CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 29 Dec) – When the text alert from the National Disaster Risk Reduction Council came last Dec. 16, Wilson Ramos, a park attendant, immediately left the parking lot he supervised and went home.
Ramos said he had two hours to bring their belongings before the floodwaters triggered by typhoon “Odette” submerged his house in the Paseo del Rio Rotunda here.
“I have to thank that text alert for saving my belongings,” he said.
Ramos, 42, said it was not the case when typhoons “Sendong,” “Pablo” and “Vinta” struck in the past and spilled the Cagayan de Oro River from its banks.
“I lost everything during those typhoons. At one time, I was left with only my underwear,” he recalled.
This is the reason why he left the parking lot he supervised when the orange alert text came on his phone.
“I went home to warn my wife and we managed to bring out our belongings before the floods came,” he said.
The NDRRMC sent out mobile text alerts warning residents before typhoon “Odette” pummeled the country last Dec.16 as mandated by Republic Act no. 10639, otherwise known as “The Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Act.”
During typhoon “Odette”, the NDRRMC sent out the orange and red alerts, which mean intense or torrential rains will occur in the next three hours.
The alerts are sent out via short messaging system (SMS) and cell broadcast service (CBS).
For many residents in typhoon-threatened areas, the alerts are saving their lives.
Melecio Rafal, a 62-year-old market vendor, also received one of the texts before the floodwaters from nearby Bukidnon province rushed down to the Cagayan de Oro River and the city.
Rafal said he quickly gathered his wife and family and brought them to the Macasandig Elementary School.
This time, most in the Rafal household were dry, unlike during the past typhoons, which left them traumatized.
“During Sendong, my family had to lock arms to escape the rampaging flood waters,” Rafal said.
He said the mobile text alerts and the frequent announcements from the Cagayan de Oro Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (CDRRMO) gave them enough time to escape.
Typhoon “Odette” came exactly 10 years after tropical storm “Sendong” inundated the riverside barangays of Cagayan de Oro.
“Sendong” left 1,472 people dead in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. More than 1,049 are still missing to this day.
At a corner of Gaston Park in Cagayan de Oro, a memorial wall with the names of those who perished was built so the residents will not forget.
Although it was not as strong a typhoon as “Odette,” tropical storm “Sendong” carried more than 500mm of rain.
The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) station in Barangay Lumbia, Cagayan de Oro recorded 180mm of rain in a span of six hours, twice the amount of the typical monthly rainfall in the area.
The amount of rainfall caused the rivers in nearby Bukidnon to swell and dumping the flood to the Cagayan de Oro River, according to local environmentalist BenCyrus Ellorin.
He said the local government of Cagayan de Oro was caught unprepared and with no advance information from PAGASA. The night of Dec. 16, 2011, he said, became “a nightmare for the city residents.”
“The rising floodwaters caught many residents asleep,” Ellorin said.
Retired Philippine Air Force Sergeant Abel Idusma recalled that the only rescue vehicle of Cagayan de Oro was not available because it was under repair.
Idusma, who was the team leader of the Air Force rescue unit, said they fielded two military trucks to rescue residents in the beleaguered barangays of Balulang and Baloy.
“The trucks were not enough. So many people wanted to get away from the floodwaters. Some were crying and without clothes,” Idusma narrated.
Titus Velez, former information officer of the Office of Civil Defense, said there is already a shift in the mindset on disaster response and risk reduction since Sendong struck 10 years ago.
“There was no command centers for disaster response during Sendong. We have to consult a committee before a decision was made,” Velez said.
At present, there is a command center for the Cagayan de Oro Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office at the city hall complex.
There are also more ambulances, rescue vehicles responding to “Odette” whereas during “Sendong” there was only one.
Cagayan de Oro DRRMO head Nick Jabagat said the command center has computers wired to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and PAGASA for up-to-date information.
Jabagat said they are linked to other rescue units from the Air Force, Philippine Army, Philippine Coast Guard and other volunteer groups.
The Cagayan de Oro City Information Office also launched a 24-hour “Blow by Blow” newscast over cable TV and Facebook to keep the residents well informed.
The newscast was hooked up to all radio stations in Cagayan de Oro.
“We filled the void with accurate and up-to-date information,” city information officer Maricel Casiño Rivera said.
Government technicians have since installed a dozen automatic rain gauges in the Cagayan de Oro River and its major tributaries to warn residents of impending flood.
“After Sendong, we have been working on how to reduce vulnerability,” Jabagat said.
When “Odette” struck last December 16, Jabagat reported there was no casualty even if they managed to rescue 7,295 families or 23,269 individuals.
Those who died during “Sendong” did not die in vain. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews. This story is supported by a grant from Philippine Press Institute.)