Renato Tibon .
“Looking at old photographs inundates you with a flood of nostalgic emotions. And you can’t be sure where you want to swim in the deluge of memories.” – Avijeet Das
BY the time this column sees print, we have heretofore observed the 7th year anniversary since Tropical Storm “Sendong,” the world’s deadliest storm in 2011, struck Cagayan de Oro City, Iligan and many parts of Northern Mindanao. Carrying over 180 millimeters of rainwater, the ensuing flash flood inundated populous riverbanks and low-lying communities in the late hours of December 16th through the early morning of the following day, killing and injuring thousands of inhabitants with a thousand more missing washed away into the open sea. Not that everyone wants to remember. Most of those who survived the deluge would rather commit their memories in a self-induced hypomnesia than rehash the pain of losing loved ones and their sanity over and over again. Out of respect for them, I’ll circumscribe this first-person account within my family’s own experience on that fateful night.
The eve of the tragedy started with continuous precipitation not unlike the typical storms descending upon the city that we treat as ordinary inconveniences. We lived inside Emily Homes, a subdivision in Balulang, overlooking Cagayan River which under normal conditions, was deemed too far out to cause any concern even at high tide. No announcements, no warnings, nothing prepared us for the unexpected. With the unrelenting rains, floodwaters surged, sudden and fierce, rushing headlong just before midnight, threatening to engulf my family. Panic-stricken, we clambered and struggled up the rooftops just in the nick of time. There was nothing to hold on to but each other, 6 with a four-month infant on one roof and 4 on the other, sodden and shivering to the bones. Clinging to prayers as our only recourse, we persevered while turbid waters continued to rise lapping at our feet precariously. Our survival depended largely upon faith in a compassionate God whom we ceaselessly implored to spare us from the looming disaster.
Still fearful of the rising waters, I tried to keep a sound mind sizing up our chances of survival. There were nearby electrical cables and wires which we could cling to in case the roof collapse, a tall tree we could climb up or an ice-cooler drifting close which we could use as floater. Or we could try swimming down to the nearest two-storey house still above water. At wit’s end, three of my boys managed to swim but was repulsed by heavy materials blocking their way back. Just when hope was turning to despair, the downpour eased up with overcast skies appearing luminescent in the early dawn. This somewhat lifted up our sagging spirits. But we could still distinctly hear the horrifying buzz of the flood swirling around us ferrying flotsams we couldn’t make out. Only God knew what those dark silhouettes hitting walls and posts with heavy thuds were.
The water started receding at about three o’clock in the morning and as it moved further down, we happily shed abundant tears in gratitude. We safely descended at 7 am. Seeing every piece of our belongings buried under mud except for my watch, eyeglasses and Crucifix, we decided to leave. Another day would see us sorting them out but there weren’t really that much to save.
The subdivision was covered in knee-high slush, with vehicles turned upside down, some piled on top of the others. We saw badly damaged houses with mud plastered all over, toppled concrete fences and weak structures, all grisly reminders of the devastation the storm caused in its path. As we trudged the muddied streets on our way out, barefooted and braving broken shards, we were greeted with great wailing and frenzied rescue activities around us. It turned out, some of our neighbors were not as fortunate. They counted nine lifeless bodies, trapped inside the victims’ homes including some which strayed mired inside the subdivision. That moment we were too drained to worry. Survivors like us, bedraggled, walking half-dead and trembling, piled out of the subdivision’s gates. Some Good Samaritans offered me a cup of hot coffee which I gladly acknowledged while absentmindedly receiving some clothes. I didn’t know how we appeared to them at that instant. Concerned relatives fetched us, respecting our silence as they brought us to the warmth of home we all missed. Bathed and fully clothed, we hugged each other and as tears started to well up, we were soon weeping helplessly as realization swept over, we were all alive. I refused to impute culpability on anyone knowing it’s an act of nature but I did lay blame on my own neglect not getting involved in matters that concerned my surroundings. It was a rude awakening.
Thus, a new chapter in my life opened when I joined Bangon Kagay-an, a pro-environment group led by Sir Nixon Baban and Dr. Bob Ocio. With some Kagayanons, Sendong victims themselves, we helped hasten the decision of the Court of Appeals granting Sulog, another group we created, a Writ of Kalikasan prohibiting mining and logging activities in the hinterlands. We considered it a victory even if insufficient. The experience likewise gave me the impetus to pursue a political career as a lecturer, political party officer and technocrat under the leadership of Congressman Rufus B. Rodriguez, presently the president of the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines (CDP) of which I’m an active member. He is now running for a new term as congressman of Cagayan de Oro City’s second district with a 10-point agenda which include infrastructures such as construction of a comprehensive city-wide drainage system that will mitigate the city’s perennial flooding among others.
I remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech saying, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” The decision to serve my country was easy. One Sendong was enough.