Disaster response: Silver lining and a grim remembering

Buddy Gomez -- Cyberbuddy

Posted at Jan 12 2019 12:21 PM

It has been quite a long while since Calbayog City, my hometown in Samar, a Philippine  province, last suffered from nature’s wrath. For decades, in fact, we have been happily spared. Nonetheless, Samar as an entire island, now divided into three provinces, has remained the constant reference point for all atmospheric disturbances emanating from the Pacific, headed toward the archipelago. 

Usman, the Philippines’ last tropical depression was different. Landfall was a direct hit, at dead-center of the island. The climatic disaster, although not strong in terms of wind velocity, turned out to be heavily waterborne. Usman brought about  massive destruction in lives and property by way of torrential rains and floods that caused rampaging swollen rivers uprooting along its path entire rural villages. It was a cascading deluge no one recalls ever happening before!

There are disaster stories from many other vicinities along the path of  typhoon Usman but most commentaries were unavoidably political, as much of Philippine happenings usually are. These reports concentrated on public works failures, landslides and impassable highways and accusations of attendant fiscal skullduggery supposedly committed by politicians, whether  currently in office or those of the past incumbency. Finger pointing and imputing blame seems to be written into the playbook.  

Disaster response, to many politicians, is a classic opportunity not to be overlooked. The term “Epal”  almost immediately surfaces. (Epal  is derived from ‘pumapa-pel,' that is, salivating for a role to play and the conscious effort to publicize oneself!)

Common reactions, while often partaking  of political ‘zarzuela’ and advertised ego-tripping pseudo-charity, do not ease the loss and the pain of disasters’ aggrieved. The Red Cross and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) do that. Such sources of succor, sometimes, do not get reported and good deeds remain unappreciated. Well, I aim to do a ‘shout out’ for the civic spirit much expressed by the Calbayog community. They deserve notice and commendation.

Calbayog folks, in diaspora around the globe, and more so, those back home, ought to take pride in the spontaneous display of caring, sharing, optimism and positivity in the Usman relief effectively launched at home. Exemplary voluntarism in effective display.

Apart from the City government’s Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Council (DRRMC) which implemented its preparedness with flying colors, there also evolved two separate but eventually coordinating relief  undertakings. Citizen volunteers and humble donors of time, effort and useful ‘goodies.’

One was the “Operation Bayanihan Relief Drive” of the Christ the King College (CKC) and its volunteering staff and alumni. They were able to assemble ‘relief packs” that consisted of donated useful clothes and shoes, rice, water and  much needed comestibles. 

The other group, another example of community spontaneity, billed themselves as “Sagubay-Calbayognon”, (Sagubay is Binisaya denoting shoulder-to-shoulder, cooperative inclusion, not really any dissimilar to Bayanihan, all reflective of a community’s heart and spirit.), with fund-raising efforts such as a ‘fun run’ event and an art auction with donated works by local artists, of which Calbayog has produced quite a number of notables. 

Such admirable and effective civic action deserves replication elsewhere when the need arises. That would require documentation. I would therefore suggest that the known principals of the community action come together and craft the required template. These would be:   Carl Sanchez Bordeos (CKC’s Museum curator and Asst. Director for Research);  Eleen Lim of DYOG, Bureau of Broadcast, and Roland Saplad, an officer of the City’s DRRMC. Having been hands on, they would be the most knowledgeable.

Leadership by personal example is an indispensable ingredient in disaster relief management and operations, which brings to mind an impressive, although unheralded sidelight to 2013’s Super Typhoon Yolanda, Haiyan--the Philippines’ deadliest on record. It involved Calbayog and  her Mayor. We hail an example of on-the-spot decision-making which is likewise a genuine expression of the Christian value of giving and sharing.  

Immediately after November 3, 2013,  when it became certain that Yolanda had spared Calbayog from destruction and that Tacloban and its environs had already been devastated, Mayor Ronaldo Aquino called for a “Te Deum” at the Cathedral for thanksgiving and forthwith decided to redirect  the readied trucks loaded with relief goods, marshalling Calbayog’s preparedness into a caravan with volunteers headed, instead,  for Tacloban, with Mayor Aquino in the lead!   Calbayog was  first in delivering emergency assistance to a beleaguered and devastated Tacloban.

With the advent of Usman, once more that Calbayog heart and spirit shone. Disaster relief operations, setting aside its beneficence, had taken on a festive air with volunteers basking in the fulfillment of their good deeds. The joy was its own reward, a silver lining amidst the clouds of calamity.

The deathly destructive flash floods, however, brought to fore a grim remembering that deforestation and denudation of the Samar hinterlands’ precious patrimony -- the expropriation and commercialization of its hardwood  forest stands -- had been the direct cause of severe damage to life, limb and property. Usman was simply its vessel. Greedy timber felling of the past made certain that such patch of earth cannot withstand the onslaught of Usman’s massive drenching. Inevitably, the name of San Jose Timber Corporation as the culprit had to surface and be remembered. 

You see, the deluge brought about by typhoon Usman encompassed many interior municipalities in Northern Samar which were part of the 96,000-hectare lumber concession granted by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos to his Martial Law administrator, Juan Ponce Enrile, then the Minister of National Defense. The nonagenarian former senator is the owner of San Jose Timber Corporation. Therefore, it is not an exaggerated use of metaphor to say that truly much of  the vaunted Juan Ponce Enrile wealth was indeed juicy pelf squeezed out of Samar’s forests. One may even be so bold as to claim that such wealth would  have been very likely drenched in blood, too!

One such affected municipality is Las Navas. Sometime in September 1981, its desolate Barangay Sag-od was overtaken by an armed group masquerading as military personnel supposedly in pursuit of some suspected members of the Communist New People’s Army (NPA). Forty-five men, women and children were massacred on mere suspicion of Barangay Sag-od being an NPA hotbed or its harboring  sympathizers. A handful of women and children escaped and lived to tell of the harrowing tragedy.

At first, there was an attempt to pin the blame on the regular Philippine Army Unit sparsely responsible for the general vicinity. Upon investigation, even the military command had to clamp down on the information gathered  for it carried damning consequences. It was a finding that not one from the  general command of the Philippine Army was willing to confront, countenance and champion.

The murderous armed group responsible for the  massacre was said to be components of what was then known as “the Lost Command.” Dismissed and renegade soldiers, murderers and cutthroats, reportedly hired to secure the concession of San Jose Timber Corporation.

The  story of the Sag-od massacre has yet to be fully told. Authoritatively, it can only come from the Philippine Army archives if records are extant or from its relevant retired generals.

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