Unsinkable Pinay in the floods of Iligan City

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews/20 December) – We doctors have a knee jerk reaction to disasters: medical mission. So, I joined the Iligan Medical Society and the Iligan Society of Internists as we set up makeshift clinics in the different evacuation centers. But before going to my post, I already had an agenda. I wanted to find out what was left inside the heart of a survivor after almost all the things she held dear have been taken away by the flood.

First, let us hear some stories which would transport you to ground zero, the scene of the disaster.

Dr. D lives near the Mandulog River. At 2 a.m., they heard a loud bang. When they went out of their bedroom to their living room, the front door made of hardwood had been ripped off and was pushed out of the house as flood waters from the rear door rushed in. Their big freezer was carried by the current and got stuck in the front door exit. She and her family quickly smashed their jalousie windows, climbed up the railings, and started shouting for help as flood waters quickly rose up to their necks, even as their faces were almost pressed to the ceiling. Outside the house, the family driver managed to climb up a tree. But, upon hearing the cries for help from his employers, he jumped onto the waters to swim to their aid, but was swept away and found dead the following day. Dr. D’s family was able to swim out of the house and climb up the rooftop where they spent the night amidst the torrential rains. When the skies lightened up, they could see dead bodies floating by. By 9 a.m., the water had subsided and they were able to flee.

My son’s batchmate in high school was reported missing after the floods. The body of her mother and siblings were found floating in flood waters.  Two days after, her body was found under a pile of wet lumber.

Patient X just gave birth to a healthy baby boy. On the 3rd hospital day, she requested her obstetrician to discharge her from the hospital. Her doctor advised her to stay another day since her bowel sounds were still hypoactive. She insisted on going home. The following day, her body was found among the flood debris. She had her arms wrapped around her baby, while her husband had them both in his tight embrace. All of them were dead but even death could not pry them apart.

Me? Where was I when the floods came? I was sleeping in our second floor bedroom. My husband called me up at 3 a.m. He was about to go home from Bukidnon but got stranded in Cagayan de Oro.  He got text messages about flooding in Iligan. When he called me, I peered out and our garden looked dry. I went down our first floor and everything looked normal until I checked our front yard. Mud was all over the garage and the walkway. Flood waters must have sniffed under our gate but decided to leave.

The following day, I got a text message from a friend, asking for help. On my way to her house, I passed by streets covered in mud and debris. People were walking barefoot, mudied and in a daze, bringing with them their children, pets and whatever belongings they could carry along.  Cars and trucks smashed or overturned were on the streets or stuck nose down in deep canals. Everywhere, residential and commercial establishments and even hospitals had people popping in and out of their gates, carrying buckets of mud to clean the insides of their lawns and rooms. Chairs, tables, refs, books and other personal belongings were spewed out onto the streets, forming soggy mudied piles. The whole city had been transformed overnight into an endless stretch of mudied junkyard.

For the past 2 days, bodies have been piling up in funeral parlors until they could take no more. Today, unclaimed decomposing bodies were buried in mass graves.

I will now take you to the heart of a patient I saw in an evacuation center.

R.L. is a 30-year-old widow. She was having dizziness and had difficulty sleeping.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“I used to live in Barinaot, near the river. But our house got carried away by the flood so I now go home to this evacuation center, at Sta. Filomena Barangay Hall.”

“Did you use to have dizziness and difficulty sleeping even before the flood?”

“No. These symptoms appeared after my experience with the flood.”

“What happened?”

“I have a 9-year-old daughter. On that morning, she told me we had to pack our things and leave our house. She saw a white lady in the kitchen who whispered to her to leave immediately and never come back. I told my daughter that I worked hard to buy us a house so when she isnsisted we left, I just let her go to my mother’s house. My daughter said she will stay there since they will be attending the simbang gabi.

I woke up at 2 a.m. feeling wet. I thought I wet my bed so I got up. But my bed was floating in flood water. When I jumped off the bed, the water was up to my chest. I climbed up to and pounded on our tin roof so I could get through. That is how I got these wounds on my arms. When I was on the roof, I could see flood waters rushing by like a river. I tried to jump from roof to roof until I could get to the highest roof.

“A mother and two kids were carried swiftly by the waters as they shouted ‘Tabang! Tabang!’ (Help! Help!) I cried out that I’m so sorry but there was no way I could help them. Then I saw them go under. I was praying to God, asking for His forgiveness because I wasn’t able to help that family. I can’t get their faces out of my mind and their voices crying for help. I asked God to give me a second chance so I could repent and become a better person.”

I told her very gently, “You know, it is not your fault that that family drowned. There is no way for you to save them without getting drowned yourself.  The flood is not God’s punishment for your sins. It is a consequence of man’s greed in cutting down the forests. Please try to tell yourself this everytime you feel guilty for their death. I could give you a prescription for hydroxyzine, just so you could sleep at night. Do you have money to buy this? It costs less than P10.”

“I don’t have money right now. Even my purse with my 15 days worth of salary was taken away by the flood.”

“Could you ask your employer for help?”

“I work as an all around stay out domestic helper. I get P2,000 per month. My employer said I should get my expenses for transportation and medicine from my salary; that I should work so I will have money for my needs. I am not saying she is a bad employer because everyone has her own policies and this is her policy. For myself, I take on other jobs to be able to save for my child’s education. After coming home from work, I sell balut from 6 p.m. to 12 mn. On Sundays, I also get laundry jobs for P100 per day. In fact, I was able to save enough for my daughter’s enrollment next year. But this too was taken away by the flood. If you need a lanudry woman, I can do your laundry next Sunday. I can’t take on work this week because my arms are still black and blue and so sore from pounding on the roof to escape the flood waters. But next week, I should be well enough to take on extra work. I can save again and leave this evacuation center.”

There. Did you see that? Inside her heart is a very fragile hope slowly raising its head to make her rise above the waters of misery that could easily have engulfed you and me.

This woman is unsinkable.

[Dr. Miriam Roxas-Timonera, a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, is an internist-cardiologist practicing in Iligan City.]