historically recorded was in January 1916, when my late father, who was born in 1903, experienced a severely flooded Cagayan de Misamis, as the town was then called.
In what I call the Great Flood of 1916, the Cagayan River overflowed its banks after three days of incessant rain. Many parts of the town had to be traversed by small boats. Historical documents say there was a typhoon that also ravaged the hinterlands bordering the montane plateaus beyond, known today as Bukidnon province.
I grew up with the Cagayan River (not Cagayan de Oro River; the “de Oro” is a recent appendage to the place named Cagayan and is not necessarily transferable to the more ancient river’s name).
The street that lined the bank was the main street of this town that was founded in 1626 by Higaunon headman Datu Salangsang and the Portuguese-born Recollect, Fray Agustin de San Pedro. In the Hispanic era up until the early American years, this street was known as Camino de la Iglesia because it led to the stone church built by the Augustinian Recollects in 1845.
Most of the old families of Cagayan de Misamis built their houses on this street, later renamed Calle Burgos. Except for one, the Reyes-Roa-Chaves house, all those huge and beautiful houses are now gone, looted and torched by the invading Japanese on May 2, 1941.
The Cagayan River was truly the center of my childhood. Among the family tales handed down to us was that of Dolores Margarita Corrales y Roa, a sister of my paternal grandmother, bleeding to death on June 10, 1878, after being bitten by a shark that had strayed into the river.
That should give us an idea how deep this great river was. In Spanish-era maps, it was marked as navigable.
It was here that the trading boats of rich Cagayan merchants—Tirso Neri y Roa and his cousin-wife Mercedes Roa, Ramon Chaves, and the wealthy bachelor Jose Roa y Casas (who became Emilio Aguinaldo’s first Filipino governor of Misamis in 1899)—docked and unloaded their goods to the almacenes, or stores stocked with imported goods that lined the Camino.
Ramon Chaves and his family lived on the second floor of a huge house; the ground floor was his almacen that bore the sign “La Fortuna de Ramon Chaves.”
It was on the riverbank that, in 1882, a Chinese junk unloaded its cargo of red bricks for the new house being built by Sia Ygua. The house is still standing at the former Calle del Mar that leads to the sea. It now bears a marker that the National Historical Commission installed in 2000, when Cagayan commemorated its participation in the Philippine-American War of 1900.
So indelible was the river’s influence on the culture of the town that the Roa clan, to which both my parents belonged, was branched into two—the “Roa sa tubig” (who lived riverside) and the “Roa sa ibabaw” (who lived on higher ground).
My father descended from the former, and from the latter came my maternal grandfather, Juan Roa, who became governor of an undivided Misamis.
Ateneo de Cagayan, today Xavier University, came from the former; its original campus on the Camino was the ancestral house donated to the first bishop, Santiago Hayes, SJ, by Zosimo Roa and his cousin-wife Conchita Roa Roa.
The time has come
Many times as a child, I witnessed the river swell after a heavy rain, but just enough not to spill into our property line. Over many periods, I saw its furious torrents on downcast days, but never cruel enough to engulf the community.
My father, however, always warned that the time would come when the river would unleash its rare fury, just as it did in 1916.
Little did we know that that time had come. There was no clear foreboding of what happened at about 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 17, yet the writing on the wall had been there.
In 1998, I came upon a study of Fernando P. Siringan of the University of the Philippines’ National Institute of Geological Sciences in Diliman. The study on the sedimentation patterns and dispersal at Macajalar Bay where this river empties showed aerial photographs that uncannily matched the old river beds that my father had indicated.
Because they were alluvial deposits—silt and sand deposited by regular flooding and tidal patterns—they appeared of a different, lighter color on the black and white photographs compared to mainland soil.
What I found uncanny was how they matched with historical data. A layman could easily see where the old river course was. Clearly, this was the forerunner of today’s geohazard maps.
The alluvial plains—huge swaths of land that lie on the riverbanks—became a magnet for informal settlers over the last 20 years. And what started as a small delta has grown over the years from continuous siltation.
That is the island now known as Isla de Oro, heavily populated for the last 20 years but nothing but a bar of silt and sand.
It is not true, as Cagayan de Oro Mayor Vicente Emano now says, that he could not do anything because these lands had been settled since 50 years ago. That is plain and simple evasion. Fifty years ago, these places were still uninhabited.
What the river did was to simply reclaim its old course. That should have been predictable.
Cagayan de Oro is ignorant of typhoons. I myself do not know what it feels to be in a typhoon. Perhaps that is the reason for the complacency.
Today’s Cagayan de Oro would rather be agog over becoming a burgeoning metropolis with over a million people on weekends. That will continue to grow with the opening of Ayala Land’s Centrio mall, hotel, and condo tower complex, and the opening of Paseo del Rio mall, convention center and Riviera Hotel high-rise of the genteel Cagayan de Oro heiress, Rafaelita Pelaez Pelaez.
The bitter lesson lies in the misplaced and mismatched mix of rapid urban progress and inept local governance that has not kept up with the global standards of neomodern urban living. Despite its touted growth, Cagayan de Oro remains a “barriotic” city where the mayor tolerates a pedal-pushed and two-stroke public transport system that is the bane of its traffic-choked roads.
It is a lesson in not having foresight of priorities. The mayor claims he is propoor, and hence cannot remove the city’s primitive public transport system and the informal settlers who he sometimes allows to occupy one lane of concrete roads.
That is a strange policy: a city government that encourages informal-settler colonies to mushroom. The objective is clear: votes for the next elections.
Understanding the river
To know the Cagayan River is to understand its very name and the characteristics of the terrain on which it meanders.
The name “Cagayan” was acquired even before the coming of the Spaniards in 1622. As early as the 1500s, the river was already known as Cagayan in official documents.
One historian suggested geographical twinning: The river had exactly the same features as the Cagayan River of Luzon.
Indeed, during the early Hispanic years, the place was known as “Cagayan el chico” (little Cagayan), to distinguish it from El Rio Grande de Cagayan in northern Luzon. And like its geographical counterpart, the river chisels its way to the sea through scenic vertical limestone cliffs and forests.
When it enters the city, it becomes languid and quiet, but deep.
But upstream, the Cagayan River rambles down slope with an estimated 3,883 million cubic meters of runoff annually, making it one of the eight major river basin systems of Mindanao. And while it encompasses 1,521 square kilometers of mountainous terrain, it occupies only 86 sq km of level area.
That is why it is also the city’s main tourism resource: Because it moves down slope at a fast velocity, its water creates white-foam rapids so suitable for white-water rafting—a natural trait not all rivers exhibit.
But there is one more thing to understand. The Cagayan River is an enormous river that has no headwaters, unlike the Pulangi or the Rio Grande de Mindanao. It actually serves as drainage for five other rivers, all large tributaries, up in the Bukidnon mountains. All these rivers are themselves catch basins of rainwater.
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje is right. And this old piece of public information is certainly not Greek to many of us. It is incredible that the city’s local leaders have not pored over it. This is a serious sin of omission.
On Dec. 15, I was already tuned in to public warnings aired by weathermen of the incoming Tropical Storm “Sendong” (international name: Washi).
That evening, public storm signals were already issued. Misamis Oriental would be under Signal No. 2. And as always, there were repeated bulletins of the approximate time the storm would make landfall in the eastern Mindanao coast.
But Mayor Emano now says he did not know about the storm. How could that be?
True enough, as weathermen had announced, Dec. 16 started with downcast skies. Slow and constant rains soon appeared, continuing for the rest of the day. Sendong was scheduled to hit Cagayan de Oro very late at night.
I must admit that I was excited to experience my first big storm. By 10 to 11 that night, the wind began to howl. This went on until midnight and beyond. We were now in the eye of the storm.
But my excitement was brief. The rainfall did not appear to be of the cats-and-dogs variety; it came in steady trickles, dissipated, then resumed. It was uneventful for the rest of the night.
The local power company turned off the electricity. Sleeping in the dark, one could not help but listen to the continuous wind and the trend of the rainfall. Nothing exciting or earthshaking.
But the Cagayan River, a drainage river with a known massive runoff, is not to be judged that way.
Unknown to us, the rainfall over at the Bukidnon side was greater. That rainfall had to naturally settle in its catch basin, and what a mammoth basin it turned out to be.
That early dawn of Dec. 17, Macajalar Bay was on high tide. In all low-lying areas and elsewhere in the city, people were asleep in the dark. The combination was lethal. The rest is now history.
Where was Emano?
Sendong was already a household name, as announced by Pagasa, as early as Dec. 15. Yet it is on record that the mayor never convened the City Disaster Risk Reduction Council. Surely there was ample time for it. But again he says he did not know of the warnings.
Where was Emano on the night Sendong hit Cagayan de Oro?
Nature itself was not without its dire warnings. In January 2009, the Cagayan River overflowed in torrential currents and also claimed lives. That catastrophe is too soon to forget.
And yet the city government allowed the informal settlers to mushroom. It had enough time to design a functioning relocation program, but its last attempt at what was touted as a propoor housing resettlement was so mired in controversy (alleged misappropriated funds, with none of the promised land titles ever issued) that it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
There is one life-and-death aspect that the city government has procrastinated on: The Cagayan River is now heavily silted.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources claims that its warnings to the city government fell on deaf ears. No serious dredging has ever been conducted despite a dredging machine that was acquired more than 10 years ago.
With dredging, the city government must now consider demolishing the entire Isla de Oro.
Under a recent prestige project where it built a tiny boulevard that it called the “Golden Mile,” the city government closed the river channel between the delta and the eastern bank. That was grossly wrong, for it narrowed further what was left of the river’s breadth.
The city government under Emano, in power for the last 13 years, has much to answer for.
It will have to account for the death of more than 1,000 people, the disappearance of more than 1,000 others who may have been washed out to sea, perhaps never to be found by their grieving families, and the displacement of more than 10,000 families.
And it will have to answer for the dumping of the unclaimed bodies in the city’s garbage dump—an unconscionable act that is the height of insensitivity.
No one in Cagayan de Oro is without friends and family who perished. My family was spared, but I will now live with the memory of so many friends who did not survive the devastation.
I will remember the Yrastorza family—Joaquin, Maria Sagrario (Mercader), and their daughter Tish, who died embracing one another. I will remember my cousin Joann Dingcong, who never made it to the rooftop of her own house in Emily Homes. But where could she have gone? All the rooftops in that subdivision were underwater in seconds.
I will remember Nieves Pacana Arcadio, the daughter of a former Cagayan de Oro mayor. She never made it because she could not fit in an overhead window that her niece Jana had broken as their escape hatch after the floodwaters reached for their ceiling.
I will remember little Mica Samson. Her mother’s body has been found but Mica remains missing. Her grandmother, who loved her so much and took her to school each day, will forever be in grief.
And so will countless nameless others.
Rich and poor
The storm hit rich and poor alike. The daughter of a former Cabinet official was saved by a floating surfboard. Her neighbor, a snooty woman doctor, had to sit it out on her rooftop drenched in rain.
Precisely because both rich and poor were devastated, the more it becomes mandatory for heads to roll. And the investigation must focus on the mayor.
There are those who say that a proud city has been brought to its knees. It makes no difference to me.
This is home, albeit a home now in tatters. If I have loved her all my life, I will love her until my last breath.
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