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First person account: Rampaging flood up close and personal

/ 12:31 AM December 19, 2011

This handout photo released Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, by the Philippine Coast Guard shows a man assisted by a Coast Guard personnel as they cross floodwaters in Iligan city, southern Philippines on Saturday. Tropical Storm Washi blew away Sunday after devastating a wide swath of the southern Philippines with flash floods that killed hundreds of people as they slept and turned two coastal cities into a muddy wasteland filled with overturned cars and uprooted trees. AP PHOTO/PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD

ILIGAN City, Philippines—I have seen quite a number of disasters up close. But it had always been me looking in. No matter how horrendous or heart-breaking a scene was, I just felt disconnected somehow.

Friday midnight changed all that.

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I was watching the news at home, and I remember making comments about how weird it seemed to be seeing the names of several provinces of Mindanao with either Signal No.1 or 2 attached to them. Tropical storm Sendong truly was a taking an unusual route.

As the never-ending rain continued, an SUV outside started honking its horn, and then left. A minute or two later, it was back—and the honking more incessant.

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Peeking outside, my brother and I saw people huddled at the neighborhood “sari-sari” (variety) store. They had no slippers on and one of them was clad only in his underwear.

As no one struts around in his underwear at 12 midnight in the middle of a downpour, we went out to investigate. We discovered that flood water had submerged houses located “sa ubos (below)”—a low-level area near our neighborhood.

Despite this alarming development, we weren’t worried. The “ubos” was prone to flooding as it was near the Bayug River. Even the sight of the water only an inch or two from reaching the level of our street didn’t bother me much. It seemed very still.

We were concerned, though, for the “victims,” and so, I went back home to get some dry clothes and towels for them.

Next thing I know, my brother was running back to the house yelling, “Let’s go!” And I distinctly remember hearing his feet sloshing on water as he made his way through our garage.

We only had time to grab the essentials. My mother, my brother and his wife, and their two kids aged 4 and 1, and the two maids only had time to jump into the car. I had to push the car so it could move forward as the water was already higher than the tail pipe.

I told them to keep moving and not to wait for me as the car was already drowning in the street that had suddenly turned into a river. I wouldn’t let them risk their and my mother’s life for me.

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And I thank the stars today that they didn’t stop. Further down the road at a vital intersection, the water had risen, too. Just one minute of delay and the car would have stalled. I couldn’t imagine my mother surviving in waist-high water that was moving with great speed.

Unfortunately for me and other people trying to flee on foot, we were caught by the rampaging water in the national highway. I had to hold on to a mini-van to keep from getting swept away.

By this time, the debris, that included large appliances, was traveling in the water. One guy nearly got run over by a speeding refrigerator. And there was a big cow rolling around in the current as it swept past me. I sustained cuts on my feet. I don’t even know what it was that hit me.

Thankfully, I made it to an overpass on the highway. One guy helped guide me to it. This was the time the storm turned it up a notch. Cars were already floating by like they were toys. One smashed into the pillar of an overpass to the screams of those on top of the bridge.

And as if playing a cruel joke on me, the flood waters tossed the mini-van I clung to earlier right by the stairs I used going up the overpass.

People were crying on the overpass as they watched the angry river. It felt like we were up a tree clinging on for dear life as a ferocious monster growled below.

As things calmed down, a man quipped: “Nagamit na gyud ning overpass (Finally, this overpass has its use).”

The water started to recede by 4:30 a.m. By 5 a.m., people were already heading back to their homes. The rising sun (it came out, surprisingly) revealed the extent of the destruction.

After I marveled at the flood’s handiwork—it was as if the contents of our house were placed in a washing machine that ran for hours—I went off to look at the neighboring Orchids Subdivision, which lay very close to the Bayug River.

What I found there made me forget the damage to our house. Rows and rows of houses were destroyed. They were laying out the dead on the pavement.

Someone told me that many of the dead took shelter at a two-story concrete house thinking they would be safe there. However, a 30-foot monster log came floating down the river and, “like a missile,” smashed the concrete house to smithereens.

A closer look would reveal that these guys did not just drown, they had their heads smashed. Their bodies were also broken. I’m very sorry to go into such details, but I would like to confirm here that the debris, more than the floods, was deadly.

I do not hope that this does not happen again. I only hope that we can be prepared better next time because as someone once said: “Nature does not forget.”

As I found myself looking in again at the Orchids Subdivision, I could genuinely feel their pain and loss this time.

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TAGS: casualties, cyclones, Disasters, Philippines - Regions, relief rehabilitation, rescue, Rex Godinez Ortega, Sendong, Storms, Weather
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