Ratings carrying coffins for delivery to Mindanao (photo: Rene Sandajan)
“Lord please help us,” Marilou Baler recalls her five-year-old son Arvy saying on December 16 when water from a swollen river swallowed their house as tropical storm Washi dumped rain and triggered flash floods and landslides across northern Mindanao. She, her son, her daughter and husband survived after wading through the rushing water, dodging rocks and debris on the way. Other people from Cagayan de Oro
and other cities and towns were not so lucky. As of today, the death count had reached 957 with many still missing. Some died inside their homes as the disaster struck while they were sleeping. Others died outside trying to beat the rushing water. “The flash flood hit so suddenly that people could barely escape,” said Senior Inspector Ariel Pontillas, station commander of Barangay 13 Isla Delta. Many people taking refuge in churches and evacuation centers in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan have nothing but the clothes on their backs. “We are used to flooding, with water reaching our ankles or knees, but nothing like this,” said Josefina Candelasa, 76, who survived by climbing and hanging on to a pylon with six family members. Jennyrose Dagumban, 32, was still looking for her children Mar Jason, 6, and Justin, 2, and four other relatives. Divisita Bigan, 64, lost two siblings, three nephews and one niece. She said she will find peace if she could at least recover their bodies “so we can bury them.” Recovery teams were still digging through the wreckage for bodies. In Isla de Oro near the Cagayan river, residents were trying to salvage belongings covered in mud. Their relatives stood in long queues for drinking water and food from individuals and groups distributing relief goods. A planned mass burial in Iligan City was scheduled for 1pm today, after a postponement late Monday. “We did not push through with the mass burial Monday because the cement used in building the graves was not yet dry,” said Iligan City public information officer Melvin Anggot. But he said bodies would buried individually as the department of health has raised concerns against dumping the bodies in just one grave. In Cagayan de Oro City Mayor Vicente Emano said “legal questions” prompted him to back out of another planned mass burial. “It turned out there were legal implications. Because of these, I have decided not to push through with the mass burial for now. Instead, we will finish processing the fatalities,” he says. He said that while the families of the dead had not objected, he was told he may face charges if he had the bodies buried before they were processed for identification. That process would include the taking of data such as DNA and dental records, he said. Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro has called for a meeting of leaders from the local Church and government, NGOs, and academic and international institutions to formulate a systematic response to the tragedy. They talked about key concerns, including the orderly distribution of relief goods, coordination with local government officials, taking stock of aid recipients, as well as maintenance of sanitation and water availability at evacuation centers. The Archdiocese of Manila and Caritas Manila sent 2.4 million pesos (US$55,800) of financial aid to victims in two hardest-hit cities. “Let us help so that the victims feel the true meaning of Christmas, which is love and sharing,” said Father Anton Pascual of Caritas Manila. He added that a fund-raising campaign will continue and extend to other areas also affected by floods. Other bishops from across the country are sending cash collections to victims.