Death toll from Sendong is second to 1976 tsunami deaths in Mindanao

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/27 December) –  The death toll from typhoon Sendong’s “tsunami in reverse” in Northern Mindanao last week is the second highest in Mindanao in 35 years, second only to the death toll from the 1976 tsunami along the Moro Gulf.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) report as of   p.m.  December 27 placed the death toll nationwide at ,249 with 84 missing; ,594 injured; 12,805 houses totally damaged and 29,520 partially damaged.

Mindanao posted the highest with ,208 deaths;  66 missing; ,561 injured; 11,406 houses totally damaged and 23,168 partially damaged.

The riverside barangays of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities were the hardest hit, with Presidential Adviser for Environmental Protection saying they “stood no chance to the torrent, the onslaught of large volumes of water and mud.”

Acosta, who joined President Aquino during an aerial survey of the devastation in the two cities on December 20, described it as “like a tsunami in reverse-from coast to sea, a tsunami from the uplands.”

A number of the areas hit, in fact were disasters waiting to happen as officials ignored the geo-hazard assessments and recommendations, prompting President Aquino to order geo-hazard areas as “no go zones.”

Thirty-five years earlier, the tsunami of 1976 was “the most disastrous” experienced by the Philippines, affecting 700 kilometers of coastline bordering the Moro Gulf. “About 8,000 were dead or missing. About 10,000 were injured and about 90,000 were homeless,” the report on the “Moro Gulf Tsunami of 17 August 1976” written in 1978, said.

The tsunami affected 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.

About 95% of the deaths were due to the tsunami, the rest from the 8. magnitude earthquake, the 1978 report written by Fr. Victor L. Badillo and Zinnia C. Astilla, of the Manila Observatory for the Special Committee on Tsunami Warning System, National Committee on Marine Sciences and the National Science Development Board, said.

The report noted there had been “more severe tsunamis, but areas hit were less populated and had less man-made structures.”

“Potentially a great disaster area”

“A natural disaster is not merely a geophysical event but a human one as well. If any projection can be made it is this: What is now barren will be densely populated. Empty beaches will be filled with residences, tourist facilities, hotels, factories, power plants, etc.. Offshore, there will not be merely seaweed and oyster farms and fish corrals but also storage facilities, tank farms and the like. Thus, a tsunami prone coast is potentially a great disaster area,” the 1978 report warned.

The report recommended that an “immediate and realizable goal” would be “to require local officials to prepare local inundation maps” which are basically “a street map of a town with dangerous areas to be evacuated crosshatched.”

“These maps can be drawn empirically by knowing which areas were inundated by past tsunamis. If there are contour maps available, one can determine all areas below a chosen height above sea level, for example six meters, as places to be evacuated,” the report said.

The maps, it added, could also be useful to “engineers, architects, land use planners, building code drafters, insurance agencies and the like.”

The report stressed that it is “impossible” for a national agency to provide warning to inhabitants about to be hit by a tsunami generated by a local earthquake.

“It would be fatal to wait for a radio broadcast and the like before moving into action. There is already a warning available, one provided by nature herself – the violent shock of an earthquake. If the shock is violent enough so that it is difficult to stand or walk then it is time to seek higher ground at once. Going to a higher ground will not mean going a long distance if local inundation maps exist and are known,” the report said.

But the report also noted that “it is one thing to have these maps and quite an altogether different thing for people to use them. What becomes clear is that education is needed, an extremely difficult task, a never finished task.”

Learning lessons, Lessening losses

The report was prepared precisely to present findings about the 1976 tsunami “for a better understanding of it and that steps may be taken to lessen loss of lives and property in future tsunamis.”

Days after the March 11, 2011 tsunami in Japan, MindaNews was able to reach Badillo, a Jesuit priest, astronomer, former director of the Manila Observatory (an asteroid was named in his honor in 2005 for having popularized astronomy in the Philippines), and inquired from him if government heeded their recommendations 33 years ago.

Badillo told MindaNews that the 1978 report “was written to be presented, and was presented, to an international meeting on tsunamis held in Manila” but “I do not know what has been done (to the recommendations).”

He said local inundation maps “are really easy to make.  The storm surge hazard maps are a good start.  What is needed is to use a street map and superpose on it a map that shows the heights above sea level… both of which already exist.  Then on the assumption of a three meter height wave, one can see where one can run to.”

“Tsunamis are rare.  More frequent are fires, storm surges.  Do we have fire drills?  We need to develop a mentality of preparedness for all hazards.  When we enter a movie house or a place with many people, the first thing to do is look for the fire exits. And check if the fire exits are not locked!   In the US more people die per year in traffic accidents than in the entire Vietnam War where soldiers are there to shoot and be shot.  And most within five miles from home.  I wonder what the figures are for the Philippines,” he said.

Badillo added that “the submarine earthquakes that cause tsunami in the Moro Gulf and nearby have an average interval of about 17 years.  So the area is already pregnant.”

The 1978 report had warned that ”what is now barren will be densely populated. Empty beaches will be filled with residences, tourist facilities, hotels, factories, power plants, etc.. ….Thus, a tsunami prone coast is potentially a great disaster area.”

In March this year, Badillo said, “we cannot wait for national action.  I believe the local units should take the initiative.  Making the maps will not cost anything.  It is having the drills that may cost money.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)