ORMOC CITY, Philippines?On November 5, 1991, Teodulo Matuguina, then 16, took the longest swim of his life, which could have included him in the list of people who tested their limits in extreme challenges.
But it was not just a show of endurance and determination that Matuguina swam for eight hours through rough waters that engulfed Ormoc that Tuesday morning.
It was a battle against all odds, a struggle to save his life and those of six family members carried by the strong current spawned by Typhoon ?Uring.?
?I alternated from swimming to diving in trying to save my life and looking for my family members. Everything happened so fast,? Matuguina said in Visayan.
A resident of Barangay District 26, he reached Barangay Linao 2 kilometers away, braving the turbulent waters and seeing other people screaming and asking for help.
By 7 p.m., he reached the shore and immediately looked for his family members. He did not find any.
Three days later, he saw his grandmother, father and mother?all dead. His two sisters, aged 15 and 13 years, and 9-year-old brother were nowhere to be seen.
Nineteen years after the tragedy, Matuguina said he had moved on. He now works for the city government?s human resource management office.
He remains hopeful that his three siblings are still alive. ?We never found their bodies, but it?s comforting to think they are still alive and may be living somewhere. During occasions, I can?t help but be sad that they are not with us,? he said.
Matuguina and thousands of Ormocanons on Nov. 5 went to the church, lighted candles and offered flowers at the mass grave site to commemorate the 19th year of the Ormoc flash flood tragedy. The city government recorded 4,922 deaths, 3,000 missing, 14,000 destroyed houses and more than P600 million worth of damaged property.
The ?bayanihan? spirit prevailed during Ormoc?s difficult times, according to Raoul Cam, city planning and development coordinator. Help from different government units and agencies, companies, countrymen and people from all over the world poured in.
?Assistance came left and right?food, gasoline, clothing,? Cam said. For instance, he said, Cebu?s Visayan Electric Co. supplied electricity.
One of the major challenges that the city government had faced was how to dispose of ?too many? human bodies.
?We also had problems on who will drive our trucks because most of our drivers also have family members whom they could not find. They were victims themselves,? Cam said.
Ormoc was a ghost town. Most of the bodies were found in the coastal barangays of Linao, Camp Downes, Bantigue and the pier. The putrid smell was unbearable at the pier near a bus terminal and a hotel.
?Months after the tragedy, bodies were still being recovered here and there. When we cleaned our drainage systems, a body or two could be found so that area became smelly again. It was a very tedious process of restoring everything back to normal,? Cam said.
The entire city was almost covered by mud, recalled Corazon Agraviador, 58, a resident. It was hard for people wearing shoes to walk around.
Agraviador lost everything, including her dry goods store and savings. She and her family escaped death by climbing to the rooftop.
?I am thankful that no one from my family suffered the fate of other families. I might have lost money, but that is fine. You can bring money back but lives, you can?t,? she said.
Illegal logging, kaingin (slash-and-burn farming), improper garbage disposal and other human activities were pinpointed as reasons for the flood.
Heavy rainfall caused damming in the upstream of the Anilao and Malbasag rivers, Cam said. Water could not flow freely to the sea since the rivers were constricted by garbage and houses of illegal settlers, he said.
As a result, the water level rose and water broke to a turbulent flow downstream, flooding houses mostly in District 26, also known as Isla Verde for its lush vegetation during early times.
After the flood, national and local governments carried out rehabilitation, but these were limited to reconstruction of bridges and dikes. Major improvement works of Anilao and Malbasag rivers were ?left almost unattended due to fund limitations,? Cam said.
In 1993, upon the request of the Philippine government, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) conducted a study on flood control for rivers in Ormoc and other selected urban centers.
Ormoc sought assistance from the Japanese government to implement its flood mitigation project. The goal was ?not to repeat the damage caused by the disastrous flood,? Cam said.
In 1998, an P800-million grant was approved. Construction began that same year and was completed in 2001.
The Department of Public Works and Highways, Project Management Office for Major Flood Control projects, DPWH regional office and 4th Leyte Engineering District Office, and the city government established a sustainable means for Ormoc to become less prone to floods.
Today, the flood mitigation structure is in place and has proven to be effective in ensuring that water flows directly to the sea.
On Feb. 18, 2001, flood caused by Typhoon ?Gilas? was of the same magnitude as Uring, which caused the 1991 flash flood, ?but the water were satisfactorily disposed (to the sea),? Cam said.
City administrator Dennis Capuyan said the city government was implementing a design of architect Maribeth Ebcas for the 1,300-square-meter site, which offers a more appropriate atmosphere. The design forms a cross covering the area. A monument with a sculpture by national artist Florence Cinco will be at the center.
The sculpture, named ?Gift of Life,? is expressed in contemporary art. It is an abstract of a tree and hands, which represents the need to protect Mother Nature and expresses a message of hope for the Ormocanons, Ebcas said.
?It will also serve as a reminder to the viewing public that those people were sacrificial lambs to save the lives of the future generation,? she said.
The site is one of the heritage areas of Ormoc and will be included among the places to visit in the city?s tourism package.