In Cateel, “kami tanan diri napobre, puros mi pobre”

CATEEL, Davao Oriental (MindaNews/12 December) —  “Before Pablo came, our economy was at its peak. We were a progressive town. ..Ang lawak ng pinsala. Kami tanan diri napobre. Puros mi pobre” (devastation is so widespread… all of us have become poor. We’re all poor),  Fr. Nestor Morata, parish priest of the St. James the Apostle church said as he stood on the second floor balcony of the parish convent, trying to recall what the structures around him were before Typhoon Pablo arrived on December 4 to completely change the landscape and their lives.

“That used to be a  two-story building. That used to be the bakery. There, look, that used to be the school….”  Morata said as he continued describing the “progressive” Cateel in the past tense.

Although Baganga, located 46 kilometers away, was where Typhoon Pablo made landfall, Cateel received the brunt of its fury, turning this erstwhile progressive town with at least three modest inns into a Hiroshima without the A-bomb or the aftermath of  the Aceh and Japan tsunami.

The church compound in Cateel, Davao Oriental on December 7.TThe building housing the lay formation center on the left, the parish convent in the middle and the church on the right (see other photo).                                                             MindaNews photos by Carolyn O. Arguillas
The St. James Apostle church in Cateel.

The entire church compound itself was not spared.  Built 118 years ago, the church’s foundation as well as the convent’s and the building housing the lay formation center withstood the strong winds but their roofs were ripped off.

At sunset last Friday, Morata said assistance to the survivors was slow in coming. By Tuesday, more groups from government, non-government and humanitarian agencies had sent assistance but not enough to serve the survivors, some of whom had resorted to barricading the Cateel-Bagangay highway to stop trucks carrying relief goods, demanding they be given their share, too (see other story).

Morata recalls how in the first few days some groups came to bring medicines but without doctors and a rescue team came without an axe or a chainsaw. “Paano nila matutulungan ang mga tao?”   (How can they help the people?”)

He said helicopters had been hovering the area for days now but even as he appreciates  the need for an aerial survey to assess the damage, “once is enough.”

“They’re wasting aviation fuel. Why not convert that fuel to shelter? “ he asked, adding, “we do not need helicopters to ikot (circle) us, we need shelter,”  he said.

Airdropped food

A helicopter sortie to the devastated areas, according to conservative estimates by MindaNews sources, costs at least P25,000 per helicopter.  For three consecutive days – December 4, 5 and 6 – at least 10 Air Force helicopters had been flying over the devastated areas of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental,  two for the December 5 visit of Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas, two for  Vice President Jejomar Binay’s visit on December 6 and six ferrying President Aquino and his Cabinet on December 7.

Twenty five thousand pesos can provide 166 families with three-meter plastic sheets for temporary roofing at P150 each or  18.5  sacks of  NFA fortified rice that would provide 462 families a ration of two kilos each.

On December 10, two helicopters ferried Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, one of which  airdropped food packs to residents of a village in Caraga town that had been isolated since the typhoon stuck. It was the first time helicopters were used to drop food packs.

1Lt.Evren Talban, operations chief of the 67th  Infantry Battalion, whose camp in Salingcomot , Baganga,  was not spared Pablo’s wrath, said 150 food packs were airdropped in Sitio Butay, Barangay Pichon in Caraga town on Monday.

Apart from food,  shelter is a primordial concern. Survivors have resorted to pitching makeshift tents and lean-tos on the road or salvaging iron sheets to fix their roofs.

A portion of Cateel’s town center from the second floor of the roofless OAR Inn. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo

MindaNews chanced upon Alfredo Teo, a copra dealer who was sitting on a bench fronting the church on Friday, smoking a cigarette. He told MindaNews he had just from an altercation with someone who took what he said was his blown off iron sheet. He said his friend advised him to cool off because taking back that iron sheet may cause his death.

Morata said the local government had “done their part to caution the people but sad to say those identified evacuation centers collapsed” resulting to deaths and injuries of a number of  those who fled their homes supposedly to seek refuge.

Some other areas identified as evacuation centers were totally damaged by Pablo. “I was trying to question the wisdom of those who identified these evacuation centers because you need to check on the strength of the building, if it can withstand wind velocity.”

“Saan ka sisilong?”

Morata said survivors who lost their homes totally  or even partially, are exposed to the elements.  When the rains come,  “saan ka sisilong kung wala kang bubong”  (where will you go without a roof on your head?)

From Wednesday last week to Tuesday this week, along the road on the path of Typhoon Pablo’ fury — from Montevista to Monkayo  in Compostela Valley  and the interior towns, to Trento,  Sta. Josefa and Veruela towns in Agusan del Sur, to the outskirts of Bislig City and Lingig in Surigao del Sur, and on to the towns of Boston, Cateel and Baganga in Davao Oriental – families were busy fixing damaged portions of their houses or pitching tents and other makeshift shelter.

One survivor in the outskirts of Baganga town said he wanted to make sure his family is settled in whatever makeshift dwelling there is  before setting out to find food.

But it is not just the rains that survivors have to contend with in the badly battered coastal areas of Boston, Cateel and Baganga: they need shelter from the extreme heat because the forest cover – as in other towns on the path of Pablo – is gone.

Power has yet to be restored a week after Pablo although the Telecoms Sans Frontieres (see other story) were in Cateel and Baganga on Tuesday, setting up the internet service and call centers in the incident command posts in the two towns.

The church compound has a generator used to charge mobile phones even as the signals of mobile phone service providers are still erratic.

Lives and livelihood

Morata said he was informed Vice President Binay had promised during his visit on December 6 a housing program for the survivors. It is not clear how many can avail of this housing program. The population of the three  badly hit towns is around 150,000.

Morata tempered his expectations because he knows the program will take a long time.  What is immediate, he said, is that families are provided shelter from the elements. He appealed for tents, rice and medicine.

He said Typhoon Sendong on December 16-17 last year killed some 1,200 in the flashfloods in Cagayan and Iligan cities and portions of Bukidnon and destroyed houses along the way but Typhoon Pablo not only destroyed lives and houses but also livelihood.

“Dito talaga, total. Yung source ng income ng mga tao, wala talaga” (Here, it’s total. The livelihood of the people is gone), he said.

As of December 11, 147 persons  out of the town’s population of 33,109 (as of May 2010),   had been reported dead in Cateel.

The town is heavily dependent on coconuts most of which were strewn on mountain slopes like scattered pick-up sticks, were felled by the wind or are still left standing but their fruit-bearing parts blown off.

Teo said his two sons who are studying in Davao City, one of whom is about to graduate, will have to stop because he can’t finance their studies anymore. He said he hopes government will find a way to help his sons and other children of coconut farmers in the typhoon-hit towns.

Morata said the elderly in town say the last time a typhoon passed Cateel was in 1912, a century ago.

How to rise from this predicament is a major challenge for residents of Cateel. It was easier, Morata said, when Cateel burned sometime in the 1990s.

That,” he pointed to the rubble left by Pablo in the town’s center, “abo talaga yan. Di pa ganito kalalaki ang mga bahay. Nakarecover kasi yung livelihood, yung source of income, andyan pa” (was reduced to ashes. But residents recovered because the livelihood, source of income was still there).

Now, the town center is but a heap of rubble. And the coconuts, the main source of livelihood, are gone.

But life goes on for those who have remained in Cateel. Residents salvage usable pieces from their shattered houses  — wood, iron sheets, nails, playwood – anything they can use to protect them from the rain and sun.

New leaves have sprouted from banana plants cut into half by Pablo. And leaves of the few coconut trees that will likely survive, have begun to recover.

The church had set up a tent  on the space between the roofless church and the roofless lay formation center building, for the regular masses and the Christmas season’s Misa de Gallo on December 16 to 24.

In disasters, the Filipino humor still shines through. MindaNews photo by Erwin Mascarinas

A makeshift signboard has appeared on the façade of a partly destroyed convenience store near the church: “Signal #5 Pablo sari-sari store .. is now open.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)