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Witnessing Washi's wrath and aftermath

Image of man with chairs from Iligan City by Bobby Timonera, courtesy CaritasThe cruel paradox in disasters caused by flash floods is that water is the first thing that becomes scarce. In the Philippine city of Cagayan de Oro, mortuaries could not even wash the mud off dead children so they could be quickly identified by parents.

Mud and water. In many areas throughout northwest Mindanao, they are all that remain after tropical storm Washi (local name Sendong) dumped a month's worth of rain in 12 hours. Cagayan and neighbouring Iligan were the hardest hit in the region.

But it was the flash floods that stole through people's homes in the dark hours of Saturday morning that proved fatal. It was astonishingly efficient. In many cases mere minutes spared lives.

Bodies were recovered as the day broke. Many, far too many, were children and elderly. A pall fell over the city as people sensed, even before the toll steeply rose, that the aftermath would be unprecedented.

The effects were impossible to miss. As we drove downtown on Saturday afternoon, we saw people huddling on street corners, covered in mud and looking for shelter. Photos and videos surfaced on social media, revealing riverine and montane landscapes with muddy welts, choked with debris. Water shortages and power cuts further disrupted this city of half a million.

No one was left untouched, even those who had somehow missed the worst.

Cagayan and Iligan are university towns, where school and kinship form the fabric of the community. With more than 35,000 displaced, over 700 confirmed deaths, and nearly 500 unaccounted for, everyone knows someone, or several, who lost their home, their life, or their loved ones.

One of my sister's colleagues drowned. A childhood friend told me one of her sixth grade students is missing. In our wider network, families who somehow kept their houses are struggling to regain normality without clean water.

Cagayanons are reeling. As residents of a port city bisected by the mighty Cagayan River, they had lived mostly peaceably with its waterways. The typhoons that regularly sweep over the Philippine archipelago wreak havoc much further north. Storm tails often break over Macajalar Bay or against the Bukidnon highlands.

Until Saturday, floods could be incredibly inconvenient but not calamitous. The last inundation of comparable scale is on the edge of collective memory, having occurred in 1929.

But then, Cagayan is a vastly different city to what it was in 1929. It is a different city even from the one I grew up in, back in the '80s and '90s.

Forested slopes that used to absorb water and hold the soil together have given way to housing and commercial developments. Illegal logging and mining took care of the rest. Rain thus falls unfettered down the hills to the river. The river banks burst and swallow up houses flimsily built along its length.

Public infrastructure, such as drainage and rubbish disposal, have not been corrected and expanded to meet the pressures of population increase. City and suburban streets do not drain efficiently or at all. Rain runs freely over concrete gutters, eventually finding its way into doorways. When creeks and water basins are already overflowing, it has nowhere else to go.

With Washi, everything that could go wrong, did. Residents in high-risk areas had not evacuated. Flash floods, coinciding with high tide, swept lives and homes away in darkness. The natural and man-made systems that could have mitigated the volume of water were quickly overwhelmed.

Thus, even as relief operations were rapidly mobilised by Xavier University, the Philippine Red Cross, and the government's social welfare department, Cagayanons were trying to make sense of how it had come to this. They have never faced this scale of death and destruction.

Heartsick as they are, resilient as they will undoubtedly prove to be, they are asking hard questions. 

Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro city, has set up a relief centre to receive donations of food, water, medical and other supplies and distribute them to victims of the disaster. Donations to support their efforts can be made to Jesuit Mission. Or donate to Caritas Australia's appeal here.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer from the Philippines. She was holidaying in Cagayan de Oro when tropical storm Washi struck. Image of man with chairs from Iligan City by Bobby Timonera, courtesy Caritas


Topic tags: Fatima, tropical storm Washi, Philippines



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