In Iligan’s ‘Ground Zero,’ a scene almost like Sendong minus the bodies

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 7 December) – At the “Ground Zero” here during the time of Typhoon Sendong – specifically, Bayug Island and Orchid Homes Subdivision, which suffered the most casualties in the worst disaster here ever – the scene was very much like how it was almost a year ago, minus the bodies and the stench of death in the air.

The warnings on Pablo, that it had stronger winds carrying more water than Sendong, may have scared Iliganons. But that’s the best part of it – we were scared, even if as it turned out water level in the flooded areas was not as high, and the two major rivers close to populated areas didn’t swell as much as last year’s. And so we heeded warnings, prepared for the worst, and for those in threatened areas, left their homes early enough and sought refuge in safer places.

In what is referred to as Bayug Island – actually a river delta beside the Mandulog River in a lowland facing the Iligan Bay – logs from Iligan’s mountains and other uprooted plants are strewn all over the place, many of them trapped in the lower portion of coconut trunks. The morning after Typhoon Pablo raged through the city, scavengers have come to collect wood for fuel and other household items buried in the sandy soil, especially objects with metals that are the favorite of “didangeros.”

As I walked towards Bayug Island on rubber boots, I met Nido Medel, 29, originally of Purok 3 in Bayug Island, gathering firewood from the debris. His family of five has since rented a small hut by the roadside in Barinaut, a barangay just adjacent to Bayug Island.

But aside from the small pieces of wood for fuel, he was hoping to get bigger logs he could sell for some cash. After several minutes of scouring the place and digging in, throwing away debris from the surface, he did find a big log, and excitedly thought of ways to bring it to the road. Whether he succeeded or not, I do not know, as I moved on and walked deeper into Bayug Island territory.

There were, of course, far lesser logs that came down from the mountains this time. Last year, the logs that settled by the shoreline stretched for a few kilometers towards Barangay Santiago and even up to the pier. None of that sight this time around.

Upon entering Purok 6, one cannot miss the big two-story house of Roger Torregoza, 55, where two families live.

I noticed this house last year, with logs and other debris around it. It was almost the same scene when I saw it last Wednesday, Roger’s brother-in-law Michael Labado and a few neighbors trying to clean up the debris and digging into the sand to salvage an iron grill swept by the flood.

Roger, Michael and three other men in the household actually chose to stay put, staying in the second floor when Pablo’s waters came Tuesday afternoon even though most of the residents of Bayug Island evacuated. “We were worried of the thieves stealing our belongings,” Roger said.

Luckily, the water was only chest-deep in the first floor, unlike during Sendong’s time when it reached the second floor. Last year, they joined 40 other neighbors in climbing up a mango tree nearby.

“The house survived Sendong, we were sure it could withstand Pablo,” Roger said. But he did admit they were scared just the same as the wind howled and the water and mud rushed past them.

Michael and his friends jokingly call themselves “brave warriors” for standing up to Pablo.

Just across the river, at the Orchid Homes Subdivision in Barangay Santiago, bulldozers were cleaning up the muddied streets as residents were either bringing in or out appliances and other household items. Others pushed mud outside their yards using shovels.

A bulldozer cleaning up road debris during Sendong (left) and during Pablo. MindaNews photo by Bobby Timonera
A bulldozer cleaning up road debris during Sendong (left) and during Pablo. MindaNews photo by Bobby Timonera

Although Orchid Homes looked like a ghost town shortly after Sendong, with damaged homes and dried earth on the streets, many actually returned to this place.

“We had nowhere else to go,” said Claire Lapatis, 46, as she struggled to open the lock of the main door to her house. Originally of Kauswagan in Lanao del Norte, Lapatis and her family moved to Orchid Homes after the traumatic experience during the war that broke out in August 2008 after the botched signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).

For a short while, she and husband Alberto, a seaman, and their three children enjoyed life at this new subdivision by the river. And then Sendong came. Alberto was home back then, and luckily they were able to get out early enough, seeking higher ground, before Sendong’s waters reached almost roof level.

They chose to go back to the same house, believing that typhoons would come to Iligan only after several decades, as what most Iliganons believe. And then Pablo came.

Like the rest of Orchid residents, and thanks to the now more proactive local media and government officials, they were able to get out early enough before Pablo inundated the subdivision again, even though Alberto was out for his contract with a foreign vessel.

But she is still undecided if they will move elsewhere. “We already invested so much in this house, building an extension.”

Up the street, Rufinito Casas, 49, was cleaning his garage of the thick mud with a shovel.

Even though his family evacuated twice already, he is determined to stay at Orchid Homes for good. “We are not qualified to avail of the housing program for victims because our house was not destroyed, so where am I supposed to get the money to buy me a house and lot?” said the employee at the City Engineer’s Office.

He said they will just have to get used to running away from the flood every now and then. “We just made sure the new electronic appliances like the TV, computer and the DVD player are brought to safety first. The furniture, which survived Sendong, we left behind,” Casas said.

During Sendong, they were among the last to leave the subdivision at almost midnight, aside from those who were of course left behind and climbed up their ceilings or roofs. Back then, they went to as far as more than a kilometer away before they felt secure.

When Pablo came Tuesday afternoon, they originally planned to leave by 4 o’clock. But the water started to rise faster than he expected, so they all left at 3 p.m.

Like Torregoza in Bayug Island, Casas and the rest of the Orchid Homes residents are afraid of the thieves who would brave the flood waters when no one else is left behind.

As I entered Orchid Homes around 10 a.m. last Wednesday, I was greeted by a hearse rushing out of the subdivision, with a body inside covered with cloth that I told myself, “Uh-oh, Orchid residents never learned?”

But no, that was not a flood victim. Residents say it was a thief, shot by a homeowner at around 6 o’clock. I asked a few people who shot the thief, but everybody just gave vague answers. Nobody knew, they seem to say in chorus, and went on with work cleaning up the mess. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)