Move forward and hope that we all learn from the lessons of Sendong

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews/21 January) – For the past month, I failed to open my emails and the social network sites. Sendong took all my appetite to communicate to acquaintances, friends and loved ones in all the corners of the world.

I hope you understand such predicament. Mine is just one of the more than 100,000 stories, but I decided to write my Sendong experience, all hoping that this will cast out all the trauma, phobia and those sad experiences. Call it psychosocial debriefing or anything but, like you, I also wish to live and claim the normal life, a life that I used to have before Sendong. I want to move on or become even better.

December 16, 2011, Friday lunchtime: I, together with my wife, Titatit, went to Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte, at the behest of Fr. Bernard Bigornia, to honor the invitation of friends to join their official start of the Christmas celebration. As we joined the Christmas activities at the municipal gym, it was typhoon signal number 1 but, at the time, there was no rain at all.

We started to experience rains at 4 p.m. The lighting ceremony of the Christmas trees – there were scores of Christmas trees and lanterns from the different associations, barangays and groups – were delayed until past 7 p.m., when the rain stopped.

We joined the dinner at the residence of my classmate, Mayor Rommel and Sonia Arnado. The discussion with Mayor Rommel, Sonia, Fr. Dante, Col. Gubat and his wife, together with the other visitors was so spirited that we forgot about the time. It was at 11 p.m. when Titatit reminded me that it was time to go home.

After saying our goodbyes, I and Titatit, together with journalist Richel Umel, who lives in Linamon, the town next to Kauswagan, left.

I drove in a bit of haste. Rain and gust, as well as several fallen trees on the road, delayed our trip. We reached home at 11:40 p.m.

Emergency

The house where we live in Tambo is four meters from the river bank and I usually park the car facing the river. I saw that water was high, about two feet from the brim of the river bank. I then repositioned my car by the fence of the house as I was uneasy with the flow of the river.

When we got inside the house, we checked on the kids. Surprisingly, they were in one room. Xerxes, Yuri and Xyra were still engaged in conversation and were wide awake while Ziggy and Yaeli were lying down, already asleep.

After changing clothes, we went into the usual routine. We sat in the sala and checked our mails. I checked the emails on Yahoo, then Facebook. I failed to open all the messages in Facebook as Bong – my brother-in-law – honked the horn of his car repeatedly, conveying an emergency.

The word came from the mouth of Titatit, EMERGENCY. We hurriedly went to the room of the children and ordered them to change clothes, telling them of the current situation that was threatening our home, our lives. Floodwaters may rise higher.

I was only in my shorts, the only thing that caught my sight were my cellphones, wallet and the camera (the training in construction management and law – document things, NO, not picture-picture). I saw Yuri place the laptops at the second the deck of the bunk of the kids at our room. The kids brought along their pillows and blankets, thinking that we were only finding a safer place to sleep in.

The kids were ready in no time at all, but we checked on all the household members. Uncle Lito was at his sleeping area. We had to wake him up. He was startled. He almost did not understand what we were talking about. We had to tell him of the sense of urgency.

We had to move, we had no time to argue. We simply followed our instinct.

Titatit took the car, Ziggy was with her. I took the FX – Xerxes, Yuri, Xyra and Yaeli were with me. As we withdrew from the house, I saw the water already at the level of the tires of the car driven by Titatit. I saw her make several short forward and backward motions as she maneuvered. She was cautious of the water coming from the river bank.

We moved to the house of my father-in-law (which was about 500 meters upstream) but upon reaching the place, we saw that it was very dark and a tree fell on the wires. We decided to go to the office at the highway. We saw my brother-in-law, Jing, and told him that they, as well as Daddy and Mommy, have to move to the office at the highway.

We rushed and reached the office, which is about 600 meters away from the river bank and about 900 meters from the Hinaplanon bridge. I had to go back after realizing that Jing was tasked to go fetch Mommy and Daddy and his kids have to be fetched.

Time to go

As soon as I reached Jing’s house, water was already knee deep. I had to tell Aileen that it was time to go with me and bring the kids. Aileen retorted by asking me to bring the kids as she was still gathering some of her things. I took Ryan and Jane to the FX but returned to their sala and, in a commanding tone, told Aileen that she had to come with us. I saw the rice container and placed it in the FX. I was glad that Aileen conceded and as she went out the house, realizing that water was rising and was already knee deep.

We all reached the office; we had so much sense of safety that we exchanged banters and teased Uncle Lito and apologized for the very demanding behavior of Titatit. I called my brother Bob, asking him to come and bring some dry clothes as we were all wet. He hesitated, verbalizing that his car may be low on fuel but he would try. Bob also informed me that Cabaro, Upper Hinaplanon, Iligan City was all washed out by the floods. I asked if it was the whole Cabaro, he said that from the information he gathered, it was from the road up to the river bank.

I thought of the need to relay and/or respond to the upcoming condition through the social networks and all communication media. I called a friend, Dr. Charles Marquez. He answered my call but apologized that he was in Manticao. At that point, I started feeling helpless.

Electricity was shut down not too long after. We got ready as the emergency lights went on. Seconds later, water crept into the office, the place where we thought was safe. I saw lots of cellphones at the office tables so I placed all of them in my pocket. Almost at the same time neighbors: men, women children came rushing into the building almost in a stampede, begging to be allowed in. One woman was begging for the sake of the children.

We had no time to argue. I told Titatit to move up to the roof deck of the office and take the children. I told her to see to it that everyone went to the end of the building so that the spiral stairway will be clear and unhampered so the flow and movement would be easier.

“Tabang, Tabang”

Daddy and I tried to manage the crowd, asking the people to allow women and children first, telling them to be patient and to take their time, and told the crowd that men may move up soon as water was thigh deep.

It didn’t take long for the water to reach our thighs. I saw the contest of men, women, us included, moving up the spiral staircase.

The next scenes were even more disturbing, terrifying, distressing, horrifying, and traumatic. I had not seen such terror in my whole life.

As we reached the roof deck, we saw cars, people, objects, houses carried away by water. The highway practically looked like a 30-meter wide river. Cars were not running but floating, all carried by the surge of water. A house hit our building but in seconds it was dismantled. The office of Nestor Ong was destroyed and carried by the flood waters in three creaking counts. The building we stood on seemed like an island as the water rose to more than three meters high from the building’s ground floor.

As we focused our flashlights to other structures, we saw men and women taking turns to destroy their roof so they would be able to move to the rooftop and escape the floodwaters.

We saw people who, unfortunately, failing to reach the building where we sought refuge in, cling to coconut trees, electric posts and basically anything that was standing strong enough not to be carried by the current of the flood. We heard men, women, children, screaming on top of their lungs, seeking help and succor: “Tabang”!!! (Help)

If you were there, you would have heard lots of gory, horrifying and terrifying things. Several times we heard the howl of a dog followed by a shout for help. “Tabang!!!!!” they would shout in desperation. The sound of the rushing flood water was very distressing and ominous.

The faces of the 196 men, women and children in the roof deck could be painted in many mixed reactions. Relief, anxiety, disturbance, terror, trauma, shock, speechlessness, all mixed together. Some immediately prayed and sang songs from the heart for succor and for God to save and protect us. Others became forced viewers, like in a horror movie or, least, behaving like tourists. I mustered my strength to approach the clusters of people at the roof deck and begged to join in prayers. For more than four longest hours, everyone was praying. All of us: of different faiths and beliefs.

The end

Meanwhile, I called my sister Gina in Cebu to call Mama and Papa, and my sister Amy in Bara-as to let them move to higher grounds, maybe to Carbide Village. I called my brother Dodong to do the same but he said he was sleepy and that everything was normal and undisturbed in Laville. Bob called me several times. First was when he told me that he tried to come to bring me dry clothes but he saw the head of the floodwaters carry the vehicles as it was coming towards his direction. So he made an immediate U-turn. There was a race between the floodwaters and his vehicle. (The floodwaters reached Bob’s home 30 minutes after that race, but it was just thigh deep.)

I recall receiving a text message from my household head, Brod Monching Jayson, begging me for help as his son, Dodong, and daughter were at the rooftop of their house. I could not respond to Brod Monching, who was confined at the hospital. It would only make him more dismayed and intensify his anxiety. I felt even more helpless and powerless. I did not have any tool to save the family of Brod Monching at their residence in Dau. Did not have a boat, a banca. Even the cars were all drowned by floodwaters. I regret I did not even have a rope or any rescue equipment with me. I chose not to respond to Brod Monching instead of giving him a hurting answer.

We thought it was the end for us.

I checked my family, checked the numbers, and found out my son Xerxes and brother-in-law Jing were not with us. I tried to call them and found out that Xerxes’ phone was among the phones which I took from the office table and which I placed in my pocket before moving up the roof deck. Jing’s number could not be reached. I started asking everyone who last saw Xerxes. He was with us when we sought refuge in the building.

I had lost my 17-day-old Aaron on October 25, 2011. I was sobbing. I could not afford to lose another member of the family. Everyone in the family was asking everyone where Xerxes was – we discovered that Xerxes went back to the residential compound and was sent for several errands, including knocking the doors and gates of neighbors to wake them up to flee the floodwaters. Bong, who was the last one to leave the residential compound, told us that Xerxes was left behind with Jing. The information from Bong established a benchmark for us, but it was not at all that reassuring. Floodwaters were still rising. We had lots of unanswered questions.

The last conversation I had with Xerxes was while the lights were still on. He was worried about Ma’am Buot whose house was downstream (in Bayug). Xerxes is a swimmer; what if he went to Bayug? What if he was not able to cling to anything or climb a tree?

Aileen started to ask Titatit if she was sure that Jing was in the compound, I started to ask Titatit repeatedly if she was sure that Xerxes was in the compound. I got her answer, according to Bong they were in the compound. It was not enough answer. I was so sad and disturbed.

Prayers

Water was still up at the level at more than the three-meter flood mark at the highway. The compound was lower, or so I thought. It was indescribable fear, terror and anxiety. I didn’t want to lose my son or any member of the family.

Water was rising when, unexpectedly, Titatit asked my father-in-law what we would do if water rose some more that it will reach the roof deck. After several repetitions, my father-in-law was constrained to answer: there was nothing we could do! I did not know if it was an attempt to be funny or it was seriously said but he added: we connect all members of the family using the belt which will bring and bind everyone together. That was the spirit, no one was willing to give up anyone.

And the prayers went on. Some articulately prayed. Others were praying but were doing it while being stunned, startled and speechless. There was so much silence and less conversation; a lot of prayers were said and a lot of singing of songs of praise and lament to God.

At 3:45 a.m., December 17, 2011, the maximum of the flood mark was reached. Floodwaters started to recede.

At 4:20 a.m., water was really going down.

At 5:00 a.m., we all gathered to pray and thank God for saving us from the destructive flood (from typhoon Sendong) which was ready to eat us all up. We prayed to God to give us strength and prepare us for whatever negative, adverse and horrendous news and outcome this calamity will bring to our lives.

We prayed to God to comfort us and heal us with the balm of peace and rest and comfort our hearts as we prepared ourselves to face the adverse consequences and losses as a result of the catastrophic event.

We prayed and thanked God for reminding us one basic lesson in Christmas: we had lives which God gave; we had lives which God saved; God sent His beloved Son to give meaning to our lives. We lost all our belongings, except our lives and our faith. It was a constant reminder, that like Child Jesus who was born bare and with nothing on in a manger, all of us, as well, were stripped bare by Sendong. We praised God.

At past five am when the water subsided, Jing and Xerxes came. They were all wet and bare but alive. They were able to climb the boom of the 90-tonner crane after realizing that there was not much they could do to protect all the different sets of equipment at the residential compound or save anything from the floods.

Titatit and I hugged and embraced Xerxes, all our children joined in. On December 17, 2011, we did not have the chance to attend the Simbang Gabi but we celebrated a lot. We celebrated life. We were ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Lessons learned

Some afterthought and/or lessons learned:

A question became an angel: At 10:30 p.m. of December 16, 2011, while attending a Christmas party, my brother-in-law Bong Gerona called his classmate Annabelle Nabua to ask her whether she was online. The answer was affirmative, so he asked her to look for the weather reports and see how many centimeters of rain was falling. The information was 15-25 cm.

Based on that information, Bong quickly reacts, calls all the construction personnel in charge of the equipment to do all measures to protect and secure all the equipment. He goes to Dalipuga, where many of the heavy equipment are. At 11 p.m. he learns that rainfall was 180 cm., he goes home hurriedly, just in the nick of time when the water in the river was on the brim. He calls on all of us, including our neighbors to evacuate.

We left our respective abodes and woke up all neighbors before the killer flood came. We had an easier time because an important piece of information was made available to us, thanks to Annabelle. Had this information been shared to the populace of Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and all the neighboring areas, a lot of lives would have been saved, senior citizens, women and children, at least, would have been advised to go to safer and secure grounds.

I later learned from a Higaonon friend, that the floods struck Old Rogongon, up in the mountains of Iligan, at around 6 in the evening, December 16, and water subsided at past 8 p.m. If there were early warning systems in our community as well as a 24-hour communication net, we would have had a four-hour heads-up. It would have been better for us.

Sendong bred so many heroes and several thousand acts of heroism. Even opening a door or throwing a stone at a house became an act of heroism. One cannot enumerate all the heroic acts, but we must appreciate and celebrate such heroism, for all these things put together, with God guiding us and on our side, became an encouragement for us to move forward. Your smile, your prayers, help and support are all heroic acts.

Yes, there was so much grief and mourning. Earlier in October, I grieved because of the loss and untimely demise of my 17-day-old son, Aaron. Sendong brought me so much grief. I lost several second degree cousins and other relatives, among whom are Mercy, Gingging, Erika, Madelyn and other nephews and nieces. I lost friends. I lost a lot of supporters who were on my side fighting the good fight of faith. I pray to God, surrender and entrust to Him all of the victims of Sendong. I promise to put all of them in my thoughts and learn to put into action whatever lessons I have learned from the fateful event.

We lost all our belongings but there is no other recourse but to move forward and hope that we all learn from the lessons of Sendong; even hoping that the family, the neighborhood, the community, the city, the region and the entire nation will all put our acts together.

Thank you all for the prayers, the support, the thought, the best wishes. God be praised for all the challenges and all the lessons to bring us all to rectitude.

Be blessed, be a blessing and God bless.

(Franklin M. Quijano was mayor of Iligan City from 1998 to 2004.)

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