Floods submerge ricefields in Isabela province in Cagayan Valley region. Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews
The Cagayan flooding, amid a health crisis
By Jason Gutierrez, New York Times
TUGUEGARAO CITY, Philippines
From the air, it is hard to distinguish where the mighty Cagayan River ends, and the land begins.
The once picturesque body of water that traditionally fed life and bounty to entire farming communities in the Philippine north had swollen, overflowed its banks and swallowed entire communities on its fertile banks and further inland.
Torrential rains spawned by Typhoon Vamco – the year’s last storm – had forced water to spill over the Magat Dam, a tributary of the Cagayan River on Luzon island and is considered as one of the Southeast Asian nation’s largest reservoirs.
Power and communications had been cut off for days in some areas, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies in Congress had already shut down ABS-CBN Corp., the country’s only broadcast network that reaches the area and could have alerted the rest of the country to the unfolding crisis.
Vamco had left scores dead – a perfect storm of bad policies and nature’s deadly wrath. Perhaps the public had paid less attention to it because Typhoon Goni, which preceded it by a week and billed as the strongest storm last year, did relatively little damage as feared.
As a journalist in these part of the world, and a country that sits smack on the typhoon corridor, weather disturbances have become a sort of a specialty for many of us. The past year was no different – except we also had to deal with the fact that we were in the middle of a worldwide COVID-19 crisis that could trigger a wildfire in crowded evacuation camps.
The flooding affected eight regions in all and affected some three million people, according to the UN’s humanitarian office.
Many of those deaths were recorded in low-lying suburbs of Cainta and Rizal, in the Philippine capital’s eastern portion where arresting images of the damage quickly made the front pages.
The Cagayan river stretches over 500 kilometers, snaking through several provinces in the northern Philippines. It is considered one of the country’s largest and most beautiful rivers, a source of fertility and life-giving abundance. Nearly all of Cagayan’s 28 towns were under water.
Back-to-back typhoons and torrential rains had ravaged the Cagayan already in the previous two weeks two weeks, turning the once picturesque body of water into a sea of brown, killing dozens of people and triggering deadly landslides.
“This is the first time in 45 years, that I know of, that this has happened,” said Cagayan governor Manuel Mamba. “The Cagayan river was so wide, even before. But now it resembles an ocean.”
Francisco Pagulayan, 45, sat dazed as he stared at three white coffins displayed on the roadside in TK town. Two of his seven children — Ian, 17, and Frank, 19 — along with his mother-in-law, Virginia Bautista, were killed when heavy rains triggered a landslide that buried their modest wooden home.
Both of his sons were diligent students with plans to go to college so their mother, who works as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, could come home, he said.
“There was a loud boom, and within seconds everything was gone,” said Mr. Pagulayan. “They survived the flash flood, but were buried by the landslide.”
State weather forecasters had not placed the region in Typhoon Vamco’s treacherous path, only noting that it could cause floods. Typhoon Goni, which occurred a week earlier, had been described as the region’s strongest storm of the year, but it caused relatively little damage, leaving many Filipinos off guard.
The flooding had affected eight regions and three million people, according to the United Nation’s humanitarian office. Dozens had been killed, many of them occurring in the low-lying suburbs of Cainta and Rizal, east of Manila, the capital.
“I was born here and I never saw the water rise so fast,” said Jocelyn Malilin, a 49-year-old widow in Tuguegarao City, in Cagayan province. As the Cagayan began to overflow last Friday, she clambered to the roof of her bungalow with her two daughters, two grandchildren and other relatives.
Malilin’s aunt, Socorro Narag, lived nearby, but had resisted appeals to prepare for the typhoon. It was only later amidthe confusion and rush of water that Ms. Malilin realized her aunt was missing.
‘It’s just a storm,’” she recalled her saying.
Two nephews were sent to check on Ms. Narag in the chaos. When they returned, they told Ms. Malilin that her aunt had died, apparently after falling down, she said.
With the waters still rising, one of the nephews brought Ms. Narag’s body to the roof so it wouldn’t be swept away by the deluge. Her remains stayed there until the family was rescued.
“We knew that the water would eventually stop rising,” Ms. Malilin said. “Maybe she was watching over us.”
The water had steadily receded, but many villages remained inaccessible for weeks, said Mr. Mamba, the governor. Rescue workers, military and the police had been forced to deliver relief by air.
“There are places here that are impossible to go to, even by boat,” he said. Mr. Mamba blamed much of the tragedy on illegal logging and quarrying along the river, which the government has tried to prevent for years.
Bong Quizzanganong, a Catholic businessman in Tuguegarao, described the flooding in biblical terms: like a raging wall of water sent from above. He said he was used to the river causing minor flooding, “but not like this.”
Mr. Quizzanganong tried cruising around in his off-road vehicle to survey the damage of the flooding, but was forced to retreat because of the raging current.
I, along with New York Times photojournalist Jes Aznar raced to Cagayan the first chance that we could get. But we had to pass by several provinces and towns where our press credentials and health permits were scrutinized.
Nearly all the roadside eateries we passed by were closed, and only one in the Cagayan slopes did we find one that sold us piping hot coffee and deer meat.
We couldn’t find a hotel to stay at first, but our driver managed to contact an acquaintance who put us up in a powerless building. At least there was enough water for a quick bath.
BenarNews photographer Jojo Riñoza, who was travelling with us, hooked us up with the local police and by the following day, we were airborne with relief workers in a helicopter to witness the devastation from above.
Entire communities remained submerged in brown water. People signaled for help, their voices inaudible over the rotor.
Children splashed around in the murk. A man led a carabao on one of the few roads that remain accessible.
“We want all the isolated areas to be reached, because when you see people living, sleeping on the rooftops waving at you, you could almost feel how relieved they are to see you,” said Lt. Col. Wildemar Tiu, a co-pilot on the relief mission.
Some places have remained totally isolated since the storm, but Mr. Tiu said the air missions would continue until all areas have been reached. “You wonder how they must feel right now,” he said of those who were still waiting to be rescued.
“We want to believe that, at least, we are giving them hope.”