Thursday, November 7, 2013

[Throwback Thursday 11.07.2013] The 1991 Ormoc flash flood

Reading something like "The Biggest Storm in the World This Year Is Headed for the Philippines" doesn't sound very reassuring. It's also heartbreaking to know that the provinces of Bohol and Cebu, which have just recently been devastated by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake, are right in the path of super typhoon Haiyan (locally named Yolanda). My mom, sister, and her family, by the way, are living in Cebu.

Furthermore, the province of Leyte is also expected to take a beating. Leyte, particularly Ormoc City, is where most of my relatives from my mom's side are. It's also where I've spent the rest of my childhood since fourth grade and practically all of my adolescent years. Twenty-two years ago on this very day, I was most probably helping with some major house cleaning because just two days before that on the 5th of November 1991, Ormoc City was ravaged by an epic flash flood.

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Isla Verde, one of the worst-hit areas of the 1991 Ormoc flash floods. [Photo source]

We were in the middle of a school break and I was holed up in an uncle's house. My sister and I were better off there because our house was an expected mess whenever there's a typhoon. Close to noon we heard a loud booming sound, which we mistook for thunder. Everybody there breathed a sigh of relief since it meant the typhoon was over and it was now only a thunderstorm. (I can't vouch for any scientific basis here, though.)

Shortly after, another of my uncles came running towards the house. He was shouting like crazy that there's a flood and that we had to leave right away. As he reached the doorstep, water came rushing in. He took my sister while I grabbed--of all things--my guitar.

By the time I got out of the house, the water outside was already waist-deep. It was quite difficult to negotiate your way because the current was really strong. I soon got to a different aunt's house that was right next to ours. We all thought her house was more sturdy, that's why.

The water kept coming in as relatives rushed to lift appliances and other valuables to higher ground. It was very scary. Before long we all realized we could all be trapped inside if the onslaught of water does not let up. Good thing this aunt's house had a weird design: while half of it was a two-story structure, the other half had just one level and a much lower base. This is where the uncles saw an opportunity. One of them climbed up to one of the galvanized plastic sheets that formed part of the roof and tried breaking it. Where his hands and arms failed him, banging his head against it did the trick.

One by one we made it on top of the roof, then all of us were backed against the wall of the two-story part of the house, huddled together, praying. One of the uncles got hold of a garden hose and he fastened one end to a beam or something. If worse came to worst, we had to hold on to it. He also brought out several plastic gallons he emptied just in case.

Scared, shivering from the cold rain and wind gusts, we watched as water rushed along the sides of the house. Even from where we were standing, the current was unmistakably strong. It was something none of us has ever seen before. We watched while praying it would soon stop.

Then minutes later the water started to ebb. As quickly as it came, the flood was gone just like that. When we seemed sure it was not going to rise again, we made our way back down into the house and came face to face with the wreckage all around. While still in shock, the cleanup began while others surveyed the neighborhood. A bridge just a few meters from our house had collapsed and at least one house had been swept away. We lived near the sea but you couldn't sea the shore, as it was covered in logs, driftwood, assorted debris, and unbeknownst to us (at least until the next day), an unidentified dead body, bloated and stripped naked by the sheer force of the current.

Later in the afternoon of that same day, our senses were further shocked when some neighbors who came home from work in the city brought along more horrendous news. They said there were so many dead people in the city, that there was mud and debris everywhere, that several bridges have collapsed, etc. We never had thought that the calamity that had just struck us was so widespread.

It was eerily quiet that evening. We were all crunched together around a gas lamp at our balcony while having dinner, taking in what had just happened. We were shaken but still thankful we were alive.

With stores closed and ravaged by the flood, food soon became a problem. Relief, however, also poured in, and we did experience what it felt like to be on the receiving end. During those times I was flabbergasted at the sheer number of sardine brands I never knew even existed! We also rejoiced at the occasional Ma Ling luncheon meat that would find its way it into our relief goods.

Interestingly, everyone was so prayerful then. There were nightly processions around each community and churches were full during Holy Mass.

Typhoon Thelma (locally named Uring), however weak, dumped an unprecedented amount of rainfall on Ormoc. The resulting flash flood killed some 5,000 lives. In addition to that are a couple of thousands more who remained missing and as such, were believed to be already dead, which puts the estimated casualty at more than 8,000. Because the government feared an epidemic, little time was given for the identification of bodies and most of them were collected by payloaders and trucks, and then buried in mass graves. God bless their souls.

I don't have any personal photos of the aftermath, but here are a few I've found on the Internet:

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Bodies washed away by the current. All are bloated because of the water, and some are stripped naked by the mere force of the water's current. [Photo source]

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My school, St. Peter's College. The concrete fences gave way while the building withstood the water's attack. [Photo source]

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Dead bodies transported by dump trucks to the mass graves. [Photo source]

The road to the city's recovery was long and hard but Ormoc did it, with a lot of help, of course. I haven't seen the city in many years but even before I left for my review and eventual work, there's already hardly any trace of this tragedy today. However, I'm sure people have not forgotten.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November...

1 comment:

  1. I am really glad you made it though that horrific and tragic event back to 1991 !
    I am with all my heart with the people from Philippines.
    Jersey Chase

    ReplyDelete

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