Aid Worker Diaries: “It was as if the village had been hit by an inland tsunami”

24 December, 2011
19 December 2011: People trying to salvage reusable items in Iligan City, Mindanao. Credit: OCHA
19 December 2011: People trying to salvage reusable items in Iligan City, Mindanao. Credit: OCHA

On the night of 16 December, flash floods devastated northern Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, killing hundreds of people while they slept – and forcing more than 300,000 people to flee their ravaged homes.

Most of the victims were still asleep when floodwaters cascaded from the mountains, after 12 hours of rain during Tropical Storm Washi. Unaccustomed to natural disasters on such a scale, more than 600,000 people urgently need help.

David Carden, head of the Philippines’ OCHA office, quickly assembled a team to get to the scene – which looked as though it had been struck by an “inland tsunami.” Along with the Government, local and international aid workers, he has been working 24/7 to keep people alive, and help them rebuild their lives.

When we first heard about Tropical Storm Washi bearing down on eastern Mindanao, our standard disaster response procedures kicked in. But we were worried about the level of preparedness of the local communities in this area, because they had not been hit by a tropical storm in decades.

Our fears were justified, but no one imagined that the consequences could be so severe. The storm hit Cagayan de Oro and Iligan during the night. As reports started filtering in on Saturday morning of devastating flash floods, we rushed into action.

We realised we had to do an immediate joint assessment with the Government to find out what people needed - for a possible Flash Appeal (if the Government requested assistance), or for a request to the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund.

On Sunday, our Manila-based disaster adviser caught a flight to Cagayan de Oro. At the same time, two national officers in Cotabato in Central Mindanao drove for seven hours to the same place. We mobilised other agencies to do the same.

Two days after the flash floods, I went to Kala Kala village next to the Cagayan River. It is known locally as ground zero. I was shocked by the scale of the destruction. It was as if the village had been hit by an inland tsunami.

Almost the entire village had been razed to the ground, with only a few buildings left standing. There were a few labourers trying to scavenge spare parts from overturned trucks. Debris from houses, other structures and uprooted coconut trees were all swept out to sea.

The smell of rotting flesh was pervasive. I saw a dead dog partially buried. I spoke to one man who explained how the water had started appearing from three directions at once: from the river adjacent to the village itself, from the volcanic hills upstream and from the storm surge downstream.

If you did not escape as soon as the floods started, there is no way you could survive. In one of the few structures left standing you could see the water mark on the third floor, more than 20 feet high. I spoke to a father who told me he had lost two of his three children.

As the floodwaters rose, he carried his two youngest children to safety. He told his seven year old son, his eldest, that he would come back to get him. When he returned his house was gone. There are many other similar stories.

The line between survival and death is thin. We will never know how many people died. 

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