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The deluge remembered

Lagrimas Perdio . 

WHEN “Sendong” struck with stealth and fury in 2011, Cagayan de Oro and its people were ill-prepared for the tragedy, not just from an infrastructure point of view but even more for the emotional and psychological aftermath. I don’t often talk of those days simply because my experience seems so insignificant compared to those who lost loved ones. That, for me, was the most painful. After all, homes and belongings can be replaced, but the loss of human life is the biggest tragedy of all.

Dec. 16, 2011 was a peculiar day. Peculiar in the sense that people had been warned days before of the strong possibility that Cagayan de Oro would be hit by this deadly typhoon. Throughout the day, I remember that there was intermitent rain and gusty winds, but nothing that seemed forceful enough to be concerned about. Christmas parties were scheduled for that evening, including ours, and my co-workers brushed off the weather forecast with the light-handed pronouncements that our city was not known to be hit by typhoons.

Throughout the city, there was a holiday atmosphere–mall sales, traffic, smiles on people’s faces. Nothing that an umbrella couldn’t save. I had been wrapping gifts while chatting with people at work, expressing my concern about whether we should discuss postponing our party until after the storm had passed, but the general consensus was that we really had nothing to worry about except for the rain, and I was giving away umbrellas that night. The only concession was that we would start the party early.

Around 9 pm, some of us decided to go home since there were reports that a big tree branch had fallen and was partially blocking the Velez-Luna intersection. Throughout the evening, the rain (though still intermittent) was coming down harder and harder. Before saying goodbye, I strongly urged the others not to stay too late because I believed that they would be safer if they weathered the storm in the safety of their respective home. Never could I have been more wrong for a few of them, especially those who lived in Balulang.

When the power died around midnight, I opened my curtains and sat at the foot of my bed, looking out at the swaying trees, catching glimpses of mysterious things flying past the window, or landing on the yard. God put on quite a show, I must say. Occasional flashes of lightning would streak across the sky. But it was mostly wind, and I remember thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as predicted. Around 2:30, I decided to brave going outside since the winds had died down, and went to check on whatever damage might have been caused. There were large pieces of wood impaled in the ground, a few sheets of tin roofing which were peeled off from the roof, but other than that it seemed the destruction was mild. I whispered a tiny prayer of thanks, not knowing the horror that was happening just a kilometer or so away in the rushing floods of the river.

Our neighborhood was starting to come alive, people coming out in the streets. A few people worried about their family members who didn’t make it home that night. Some others were worried about relatives and friends who lived in closer proximity to Cagayan River. We were all having a difficult time getting in touch with people. I had been trying to call or text my co-workers, having been worried through the night if they made it home. Some replied, and others couldn’t be reached.

As day started to break, stories began to trickle in of the devastation. From where we were, it was difficult to comprehend the descriptions being relayed to us. Appeals to help find missing family members and friends started to pour in, and by six o’clock, a neighbor who I also worked with, along with my daughter and her husband, went out to search for a dear friend who was reported missing. Sadly, her parents (whom she lived with) had already been found dead, which was what triggered the search.

The first place we went to was Macasandig, because that’s where she lived. Since their gym was filled with refugees, the dead bodies were crammed into the hallways, nooks and crannies of the barangay hall. I was unprepared for what met me. Bodies, all caked in mud–in their mouths, noses, eyes, ears. The instinct to run away was overwhelming but knowing we had to do what was needed, we waded through the corpses. The horror of having to look down at each face to see if it was she was indescribable. But even greater was the sorrow and grief. Mothers cradling their children, hands frozen in a claw-like fashion, open eyes, infants in swaddling clothes all by themselves, small children, old people. There was no mercy there.

The urge to vomit kept trembling underneath the surface of my self-control, and the urge to cry could not be contained. And we kept on. I stopped keeping count. Each place we went to for the rest of the day in our terrible search was no better. As a human being, nothing prepared you for that experience. To be witness to the fearful, terrible deaths; to wonder what their last moments must have been like; to somehow imagine their screams and pleas and hear them inside your head. At a certain point, the immensity of the experience turns to numbness and thankfully you are no longer allowed to feel.

To see bodies dumped in a heap on the  street in front of a funeral home, and having to dig through it in this unfulfilled quest. To see the final indignity, and to hurt for them and for those who lost them. I cannot say that I was lucky to have escaped the Sendong tragedy not having lost anything or anyone. That day will forever be a part of me. I will always grieve for all those unknown people. And I will forever respect the frailty and unpredictability of human life.

I was thankful knowing that some friends who had to brave the raging muck were perched safely on their roofs, and eventually made it to shelter and safety after the waters subsided.

The subsequent weeks of no water, which led many people to complain as if the end of the world had come, lost its direness and I learned to adjust to the simpler means of collecting water at the neighborhood well, along with everyone else. The inconvenience of it all was something I was grateful for–that it was merely an inconvenience. The efforts to provide care packages for those hit hardest acquired a whole new meaning. It was an effort that went beyond mere generosity. It was an effort born out of thankfulness that we had the means to be of assistance, and to respect those who needed it.

We found out later that our friend’s body had been found. I can’t say what I would have done and how it would have affected me if we had been the ones to find her. And I will always be grateful to have been spared that circumstance. Sendong left me with a whole new respect for life, for nature, for death. And I know that I am a different person for it.

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