Ghost of ‘Sendong’ haunts Cagayan de Oro
CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines—The ghost of Tropical Storm Sendong haunts this city more than two years after it struck, keeping residents alert to the possibility of another tragedy.
“That was the No. 1 lesson of Sendong,” said Romela Ratilla, a senior science research specialist at the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) office in Northern Mindanao, and herself a survivor of the monster storm’s devastation in December 2011.
“People listen to Pagasa (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration) now,” Ratilla said.
When Typhoon “Pablo” hit the country in December 2012 to ravage another portion of Mindanao almost exactly a year after Sendong, “there were forced evacuations,” Ratilla recalled.
“Days before Super Typhoon Yolanda was to make landfall [in Eastern Visayas in November 2013], residents went to evacuation centers without having to be told,” she said.
The same thing happened when Tropical Depression “Agaton” struck here in January, inundating some lowland areas, but otherwise leaving the city unscathed.
Sendong killed 1,268 people when it tore through Northern Mindanao. Over half of the dead, 674 people according to the latest official count, were from Cagayan de Oro, and more than a third of the city’s population was affected, as the storm wiped out entire riverside villages, rendering a brown muck landscape.
These days, there are few traces of Sendong’s destruction.
Houses in areas inland have been rebuilt, and roads and bridges have been fixed. Greenery has reclaimed places by the Cagayan de Oro river, which used to host settlements that were flattened by the storm. These have been declared hazard zones where no one is no longer allowed to build structures.
The 53-year-old Ratilla, whose two-story home sheltered 32 neighbors, along with her own family of four at Barangay (village) Balulang, said her fellow homeowners would now seek her out to ask for the latest weather bulletin.
“It’s like I became their ‘Pagasa,’ so I needed to arm myself with knowledge. I had to do a lot of studying myself so I can explain what the advisories mean,” she said.
This, according to Science Secretary Mario Montejo, is the kind of forward thinking that local officials and the general public need to have whenever catastrophe looms.
He described it as “disaster imagination,” a concept that was introduced to the DOST by Director Renato Solidum of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs).
“By using disaster imagination, our local chief executives and disaster managers can think and act two steps forward by anticipating—using scientific data—the potential of a hazard to wreak havoc in communities,” he said.
On Monday, Montejo led officials of the DOST and its attached agencies, Phivolcs and Pagasa, on a disaster preparedness roadshow called “Iba na ang Panahon,” in a two-month-long series of education campaigns nationwide.
The Filipino slogan takes advantage of the two meanings of the word “panahon”: “time” and “climate,” to drive home the point that both are changing dramatically.
The caravan is part of an interagency government program dubbed “Science for Safer Communities,” which seeks to prepare communities for natural disasters using the tools of science and technology, such as radars and satellite imagery available online.
The DOST team is also supported by its Project Noah (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards), which the government jump-started in the aftermath of Sendong’s destruction.
Project Noah Executive Director Alfredo Mahar Lagmay urged government agencies to be creative in crafting messages about disasters to effectively convey information to the public more effectively.
For example, he said, one of his posts on Twitter containing a satellite image of the projected track of a recent storm attracted only about 40 “retweets” (shared or quoted by his followers). But when he posted the same image with the caption “retweet for a better love life,” the number of retweets more than tripled, Lagmay said.
Partner agencies include the Department of the Interior and Local Government, Department of National Defense-Office of Civil Defense, as the implementing arm of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, and of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-National Mapping and Resource Information Authority.
Disaster managers and experts are hopping from region to region, beginning last week in Pampanga, and then in Batangas, providing local government leaders, from the governor to the mayors, knowledge of scientific data interpretation for dissemination to ordinary people in te villages.
The Cagayan de Oro leg of the caravan was held at the Pryce Plaza Hotel, attended by about 300 local executives, disaster managers and government employees.
Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno said he considered the roadshow a very important gathering from which local officials could draw lessons in facing approaching disasters.
“You know, what happened to us in the last three years has been very, very daunting, terrifying and extraordinary: Sendong, Pablo, Yolanda and we don’t know how many others will follow—we hope no more,” Moreno said.
Montejo said the experience of Yolanda, whose destruction dwarfed those of Sendong and Pablo, killing more than 6,000 people in Eastern Visayas in November last year, could serve as a “good source of collective memory” about what a Signal No. 4 typhoon could do to coastal communities.
“This type of collective memory could be used to prompt us to not second-guess a warning once it has been issued from the national government to local communities,” he said.
Montejo noted that Sendong was the kind of storm that would visit in 50- to 75-year-cycles, and yet Sendong was followed by Pablo the following year, also in Mindanao in December. And then Yolanda struck the Visayas in November the next year.
“Strong storms that used to occur only after 50-75 years now occur year after year,” he said.
Ratilla said experience was the best teacher for the people of Cagayan de Oro, a city of 600,000. She and her neighbors now know exactly what to do if another big storm comes, she said.
“First, we will haul all our furniture and appliances to the second floor, and then we will evacuate to my sister’s house, which is on high ground and far from the river. We’re not going to try to weather the storm anymore,” Ratilla said.
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