Sendong was also worst disaster for Hinatuan residents

HINATUAN, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews/19 January) – When the killer tropical storm “Sendong” hit landfall in the Philippines, it first battered the coastal municipality of Hinatuan in Surigao del Sur, in Mindanao Island’s eastern seaboard facing the Pacific Ocean.

PAGASA's multimillion-peso doppler radar, situated right in the middle of Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, is used to predict storms and volume of rains, but even the houses next to it were damaged from the strong rains and winds of typhoon Sendong. Photo taken Jan. 12, 2012 by Bobby Timonera / MindaNews-SCLF-Fastenopfer

According to Hinatuan’s Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (MDRRMO), the storm pummeled the area from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. of December 16, its strong winds totally destroying 214 houses, toppling trees and electrical posts. Fortunately, no resident died in Sendong’s aftermath, although two were injured and four fishermen who left a few days before the typhoon have not returned home.

The damage paled in comparison to what happened in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan which was struck by the typhoon as it moved westward. Hundreds of people died and entire villages were wiped out, swept by the rampaging floodwaters and hundreds of logs from the mountains.

But Sendong was the worst disaster Hinatuan residents have ever seen in recorded history. As in many areas in Mindanao, Hinatuan residents vouch it is very rare that typhoons visit their place, the usual path of storms being in the central and northern parts of the Philippines. The older ones in Hinatuan, among them incumbent Mayor Candelario Viola Jr., remember Akang (international code name: Mamie, in March 1982, or almost 30 years ago) as the only typhoon before Sendong. Everyone said in unison that Akang was nowhere near Sendong in terms of damage done.

Warnings not heeded

Mayor Viola lamented that some Hinatuan residents seem to ignore warnings of possible disasters. But he was quick to say that the people could not really be blamed because in most cases, nothing happens despite the warnings. “Besides, it is very inconvenient for people to pack their things and leave their homes,” he noted.

Hinatuan residents are not new to evacuations, the municipality being a tsunami-prone area, with warning signs all over the place telling people where to go in case of tidal waves. In March 2010 and in February 2011, during the tsunamis that hit Chile and Japan, respectively, Hinatuan residents, bringing as much valuables their hands could carry, trooped to higher ground. But the waves did not come.

Viola said that in the case of Sendong, the local government already called a “double alert” status as early as 10 a.m. of December 16 after it got word from the weather experts at the Hinatuan Synoptic / Doppler Radar Station of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration or (PAGASA)  situated right in the middle of town.

Virgil Ronquillo, of the village of Cambatong, was aware of the typhoon warning, too. Furthermore, barangay officials went around telling residents to evacuate to stronger houses or to schools and other concrete structures.

“But we’ve been hearing all these warnings all the time and nothing happened,” so he and his  pregnant wife Lilibeth opted to stay in their home jutting out to sea.

But by 3 p.m., the winds were just too strong so he evacuated his wife and child to his mother’s house, which is stronger as it is built on land, not on water. It was convenient because his mother’s house is just behind his.

With the rain falling and the wind howling, he got out and gathered ropes. “I tied my house’s posts to those of the neighbors’ in my attempt to save it from collapsing,” he said. But his efforts were in vain as he saw his house – made of the usual wood, bamboo and nipa common in coastal areas all over the country – crumbling into the sea, breaking most of the household items they had, including some still unopened wedding gifts.

Birth of Sendong

In the next few hours, he and his small family settled in the safety of his mother’s house as the weather improved and Sendong continuing its westward path. But by 11 p.m., his wife started to feel labor pains. What to do late in the evening, amid the rain and the blackout, and the nearest hospital several kilometers away? He asked a neighbor with a motorcycle to drive them to the hospital in the town center.

Lilibeth recalled it wasn’t easy. The labor pain was unbearable by itself, add to that the bouncing motorcycle negotiating the rough roads, the driver doing a balancing act avoiding rocks, mud, fallen trees and electrical posts in the middle of the road. They eventually reached the hospital, and she gave birth at around 3 a.m.

Virgil and Lilibeth haven’t thought out of a name for the boy yet, but everyone in the community already has a nickname for the infant: “Sendong.”

Falling coconuts

In the small island of Maowa, residents went far from their homes as the strong winds whipped the coconut trees. “Most of us sought refuge in the church because there are no tall coconuts nearby,” said Macario Sungudanan. His house was rendered uninhabitable because a number of coconut fronds fell on his house, destroying the roof. A month after the typhoon, he and his wife Daisy were still living in the church.

The case of their neighbor Jimmy and Evangeline Acedella was even worse. Because they are closer to the sea, the Acedellas ran to the shore to avoid the coconuts. They would have wanted to join the others in the church but were afraid to pass underneath the swaying coconut trees that dotted the landscape, their fruits falling like wooden balls. Along with a few other families, they set up camp by the shore, erecting a makeshift tent using tarpaulins and spent the night there.

When they checked in the morning, Jimmy and Evangeline found their house split into two by a fallen coconut tree. All in all, seven of the island’s 33 houses were destroyed by fallen coconut trees, and seven more were swept into the sea.

Livelihoods lost

They did not only lose their house, but their livelihood too. Most of those living in Maowa Island are into farming seaweeds. In the morning after Sendong, they found their seaweeds washed out by the sea.

“We were supposed to harvest the seaweed in January, in time for the village festivities on January 28. But everything is gone,” lamented Jimmy. That harvest would have netted him 30,000 pesos.

Caraga region, which comprises the Surigao and Agusan provinces, has long been known for logging. But since a log ban was imposed years ago, people have gone to forest plantations, and among the more popular species is the falcata, used for paper and plywood.

Falcatas abound in Hinatuan, and hectares upon hectares of falcata plantations were uprooted when Sendong came. Some of the farmers promptly cut the fallen trees to bring to the buyers. But the market soon became saturated with volumes of falcata from all over. Shortly after, the paper and plywood manufacturers stopped buying falcata, according to Tranquilino Yana. He and his wife Fedelina have several hectares of land in Barangay Talisay planted to falcata, most of them damaged by Sendong. For now, they left the fallen trees rotting because they cannot sell the logs anywhere.

Isidro Lincones, the lay preacher tasked by the church to say masses in the absence of a priest, looks at the remains of the San Vicente Ferrer chapel in Sitio Barobo, Barangay Cambatong in Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur on Jan. 13, 2012. Sendong razed down the chapel situated atop a hill. Photo by Bobby Timonera / MindaNews-SCLF-FastenopferFallen church

In Sitio Barobo of Barangay San Juan, the San Vicente Ferrer chapel situated atop the hill collapsed when the strong winds came around 4 p.m. Leonora Lindog, one of the catechists, asked her husband Jocelyn to go save the crucifix and the statues of St. Vincent and the Virgin Mary.

Jocelyn tried to ascend the hill, but his oversized raincoat flapped furiously with the gale that changed directions every so often. He backed out.

His son Michael volunteered to take over. He took off his shirt, and crawled all the way up the 15-meter hill with nothing on but his short pants. There he saw the crucifix and the statue of St. Vincent still standing on their respective pedestals amid the pile of debris, but that of Virgin Mary was already partially broken, some parts scattered on the concrete floor by the altar. Holding all three items with his two hands, he could no longer crawl. He braved the rain and the wind, carefully treading the path downhill so he wouldn’t slip in the muddied grass. To his surprise, he made it without losing balance, without tripping.

Now the congregation holds mass at a village hall at the foot of the hill, using the still undamaged church pews. Isidro Lincones, the lay preacher tasked by the church to say masses in the absence of a priest, said they will have to rebuild the 22-year-old chapel on lower ground.

Relief efforts

Hours after Sendong left Hinatuan, the local government initiated efforts to help survivors as it dispatched teams to assess the damage. Among the first steps was to fetch bread from the bakeries, with the latter only too willing to donate their bread, Viola said. Even the food for the aborted Christmas party of the local government unit were given to the survivors.

Aside from food items, the municipal government also donated nipa shingles for those whose houses were damaged, the first casualties being roofs or walls made of nipa swept by the wind.

The Catholic church, too, promptly leapt into action. Under the leadership of Fr. Emmanuel Dumadag, church workers went out to assess damage, solicited mosquito killers, candles, bottled water, canned goods, noodles and biscuits from stores for distribution to evacuation centers, according to Richard Consignia, among the first church youth volunteers who came to help.

With money coming from donors, the church likewise supplemented the municipal government’s assistance to those with damaged shelters by providing nipa shingles.

The few non-government organizations in Hinatuan came to help, too.  The Center for Empowerment and Resource Development (CERD), for one, provided gift checks for survivors to get food stuff from grocery stores and construction materials from hardware stores.

More help needed

But since the damage to life, property and infrastructure in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan are much greater, both cities grabbed the limelight in the media, almost burying the news from Hinatuan and other places along Sendong’s path, like Bukidnon, Lanao del Sur and even Negros Oriental in the Visayas. Expectedly, the bulk of the help poured into both cities.

Nevertheless, Josephine Lapeciros, head of the MDRRMO, appealed to government agencies and donors to help Sendong’s survivors in Hinatuan. She said that priority is assistance for those whose houses were damaged, either totally or partially. Aside from the 214 totally destroyed houses, the MDRRMO reported that 4,068 more were partially damaged.

Just as important, she said, is restoring people’s livelihood, mainly in the field of agriculture. Lapeciros noted that of the P56 million in damages wrought by Sendong, P21 million of which were farmers’ and fisherfolks’ produce. Furthermore, damages to agriculture infrastructure – including farm-to-market roads, nurseries and corn mills – were pegged at P19.5 million. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews for the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund-Fastenopfer)