NEW BATAAN, Compostela Valley––Gomer Opiso thought he would never make it alive as he swam in a raging torrent of mud that swept his village on Tuesday as Typhoon “Pablo” struck with a ferocity never before experienced in its history.
“Every time I bobbed my head out of the water, I was thinking that I was already dead. I lost consciousness. Then I woke up,” he said.
He was, in fact, one of several dozen miracle survivors of the strongest typhoon to hit the country this year.
In its update at midmorning, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said it had so far counted 327 dead from Pablo’s predawn rampage.
But as the toll of lives steadily mounted, another tally was rising.
At least 38 of those previously declared missing had been found alive, giving fresh hopes for an estimated 380 unaccounted for as rescuers led by the military’s Eastern Command combed remote villages cut off by damaged roads and bridges.
Maj. Gen. Ariel Bernardo, commander of the 10th Infantry Division, said the chances of finding survivors in the debris were slim, but search and rescue operations were continuing. “It’s been three days already. It’s a race against time,” Bernardo said.
He said an aerial survey showed several areas were “totally wiped out.”
Opiso recalled desperately gasping for breath each time his head dipped under the thick floodwaters that hurtled down the slopes of Barangay (village) San Roque in this sleepy farming and mining town of 45,000 people, now littered with toppled coconut trees and debris from destroyed houses.
At the end of his deathly ride, the 23-year-old charcoal maker found himself 5 kilometers away from home, looking and feeling like a beaten man. His face and body bore numerous cuts, gashes and bruises. But he was alive.
‘It’s a miracle’
Another survivor who surfaced Thursday was Carlos Agang, 54. Slathered in mud and teary-eyed, he recounted to reporters how his small community of banana and coconut farmers was obliterated as a deadly wall of water and monster winds that Pablo—international name: Bopha—generated as it made landfall before dawn on Tuesday.
“It’s a miracle that I survived, but I might as well be dead,” Agang said as aid workers carried him off on a stretcher to be airlifted to the hospital. He said he survived on coconuts for two days.
Flash floods had carried away Agang’s mountainside home outside New Bataan along with him, his wife and four children. The floodwaters deposited him downstream in a boulder-strewn field, where he lay pinned down for two days by rocks and debris.
“I was shouting for help all the time, but no one came. I don’t know what happened to (my family). Perhaps they are all dead,” said Agang, who was finally rescued by local residents early Thursday.
Rescuers were still depositing unidentified corpses at a government yard in the center of town Thursday, near a gymnasium packed with scores of homeless typhoon victims lying on mats on the wet, muddy floor.
Most houses and buildings in the town were flattened by boulders and logs that rolled down the mountainside, and the ground was carpeted with sludge.
Stench of death
Shell-shocked survivors scrambled through the rubble to find anything that could be recovered, as relatives searched for missing family members among the newly arrived body bags delivered by soldiers.
“We expect to retrieve more bodies today,” said Francisco Macalipay, a Philippine Army soldier who commanded the truck delivering the bodies.
Macalipay said rescuers were struggling to reach villages amid the destroyed roads and wrecked bridges, but finding corpses was hardly a problem.
“Just let your nose lead you to them,” he told Agence France-Presse, referring to the overpowering stench of dead bodies everywhere.
The toll of lives from the typhoon was posted on a bulletin board in front of a multipurpose hall at the town center, where dozens of bedraggled residents with mud-caked feet waited for relief goods, or for word about their lost loved ones. The count was 92 as of midday on Thursday.
It was about 6 a.m. when Opiso and his small family heard the storm roaring outside. Langwan, one of the rivers in the town, had risen to dangerous levels, he said. “It sounded like a ship was coming straight at us,” he said in Cebuano.
“I was holding hands with my wife and our daughter, then the water just slammed into our house. It was so strong, and we were separated. I felt like we were being spun around by the mud,” Opiso said.
The house along with all the occupants in it was swept away in the surge.
From a different vantage point, Pedro Cabuñas, 38, was warily watching the Mayo River from his small house in Barangay Andap, one of the hardest hit villages here.
“From where I was standing, it was just this wide,” he said, motioning with his hands stretched to about half a foot. “Then moments later, it was already this wide,” he said spanning his hands by two feet.
Upon seeing the river, he said he and his family quickly fled to the house of a cousin, along with the entire neighborhood of 10 families. “We crammed inside because we knew it was only a matter of time before the river spilled,” he said.
Cabuñas and his family survived but he said scores of others in his village were not as lucky.
“They huddled together in the barangay center thinking they were safe. But the wall of water crashed directly into them,” he said.
The corn grower claimed that as many as 800 had died in Barangay Andap. “It’s not just 200 or 300. Don’t believe a word of it. An entire barangay was lost,” he said.
Unlike New Bataan, in most other sections of the gold-rich Compostela Valley, the enemy was the wind, not the water.
Alfie Ayuban, a miner digging in Camanlangan, said he and his family huddled together inside their roadside home in Compostela Valley town as the storm raged.
“It was impossible to go outside to even take a look at what was happening. Galvanized iron roofs were flying around. You would die,” his neighbor, Lady Veloso, 34, said.
After it passed, Ayuban’s house was reduced to rubble. Another of his neighbors, Ricaredo Ligayon, 77, was killed after a coconut fell on his head.
“We’ve been living here all our lives and this is the first time something like this has happened,” Veloso said.
Everywhere in Mindanao, this was a common lament for the second December in a row.
Marciana Cueba, a 67-year-old grandmother of four, wondered aloud why Mindanao was no longer being spared from storms. “We always thought we were safe. But now we know something like this can happen again,” she said.
Last year’s Tropical Storm “Sendong” laid to waste vast sections of Northern Mindanao, particularly the cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, an area also previously thought to be away from the path of storms. It killed more than 1,500 people.
The Manila Observatory in January observed that based on data from the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center, “roughly one typhoon crosses Mindanao every 10 years.”
On its Wikipedia page, New Bataan is described as a first class town in Compostela Valley “surrounded (by) mountain ranges that keep the place away from coming typhoons.” Clearly, that is no longer the case. With reports from Nikko Dizon in Manila, AFP, and Dennis Jay Santos, Inquirer Mindanao