New Zealander recounts ‘Pablo’ experience ComVal

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 6 Dec) – A New Zealander law student on an integration program with banana plantation workers in Compostela Valley experienced Typhoon “Pablo” firsthand, and lived to tell the tale.

Cameron Walker, 25, of the University of Auckland, was hosted by the Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa OsMiguel (NAMAOS), a labor group affiliated with the Kilusang Mayo Uno with 117 members among banana farm workers in the villages of Osmeña and Miguel in the municipality of Compostela.

Walker attended a commemoration on the International Day of Political Prisoners at Compostela Valley Provincial Rehabilitation Center in Tagum City last Monday afternoon. (ComVal used to be part of Davao del Norte, whose capital is Tagum.)

He was informed that Compostela Valley would be placed under public storm signal no. 2 by Tuesday and would be experiencing “strong winds,” which he thought was manageable like the strong winds in his country.

From Tagum he travelled to Compostela town, some 40 km away, and arrived at Barangay Osmeña in the evening. He was being hosted by the family of NAMAOS member Tommy Atamosa, whose house is situated 10 meters away from a stream.

“When I woke up at 4 a.m. the next day, I saw the stream getting wider and wider and flowing in a direction towards the house. The water was ankle-level,” Walker recalled.

At that time, Typhoon Pablo was about to make landfall in the coastal municipality of Baganga in neighboring Davao Oriental, just 50 km away.

By then, coconut trees were swaying violently so Walker and Atamosa’s family could not get out the house. They all hid under the table together.

“They didn’t know what to do. They’re not used to it. They said the last time a storm hit the area was in 1960s,” Walker said.

Suddenly, the water level rose to knee-high and they all had to leave the house. He was separated from the group and later found a sturdy house about 50 meters from the stream and stayed there with 50 strangers.

Despite the flooding and the danger around them, he said it was funny because the strangers were treating him with hospitality, asking him if he wanted coffee, tea or mango.

Determined to find his way home, Walker waded through the knee-high flood amid the strong current, until he reached a banana packing plant where he slept among hundreds of evacuees from 9 p.m. Tuesday until 6 a.m. Wednesday.

“I heard the crying of children all through the night,” he said, and demonstrated how he slept with bended knees because there were so many of them in such a small space.

Showing his photos of a ruined packing house and devastated banana plantations owned by the Japanese company Sumifru, he said the village people are not only suffering from their lost homes, but also from their lost livelihood.

Walker said the residents’ main source of income is harvesting banana, and gets paid for P5 per tree. “After the storm, they have nothing left to harvest,” he added.

He managed to reach the highway that morning and rode a bus straight to the city.

Walker said he did not see any rescue team in the area, but the people were relying on themselves. He added that only a small truck of soldiers and some policemen along the road, all of them holding rifles, were the only representatives of the government he had seen that day.

Walker is soliciting donations from his countrymen to help the people affected by flashflood, and supporting the Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio Foundation in its ongoing relief missions.

Cirila Anding, president of NAMAOS-KMU, in a phone interview Thursday, said a total of about 2,000 hectares of Sumifru’s banana plantation have been destroyed by flashflood.

“Not a single banana tree was left standing here. Most people have lost their houses and properties,” he said in Cebuano.

Asking for food and water assistance, the residents have evacuated to a public school in anticipation of a landslide, he said, citing that although there was no more flooding, they were surrounded by knee-high mud.

There was still no electricity there as of this writing as their power lines are down. (Lorie Ann A. Cascaro / MindaNews)