Cagayan de Oro twice warned of floods
At least twice this year, the Cagayan de Oro city government had been warned about possible adverse effects of the La Niña weather phenomenon, including sudden floods in the wake of strong storms that typically hit land between September and December.
In a statement dated December 21, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Mines and Geosciences Bureau (DENR-MGB) said it had provided a “geohazard assessment” study and a geohazard map to the city government.
The MGB conducted the study, which was requested by then Mayor Constantino Jaraula, on July 18-20, 2009, after the city experienced severe flooding in January that year.
On the other hand, the map identifies flood-prone areas, including all of the 25 barangays swamped by floodwaters brought about by Tropical Storm “Sendong” on Dec. 17. Some of the villages were wiped out.
According to the study, the Cagayan de Oro River is expected to rise by over a meter in some areas. When Sendong came, people in the severely hit communities said the floodwaters reached 6 meters.
Those identified in the study as “highly susceptible” to flooding include not only residential communities, such as Isla de Oro which was singled out by President Benigno Aquino III in his speech before evacuees on Monday, but also commercial areas.
Even the 18-hectare Paseo del Rio, which was designed by noted architect Felino Palafox Jr. and where a hotel was being built, was submerged.
City Administrator Grecilda Joson, who is also the disaster incident commander, acknowledged receipt of the MGB study but said the city government had repeatedly warned the people in the threatened communities. “They never listened,” Joson said.
Among other disaster preparedness measures, the study recommended that the city bolster the communication capability of the barangay disaster coordinating councils and give regular updates to the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
But Sendong’s victims said they did not receive any warning from the city government hours before the flash floods occurred and that they only learned about the coming storm from media reports.
Rebecca Batausa, a resident of Acacia Street, Zone 7, Barangay Carmen, said some barangay (village) officials went around the village at about 5 p.m. of December 16, warning the residents of possible flooding.
“They only went around once and only told us to go to higher grounds,” Batausa said.
She said she and her neighbors were also unaware of any disaster plans even though their neighborhood was among those hit by floods in January 2009.
Calls for help
Vice Mayor Ian Acenas belied reports that the city had no disaster preparedness plan and that the city was ill-equipped to handle disasters.
Acenas said the city’s communication center at City Hall was receiving and coordinating calls for assistance, but rescuers were stretched too thinly to answer all calls for help.
“Nobody was really expecting that it would be that big. We only have a handful of trained rescuers,” he said.
“The calls came one after the other and it was impossible to coordinate all rescue efforts,” Acenas said.
A resident of Isla de Oro said he and his neighbors might go back to their village despite the President’s warning for them not to return.
Roldan Butron, 24, a sidewalk vendor who sells coconut juice, prefers to relocate, especially after so many of his neighbors had died.
“We rented a room in a boarding house (in Isla de Oro) because we have no land,” Butron said.
“Even Mayor (Vicente) Emano has no idea where to move us,” he said.
Butron said he and the other residents spoke with Emano after the President’s speech. “He told us, ‘If President Noynoy wants you to leave, where will you go?’”
The city was having difficulty finding relocation sites for both squatters and residents living in areas tagged as unfit for human habitation, Butron quoted the mayor as telling them.
Another Isla de Oro resident said people who used to live in the now washed-out community would have wanted to live somewhere else where it’s safe.
“Tragedies happen,” Rodenio Bulido, 50, a tricycle driver, said. “But we also have rights. We lived there because there is no other place for us.” With a report from Bobby Lagsa
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