Alamon: Christmas tragedies

THREE days before Christmas of 2017, Tropical Storm Vinta brought back again the painful memories of six years ago when it dropped the same amount of rain and floods through the same path of destructive Tropical Storm Sendong in the city of Cagayan de Oro. The same areas of the city inundated six years ago saw the same rising flood waters in the morning of the 22nd.

For Cagayan de Oro, the zero casualty aftermath can be attributed to a host of factors. Unlike the time of Sendong, a disaster risk reduction culture in both province and city government levels has grown and taken root after the painful lessons of the destructive flood. The keen monitoring of rain gauges, water levels of main rivers and connected tributaries, and sophisticated and accurate storm path prediction definitely contributed to the timely dissemination of vital information.

I have not seen it firsthand but it seemed that this time around protocols were in place. A few days before landfall, information was already going around about the path and potential danger of the storm. That days before we were already bracing for another Sendong event reveal that lessons have been learned. The escalating flood warning levels from alert to forced evacuation were also a good indicator of the real-time flow of critical data about the water levels upstream.

It is always understandable if some residents decide to stake it out to protect their homes and belongings in the absence of any alternative option. It was an added advantage that the rising flood waters arrived during daylight because the darkness would have raised the situation to very perilous levels.

But despite the zero casualty achievement, the floods also revealed that the areas both inundated by Sendong and Vinta would face the same cyclical floods with predictably greater frequency as before. If there was any doubt about the dangers of these areas, Vinta erased all of that. Planning for the serious protection or abandonment of these areas should now be taken seriously lest the coming third event would ratchet up the casualty and damage considerably.

As Vinta turned slightly southwards, whatever advantage the north provinces of Mindanao had in terms of disaster experience, is actually the source of vulnerability for the Lanao provinces. It can be said that the storm caught the Lanao provinces, just below the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, off guard. Communities in Lanao del Sur and del Norte reportedly experienced devastating flash floods for the first time similar to the ones seen in Compostela Valley during Typhoon Pablo of 2012.

What we are seeing is that severely deforested areas matched with heavily silted rivers on the path of typhoons that bring in heavy rains provide the formula for these kinds of disaster events. The loosened top soil in these sloping areas give way to the rain and wash away the trees and rocks that burry communities and people who reside in them along its path.

A number of casualties have been reported from these incidents of flash floods in both provinces and the death toll has reached the hundreds. Harrowing videos of swelling rivers filled with debris, large rocks, and uprooted trees have been posted online showing how people were no match to the rampaging waters.

But a new disaster frontier have also opened up, this time in urban areas. A day after Vinta which also caused severe flooding in Davao City, a call center firm located in a mall in the same city caught fire. Authorities have since declared the 37 BPO employees who were initially declared as missing as casualties of the fire which raged for about two days. The incident calls to mind the deadly Kentex fire in Valenzuela that killed seventy four workers in the slipper factory two years ago and the HTI fire at the Cavite Export Processing Zone with an undetermined amount of dead last year. In all three cases, the issue of occupational safety for employees who are in their places of work are highlighted.

It was a sad Christmas for a nation who may have learned to deal with one type of disaster on one front only to be frustrated and victimized in another front. An emerging dimension to disaster is now revealed. Peasant communities, the urban poor, and blue and white collar workers, our most vulnerable sets, seem to be the sectoral victims of this unfolding disaster landscape.
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