Bayug residents aware of perils from the sea, not from river or mountains
ILIGAN CITY, Philippines—Flanked by the sea to the west and the river to the east, the settlers on Bayug Island knew it was only a matter of time before the waters around them claimed the land.
Whispers of “tsunami” went around after the great one that rose from the Indian Ocean in 2004, and anxious residents kept watch over the waves on Iligan Bay lapping the shores. Some tied boats to coconut trees as a precaution against the fury of the ocean.
But what they never expected was that the deluge would come from behind—the Mandulog River—and that the waves whipped up by Tropical Storm Sendong would be roaring from inland toward the sea and not the other way around.
“It was a backward tsunami,” Erlito Echavez, 52, a fisherman, told the Inquirer, shaking his head. “We were worried about the sea in front of us. We never thought to worry about the river behind us.”
But the lessons of Tropical Storm Sendong are not easy to learn and ever harder to heed.
As scores of victims lay huddled in evacuation centers across this coastal city, some swearing never to return to Bayug, a few have already started rebuilding on the island, or at least what used to be one.
Sendong wiped out nearly all the settlements on Bayug, stripped the topsoil, uprooted trees, toppled houses, and obstructed the narrow channel that used to separate the island from the rest of Iligan.
As a result, Bayug has been “reconnected” to the Mindanao mainland, according to Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) professor David Almarez.
“Bayug is no longer an island,” he said.
By Almarez’s estimation, it would take only 50 years before the entire land mass was swallowed up by the two bodies of water surrounding it.
In the past 20 years, he said, the soil had been eroding steadily and the water creeping up the coastline as the land lost more and more ground to the river as well as to the sea.
Almarez, manager of the MSU-IIT-led Bayug Mangrove Rehabilitation and Reforestation Project, said Bayug was originally just silt that formed into a land mass thousands of years ago, making it habitable for the first settlers who came.
“This is a danger zone,” he said. There were some 400 houses on Bayug before Sendong, he said, and the Inquirer counted more than 20 that remained standing, with varying degrees of damage.
Echavez said he entertained no thoughts of leaving, as he believed his family could make it through another storm of Sendong’s magnitude.
At the height of the watery onslaught, Echavez herded his wife, six children, a visitor and two dogs into a large white pump boat he had secured with ropes around a tree near the house. There they hung on for dear life as the floods swelled and surged toward them.
On Wednesday morning, he and his family were hard at work cleaning up the muddy house even as the stench of corpses, many of them from his own neighbors, lingered in the air.
More than a thousand have been reported dead in Iligan and neighboring cities, including Cagayan de Oro, while hundreds more remain missing, officials said.
Except for the Echavezes and a handful of other families, mostly those whose houses withstood Sendong, Bayug has become for the most part a no-man’s land.
Evidence of Sendong’s destruction was everywhere from remnants of houses and furniture littering the landscape and logs and timber scattered on the beach to dead animals releasing putrid smells, as well as three human bodies newly discovered in the area.
It was quiet when the Inquirer visited Bayug, now more accessible and easier to negotiate after the mud had started to harden under the hot sun over the past few days. Flattened against the drying mud, weeds, bushes and fallen trees appeared, eerily, to point in one direction—to the west toward the sea.
There was still no electricity, and residents cleaned themselves and their disheveled homes using water from deep holes they dug in the ground, and cooked food by wood fire.
Echavez’s wife, Winifreda, 50, said they were worried that another storm would come to finish off what Sendong had started, but they had no choice but to stay and try to be safe.
“We have nowhere to go. This is our life,” she said.
Almarez said he found it ironic that Bayug was nearly wiped out not by the ocean but the river swollen from rain runoff from the uplands.
For the past year, he and his colleagues at MSU-IIT had been working to restore and rehabilitate the mangrove forests that used to line the coast facing the sea like a protective mantle.
Since February, he and volunteers from the university had planted 20,000 mangrove “propagules,” which only recently began to shoot leaves, the professor said.
As he inspected the devastated shoreline, he saw that all their efforts had been laid to waste, only the bamboo sticks that were used to support the mangrove now jutting from the still water. “We will have to reassess our next move, if it is still workable to re-plant,” he said.
Almarez said the disaster, the worst to hit this southern heartland in decades, was the result of a number of factors, but mostly from lack of foresight and scant concern for the environment.
“Everybody is to blame, from the residents who burned up the mangroves for firewood to the cement companies that used them for fuel and other companies that quarry and the illegal loggers,” he said.
The logs that smashed into countless homes, scattering and killing people, had traveled several kilometers from upland towns, he noted.
Almarez, whose day job is as head the school’s human resource management division but goes weekly to Bayug to oversee the rehabilitation of the mangroves, hopes that the tragedy would galvanize support for the project, an extension effort of MSU-IIT.
“The experience of Bangladesh and India during the 2004 tsunami showed how mangrove forests were effective as barriers against onrushing waters,” he said.
On this visit to the island, the Inquirer spotted some children playing in the ruins of their houses, with no adult watching over them.
Many children died on Bayug, residents said, and many others were orphaned.
In the middle of an interview with the Echavezes, Winifreda saw Michaela Tabilon, a bright 7-year-old girl with a bounce in her steps, and called the girl to her side.
The mere sight of the girl brought tears to the eyes of Winifreda and her husband.
It would seem everything was all right with the first-grader until she started talking about a dream she had on Tuesday evening.
She was about to doze off when she felt her mother, Riza, taking her usual place in bed and hugging her, Tabilon told a rapt audience of neighbors.
Speaking in Cebuano, the girl said she woke abruptly and stayed awake for the rest of the night, crying, because “it was just a dream.”
Her mother, along with her father Michael and brothers Mikee Angel, 3, and Mico, 5, perished in the great flood that wrecked their home. She had clung to a banana trunk as her entire family was swept away.
In the middle of her tale, Tabilon broke off and started crying. There was no dry eye among the small crowd that listened. She visited the remains of her house and cried again. An aunt now takes care of her, neighbors said.
Almarez said stories of tragedy like Tabilon’s abound.
But likely as not, he said, the villagers will still come back to re-populate Bayug, the island that is no longer an island, and which may disappear off the face of the earth in a matter of decades.
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