A Reflection of Tropical Storm ‘Sendong’ Tragedy

It’s not easy writing this piece. With thousands dead and hundreds more missing, I couldn’t simply write about it the way I deal with my other stories – not when you know someone from Cagayan De Oro (CDO). I was thinking of Carmen Avelino-Alasagas, a fellow NewsBlaze writer (she is Mina Fabulous in case you don’t know), and her family. In fact, the proverbial “mightier pen than the sword” that I figuratively hold couldn’t move for nights and days imagining the list of missing persons and the horde of dead bodies.

It’s one thing to lose someone you love, but it’s another to lose entire families in a blink of an eye. I phoned Carmen – well, actually, I called her through Skype – and asked how she was. She said she and her family were fine but her husband’s relatives were severely affected. Their house was buried beneath a cemetery of mud and they spent hours sitting and waiting for help on what remains of their roof.

Tropical Storm Washi
Tropical Storm Washi (Sendong) in the Sulu Sea on December 17, 2011, after causing catastrophic damage in Mindanao.

Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons

“I visited our school yesterday… I lost everything,” Carmen said. Together with editing and writing for NewsBlaze, she also teaches in a public high school. “During my walk back home, this reminded me of Fukushima. I can’t believe this happened to CDO. Everywhere I look there were dead bodies covered with mud. I think I was the only one walking in the street with clean feet. I wanted to cry.”

At the time of our conversation, the death toll in CDO was only around 900, but a chill went down my spine because I have seen this before. There was an eerie air reminiscent of the 1991 Ormoc tragedy where dead bodies covered in mud washed ashore by giant tree logs.

I was in high school when I saw on television a dead woman floating at sea and a few meters away from her was a corpse of a girl. There’s nothing in my head at the time except the thought of a mother and child who tragically died when it could have been prevented.

No words could describe how I felt watching that news clip when in the blueness of the ocean the two bodies adrift, mud awash. I pictured the mother reaching out for her daughter in that sea of dark water and logs trying to save her daughter. What were they like before the calamity? The mother and child image could have been someone I knew. It could have been my friend or yours. Worst, I was an impressionable teenager with a permeable mind and I knew it was not some segment of a movie that I can convince myself shortly that what I saw was just makeup or some rehearsed scene.

Now imagine this: It’s Christmas season (and Christmas is such a big thing in the Philippines) and everybody’s enjoying their Christmas parties that Friday evening, it rained from 12 am up to 2 am, the next thing you know you’ve lost your property and your family.

You can’t put the entire blame on the CDO people or the people in Mindanao in general. “The flood water rose so fast,” Carmen said. “Those who died weren’t prepared for this. Most of them were asleep.” The next thing that followed was total blackout and the water supply was cut.

If history teaches us anything, we people from Luzon are used to typhoons and heavy flooding. Somehow, we breathe calamity. Every year typhoons are common occurrences in Luzon and we do know our way. Not the people in Mindanao. Seldom do typhoons pass by south of the Philippines and Sendong (Washi) was a big one.

A typical political ball and chain followed and the national government blamed the local government for not preparing for this disaster. Local government officials, to save face and wash their hands, said there were not enough information and warnings from national agencies about the scope of Sendong (Washi).

But that’s just not it. I don’t want to be part of mumbo-jumbos of bickering politicians. I’m trying to imagine still, trying to put myself in the shoes of those who survived, trying to be a human being for another whose loved ones they can’t find, whose mothers, fathers or children they lost.

Their lives and loves are more than brick and mortar. In one of the news clips that I saw, it brought back once more the same images that I saw in 1991, but this time the blueness of the ocean was replaced by gray earth. Dead bodies were dumped in landfills because funeral parlors could no longer accommodate any more corpses. It was 1991 all over.

I called Carmen again checking how things were. She said that she and her family are doing fine. She also said that the city is recovering but there are still many things to be done.

“We are overwhelmed by the help we’re getting from everyone, both local and international,” she said. “Our main concern now is the relocation of the evacuees and our problem with hygiene and health. I’m just worried about those children who lost their parents.” Knowing Carmen and her bubbly personality, she would do everything in her person to reach out and help others in the community.

I’m sure that CDO, just like Ormoc, will rise once more. The city is the people and people do try to survive no matter what. To all those who’ve extended their help. Thank you very much. Just like what Carmen said, there’s much to be done but we will all rise.