Babu Minang, survivor of 1976 tsunami: “Nothing was left”

“After the earthquake, we went outside the house and heard a strange sound. My father said it was the wind. But the coconut fronds were not moving. A niece said it sounded like water. Two huge waves came rushing in. It was so fast. I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was on the side of the mountain.”

LINEK, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao (MindaNews/21 March) –Babu Minang Katug Blao cannot recall exactly how old she is – “maybe running to 60” – but she remembers vividly what happened during the tsunami that followed a magnitude 8.2 quake  35 years ago, like it happened only yesterday.

She remembers the date as well: August 17, 1976.

Seeing on television the effects of the March 11 magnitude 9 earthquake and the tsunami of unprecedented heights in northeastern Japan,  “parang bumalik yung takot ko” (my fears came back).

Babu Minang lost her mother, an aunt, three nieces and a nephew of ages , and 6; their remains buried in a mass graveyard in a relative’s land about a hundred meters away, their names on a common lapida (marker) with this notation at the bottom:  “Died August 17 1976 Tsunami” (photo by Toto Lozano/MindaNews)

A relative who works overseas had the marker made a few years ago “so the grandchildren and the next generations will know what happened.”

But it wasn’t just Linek (then part of Dinaig town) that suffered death and destruction from the quake at around 12:15 a.m., originating beneath the Moro Gulf, and the tsunami that followed.

The tsunami affected 700 kilometers of coastline bordering the Moro Gulf, affecting the coastal areas of Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte,  Zamboanga del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and the cities of Cotabato, Zamboanga and Pagadian.  Maguindanao posted the highest number of dead and missing, followed by Lanao del Sur.

“When the sea had spent its fury and rolled back to its normal cadence, the survivors looked upon scenes of death and destruction. About 8,000 were dead or missing. About 10,000 were injured and about 90,000 were homeless,” a report prepared for the Special Committee on Tsunami Warning System of the National Committee on Marine Sciences of the National Science and Development Board  and completed in 1978, said (see main story).

It was “the most disastrous tsunami experienced by the Philippines,” Victor L. Badillo and Zinnia C. Astilla of the Manila Observatory, said in their report.  “We may consider that 95% of the casualties were due to the tsunami,” the report said.

The waves ranged from 4.3 meters (14 feet) to  nine meters (29 feet).

Waves were reported to be higher than five meters in Linek and in Kalanganan in Cotabato City, Pagadian City, Sacol Island in Zamboanga City. “At Lebak, waves may have been as high as nine meters,” the report added.

Between 1976 and 2011, the only other tsunami reported to have struck the country was the November 15, 1994 tsunami that followed a magnitude 7.1 tsunamigenic earthquake 40 kilometers off the northern and eastern shoreline of Mindoro island from Puerto Galera up to Pinamalayan, records of the Philippine Institute for Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) showed.

Unlike the 1976 Moro Gulf tsunami, however, the death toll in the Mindoro tsunami was only 41.

Babu Minang was born in Linek to a mother who was also born there and a father from Datu Piang who was the first public school teacher in Linek.

She recalls having been awakened by the earthquake in the house that stood where her house now stands, shaded by two huge mango trees from Iloilo that her father planted when she was little.  From their house to the shore is about 300 meters.

The mango trees survived the tsunami but their leaves and branches broke as the “itim at mabaho” (black and foul-smelling) waters slammed inland.

The waterline on the mango tree nearest the house was measured at eight feet.

Babu Minang says not one of them had any idea something else would happen after the earthquake that jolted them from sleep and made them leave the house for the road.

There, they heard a strange sound.

“Hangin” (wind), her father said.

But the coconut fronds were not moving.

“Parang tubig” (it’s like water), a niece said.

There was not enough time to run. She lost consciousness. The next thing she knew, she was on the side of the mountain about 300 meters from the road.

In the dark she could hear people crying, moaning, calling on their children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters.

“May isang nanay, karga yung anak nya sa malong niya, naalis ang bata sa malong. Hinahanap nya” (There was a mother who was carrying her child in her malong (multipurpose cloth), but he child slipped from the malong She was looking for her child).

Babu Minang’s mother was badly injured as debris from the houses that were swept away by the tsunami fell on her. They couldn’t bring her to the hospital. She was shivering from the cold and could not change into dry clothes. “Umaga na namatay ang nanay ko. Mga 4 a.m.” (My mother died in the morning, around 4 a.m.).

Babu herself suffered some injuries. A broken rib. She shows a scar on her leg and on her right hand. “Maliit lang ito pero malalim” (It’s small but deep).

In the morning, the sight of the devastation shocked them.

“Natumba mga bahay walang nakatayo ni isang poste, pati damo” (All the houses were  destroyed.  Nothing was left. Not even a post. Not even the grasses”).

Bodies were littered all over. She counted around 60 adults but most of those who died were children. “It was hard to count.”

“Sa basakan, akala mo mga isda na tulingan yung mga bata” (In the ricefield, the bodies of the children looked like tulingan (fish).”

Neighbors took the children’s bodies out and lined them along the road to make identification easier.  Some were found in other villages. The rest were not found at all, says Babu.

Compared to 1976, Linek has fewer residents now, she says. The village lost so many residents, not only during the tsunami but after. “They left the village for Cotabato City or other parts,  especially those without land to till.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)


35 years after the 1976 Moro Gulf tsunami: whatever happened to the preparedness plans?

The 1976 tsunami: Maguindanao had highest death toll

Moro Gulf Tsunami of 17 August 1976: By Victor L. Badillo and Zinnia C. Astilla

Phivolcs’ Tsunami Information

The Earthquake and Tsunami of August 1976 in the Philippines