CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY—A year ago, just as residents of the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan were getting ready for Christmas, Tropical Storm “Sendong” swept through the region, sending flash floods and leaving 1,200 people dead.
Almost a year to the day after Sendong struck, Typhoon “Pablo” hit Mindanao, but thanks to better weather forecasting and preparations on the ground, the two cities experienced zero casualties.
In explaining the turn of events, city engineer Armen Cuenca said Cagayan de Oro benefited from a shift in mind-set from focusing on disaster response and relief to disaster risk reduction, aside from better information from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the weather bureau.
In July, President Aquino launched the Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards, or Project Noah, which sought to provide a six-hour lead time warning to vulnerable communities against impending floods.
Government technicians installed a dozen automatic rain gauges in the Cagayan de Oro River basin and the nearby Iponan River.
“Disaster in essence is risk multiplied by vulnerability over capacity,” Cuenca said. “After Sendong, we have been working on how to reduce vulnerability while increasing capacity.”
The city drew up an enhanced set of disaster protocols, tested during Pablo, which maps out appropriate actions based on timely information from the DOST and the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa).
The protocol consists of four color-coded stages with corresponding actions beginning with white for situation normal to green, to blue, then red.
In the case of Pablo, Code Green, which entails informing and preparing communities, was activated upon receipt of advance warnings and advisories from the DOST at least three days before Pablo hit on Dec. 4.
Twenty-four hours prior to Pablo, Code Blue was raised over the affected communities which advised residents to voluntarily evacuate to prepared evacuation sites or to safer grounds, especially for the most vulnerable sectors—women, children, the elderly and the sick.
Code Red, raised just six hours before Pablo’s passing over Cagayan de Oro past 1 p.m. on Dec. 4, meant the forced evacuation to the 31 centers for about 40,000 individuals from 46 barangays (villages).
But not all chose to leave even when flood began rising to almost Sendong levels as many households chose to leave behind able-bodied males to guard against looting.
Supt. Antonio Montalba, the city police chief, said lawmen could only persuade residents to leave and could not bodily remove those who refuse to abandon their homes.
To address the avoidable risk to rescue personnel, the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council endorsed two measures to the city government for adoption—a forced evacuation ordinance that would penalize residents who ignore official calls to evacuate and an ordinance mandating a 20-meter legal easement, or no-build zones, from riverbanks.
But even if these two ordinances are enacted, the real challenge would be updating existing land use plans and policies and reorienting these to take cognizance of the recent flooding.
Mayor Vicente Emano, criticized for looking the other way while communities proliferated in hazardous areas along the river before Sendong, is now perceived to have recouped lost points for his handling of Pablo.
On Monday, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman visited Balangay PNoy in Cagayan de Oro to deliver P21 million worth of additional livelihood and educational assistance for the 3,170 families relocated in the area.
Soliman said her department would spend P140 million for the construction of 1,500 more houses for families displaced by Sendong.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development has constructed 3,780 houses for people displaced by Sendong in the city.
In Iligan last year, 20 villages along the Mandulog and Iligan rivers were wiped out and hundreds of people were killed in the communities. Two radio journalists—Leonisid Emmanuel Alsonado and Angelito Kundiman—were among the dead.
On Sunday, journalists honored fallen colleagues during a floral offering and candle lighting ceremony on the banks of Mandulog River. With reports from Bobby Lagsa and Ryan D. Rosauro, Inquirer Mindanao