My Story… Their Story… Our Shared Story

(A first person account on surviving one of the country’s worst floods)
By Ariel C. Hernandez

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/20 Dec) – I woke up with a sense of panic when I heard the sudden impact of rampaging flood waters entering our room. I was even more shocked when I saw that it was coming from the airconditioner which was one foot feet from the floor. It was about 12:30 a.m.

Immediately I woke up my wife Belle and grabbed my son, Kuya Danni, from his bed. I then ran to the room of my daughters, Ate Gabbi and Sammi, who were still asleep. The water inside the house was already knee-deep but it was rising so fast that all the things on the floor started floating and falling. The kids were shouting and I told them to keep silent. I initially asked them to stay on top of our kitchen counter to keep them from the cold water. Fortunately we had a big flashlight with us which Ate Gabbi used the night before. When I pointed the light outside, I saw how fast the water was rising. With raised voice, I talked to a neighbor from across the road as to our options. He then told us to get out and join them in their place, which was on higher ground. I tried opening the door, but it was meant to open out while the flood current was pushing it in. I kicked it, but I couldn’t open it completely. Somehow, Kuya Danni inserted his body to allow a bigger opening, giving everyone space to get out and swim from our front door to the parked vehicle, and then to the gate. At that time the water outside was already 6 to 7 feet deep.

When the three kids were already in the gate, while Belle and I were still holding on to the car, I told them to swim to our neighbor’s place, where his family was already on the balcony at the second floor. The flashlight gave us a good sight in the midst of strong rains and the cold flood. Without hesitation, the three kids swam with confidence (thanks to their swimming lessons!) and were pulled out immediately by our neighbor. Then Belle and I followed. By then we had to move to their rooftop as the water rose to about 12 feet.

While we gathered at the top, we saw another neighbor with a family of five on top of their house, beside ours. The wife was starting to be hysterical, crying out that they be rescued. I told them to just follow the electric lines, then they can grab the piece of wood I was holding. Before they finally decided to transfer to our position, I had to tell them strongly that they will die if they will not get out from their rooftop. We grabbed them one by one as they cried and wailed as if they were going to die in that instance.

We were finally settled on the rooftop, five families all in all, including another family who came from behind. I felt so helpless hearing the cry of “Tabang!” (help), or was it “Tabangi mi!” (help us), from everywhere around us. Too disturbing was the wailing of the children who were either too frightened or about to be drowned.

Looking back, hearing the calls for help was the most difficult moment, even more than the near-death experience as we struggled to open the door to get out and be saved from the floods.

We stayed on the rooftop for two hours hoping and praying that the water will stop rising. By 3 a.m., the water slowly receded and everybody was hoping for rescue. But nobody came until the break of dawn.

By 5:30 the water was already knee-deep so I asked Kuya Danni to come with me and go down to take a look at our house and the whole neighborhood. The girls followed and looked for our other home companion, our dog Whitey. We found him covered with mud. He had been with us for almost five years already.

Out in the street, people were all around. I saw an 11-year-old girl whose dead body was covered with just a plastic wrap, the scared faces of mothers attending to their sleeping children, people from all walks of life looking and searching for missing relatives, clinging on to whatever was left of their belongings. As we walked down further, we met more and more troubled people, many houses (especially those made of light materials) were destroyed, a big red tank containing molasses (used to feed cows) in the middle of the street, a number of policemen helping carry the dead. I counted about 10 dead bodies in the street. I was told that many bodies were already lined up near Rose Pharmacy, situated in the place higher than our street.

Moreover, I saw one woman crying, asking her neighbors if they saw her daughter. There was also a man sitting on his chair with a blank stare. I saw not only physical destruction but also felt the psychological destruction from this neighborhood alone. What more in the other flooded parts of the city?

Back to our house that was now full of mud and debris, I told myself that I will start all over again as we lost completely everything. While my family will start the year to rebuild the house, which will take a month or two depending on our resources, we will also rebuild our hopes and dreams to become a better family – which I think is clearly here and now! Soon we will be able to buy the basic things to make the house functional, buy things for the kids and all other basic requirements. I said to myself that this is going to be very difficult. But when I think of those who had to go through a more severe psychological destruction, there is no reason for me to complain. It is in fact a challenge to respond to.

There are thousands of families out there still crying, still lost, still hoping their missing family members are still alive. People are lining up for food, medicine and water everyday. Again there is no reason to complain, there is a lot to do even if I myself have suffered and will suffer in the next few days.

And so just like the 2009 flooding in the city and in the province, Balay Mindanaw, which is also our temporary home, transformed itself as a relief center for the victims of the floods. While 10 other colleagues suffered badly because of the floods, Balay Mindanaw resisted the idea of becoming a victim. As our dear Dekha Ibrahim declared, “I refused to be a victim, I am a resource.”

In the days to come, it will still be a collective stories of despair, death, destruction and hopelessness. But as the local people start to become resources, things will become better. Hard hit communities will be assisted better not only when they are hungry but hopefully as they rebuild their homes and families. And just like any other crisis, this too shall pass. This is not just my story and their story. It is our shared story.

For those interested resource in the relief efforts, you can reach Balay Mindanaw:

Balay Mindanaw Peace Center, #53A, 12th Street, Zone 2, Upper Bulua, Cagayan de Oro City

Balay Mindanaw BDO Xavier University Branch Peso Current Account No. 1768022630

Balay Mindanaw BPI Velez Branch Dollar Savings Account No. 2044006882 swif code: BOPIPHMM

[Ariel “Ayi” C. Hernandez is executive director of the Katilingbanong Pamahandi sa
Mindanaw Foundation, Inc., one of the NGOs under the umbrella of the Balay Mindanaw Group. He once served in the House of Representatives under the partylist group Anak Mindanao.]