SPECIAL REPORT: Floods in Mindanao: Unprepared for the worst

Part One

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/30 December) — As early as October 2010, the Regional Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council in Northern Mindanao had warned of more floods until 2011. In a MindaNews report (October 16, 2011), Director Carmelito Lupo of the regional Office of Civil Defense was quoted to have said that the weak to moderate La Nina that started in July that year could further strengthen based on “statistical model forecasts.”

Lupo further said they had alerted all local DRRMCs to take “precautionary measures in their respective areas of responsibility.”

The National DRRMC, in an advisory dated Oct. 14, 2010, warned communities “to take proactive actions to aim for zero casualties and avoid the loss of lives and properties,” as the La Nina phenomenon might bring – and did bring — higher than normal rainfall not just in Northern Mindanao but in other regions of the island as well.

Granting the local government units in Mindanao have organized [their] DRRMCs, they apparently did not take the warnings seriously, and underestimated, with tragic results, the implications of excessive rainfall.

Cagayan de Oro City, in particular, should have learned its lesson from the January 2009 flood that displaced over 30,000 people. In that year, according to the Philippine Astronomical, Geophysical and Atmospheric Services Administration (Pagasa), the city received an amount of rainfall that was 142 percent above the 30-year average.

The other areas also showed laxity in making preparations to mitigate the effects of floods. Across the regions, the response of the LGUs hardly went beyond giving relief assistance, declaring a state of calamity so that calamity funds could be released, and dishing out statistics on casualties and damage.

It may be impossible to prevent damage to infrastructures that lie along flood lanes, but the LGUs should at least do something to save many people from death, injury and long-term trauma. In Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, for instance, the victims lived in riverbank areas or right along harm’s way. Others were allowed to build homes on islands in the middle of the river formed by silt with the excuse that they had nowhere else to go.

Local officials of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan could not say that they had received no ample warning and advice from other agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources before the flashfloods on December 17 induced by Tropical Storm Sendong.

“The city governments (Cagayan de Oro and Iligan) have earlier been provided the results of the geohazard assessment and the geohazard maps prepared by the DENR-MGB (Mines and Geosciences Bureau),” MGB regional director Alfredo Relampagos said in a statement dated December 21.

As if to imply that the victims were largely to blame for the tragedy, Cagayan de Oro officials said that while it is true that they were forewarned, the residents in the city’s danger zones ignored the warnings.

Moreover, Mayor Vicente Y. Emano said in a TV interview shortly after the flood that he could not prevent those people from returning to their ravaged communities because they had been there for decades, and admitted the city government even bought a piece of land near the riverbank which was also hit by the flood. President Aquino, however, has ordered the police to bar the people from going back to these areas.

Emano’s pronouncement may have encouraged some of the victims to go back despite the risks. On December 22, less than a week after “Sendong,” MindaNews saw some families trying to rebuild their homes in Tibasak, one of the areas in the city hardest hit by the flood.

But a resident of Tibasak, Earl Nacalaban, said he would not mind being relocated because he knew the danger. “Mag-agad lang mi ani unsay sulti sa gobyerno, pero wala pa may desisyon si [Mayor] Emano.” (We’re just awaiting word from the government, but there’s no decision yet from Emano)

Officials in the other cities and provinces hit by floods were not as indecisive as Emano. Mayor Joel Ray L. Lopez of Sta. Cruz town in Davao del Sur, declared after the flashflood in Barangay Darong, in January 2011, that the displaced families would be relocated in upland areas to avoid more damage and casualties in the future.

The flood in Darong claimed three lives, displaced 810 families or 4,050 individuals, and destroyed 391 houses.

Other LGUs also saw the necessity of relocating people living in danger zones, although the specific relocation sites were yet to be identified. Some, like the municipal government of Mainit, Surigao del Norte, had to confront lack of funds for the purpose. Mayor Ramon Mondano said he would have relocated the communities near Lake Mainit if they had enough funds.

Late in January 2011, floods displaced 1,214 families in 14 of Mainit’s 21 barangays.

In Bukidnon, provincial board member Rogelio Lago, said the victims should no longer be allowed to build their houses along the flood-prone areas.

“Sendong” also flooded Baungon, Lago’s hometown, and nearby Libona. Ten days after, heavy rains spawned by a low pressure area near Cotabato City caused water in the Pulangi River to rise, submerging or sweeping away several houses along the riverbank in Valencia City, and displaced 1,150 families.

For 2011 alone, it wasn’t the first time that floods caused by a swelling of the Pulangi River hit Valencia. Floods occurred twice in March and once in May, and affected the same areas.

Like in Valencia, floods in other parts of Mindanao in 2011 have recurred in practically the same areas, a pattern that should have aided the LGUs in terms of disaster preparedness and mitigation had they made it a priority in planning and resource allocation. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)