That morning I got to see a big boat built, I also got floored by villagers’, now in their sixties, incredible accounts of survival during the tsunami in 1976.
A few minutes after midnight on 17 August 1976, a violent earthquake (magnitude 8.2) originating beneath Moro Gulf spawned a tsunami that affected 700 km of coastline bordering Moro Gulf. Residents in those areas experienced what seemed to be the longest thirty minutes of their lives.
…common observation was a loud roaring that preceded the arrival of the waves, a loud sound that kept getting closer… While it is clear that the sound was coming from the incoming waves, it was not clear what was specifically causing the sound.
“It seemed like the sea was moaning. It was frightening, but we didn’t know why until it was too late,” recalled one woman.
Estimates of wave heights had to be based on qualitative descriptions of the waves being as tall as a coconut tree, a two storey house, twice a man’s height, etc. or had to be deduced from photographs of damaged structures.
“Then we saw this wave…it came up way above our house,” one villager said.
The sequence of events then was as follows. A shock violent enough to awaken coastal residents and make standing or walking difficult. A strong, approaching sound different from familiar sea sounds, a frightening sound variedly described as cascading rain, rumbling of many trucks, etc. Arrival of waves within minutes, preceded by an unusually deep recession of the sea. Two or three waves following the first.
A description of the waves would be incomplete without the listing of their effects… A bore rushing up a river in Pagadian damaged a bridge… Inland fishponds were either flooded or emptied of water. Partially concrete houses, schools, public building, factories, etc. were reduced to a few concrete slabs, wooden stumps, and twisted steel… Against such fury what chance did frail makeshift homes have?
Deaths were caused by drowning. With the collapse of their homes around midnight, the victims found themselves in dark, turbulent waters. Those who survived managed to do so because their grip on something firm prevented their being swept out to the open seas… One father had clung to a tree and his children in turn clung to him. When the waved receded, he was all alone. This was a tale that was repeated many times over. While swimming may be as natural as breathing to sea dwellers, in Pagadian the tsunami had churned the waters and slum sediments into a batter of mud that choked victims.
“Just seconds before the wave slammed toward land, my mother realized it was a tidal wave and shouted at us to hold onto anything firm,” said another woman who was a teenager back then. She recalled holding to a tree. She and her family were among the lucky ones who went under the waters of the tsunami and survived with only cuts and bruises. Their house, like the others on the coast, which was a typical hut put up by artisanal fisherfolks was destroyed though and their belongings taken by the sea.
They remembered the first wave of the tsunami going inland as far as the present-day main road which if I were to walk to it from the beach on my normal pace would take me around forty-five minutes. “That far. Wow,” said the head of my host organization. They too didn’t know about this story. After the meeting, we stopped by the intersection to the main road to see the marker. The 1976 event, according to reports, left 80,000 dead or missing, 10,000 injured, and 90,000 homeless. The first ever recorded earthquake in the area was in 1897, and thereafter with roughly 16 year interval up to 1976.
The hairs on my arms stood on ends. If I were to put on a special pair of looking glasses, like night vision goggles, how many dead people roaming would I see in our midst? Or, are they like Mad Hatter and his friends, after playing a joke on Time, locked in a forever tea time? forever tsunami?
The next day in the adjoining village, a similar story was recounted, although said event happened much recently. Apparently typhoon Sendong/Washi in 2011 had also spawned a tsunami that threw native boats inland as far as onto the hills on the village border, destroyed the village water system, rice fields, and fishponds. It took a couple of days for sea water to recede. At the time, however, much thanks to broadcast media, the nation was riveted to Cagayan de Oro where it seemed the only place in Mindanao adversely affected by the storm. It was only after three days that aid, the first and last, came to the village.
“So what did you do in those three days?” I asked.
“Nagtulungan kami,” they said. “Kung anong meron ang bawat isa. Bigas, rootcrops, biscuits. Pinagamit sa tao ang may-ari ng tubig ang kanilang bombahan.”
UN Volunteers just recently launched it’s #VolunteersActFirstHereEverywhere campaign in time for the International Day of Volunteers on December 5. According to the campaign, in the time government and other agencies are getting their acts together, volunteers, within or outside the village or community, are often, if not always, the first ones to respond in times of crisis and emergencies. A neighbor sharing food as what happened in that isolated village falls within the UNV definition of volunteer. While there’s no exact Filipino native word for volunteer which is a relatively modern introduction in the country bayanihan would be it’s nearest equivalent.
Volunteers and volunteerism is the reason communities make it through the crucial period in times of crises until outside help gets through. Neighbors helping neighbors, with food, first aid in the form of indigenous knowledge, water ration from a privately-owned source, tools to clear away debris, etc. What’s amazing is that the instinct to preserve life doesn’t stop with oneself and kin but extends to members of the community.
Duty-bearers nonetheless are accountable and responsible in the continuing education of tsunami-prone communities. I couldn’t help comment during my visit on the placement of the tsunami warning board. It says a lot about the residents’ knowledge hence attitude toward the hazard relative to their villages: the concern is put on the back burner.
Late last month, DSWD reported on Big Waves due to ITCZ and LPA in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi that affected seven villages and displacement of hundreds. How big were the big waves wasn’t in the report, a crucial information needed by responders in order to act appropriately. Let’s tell things as they are especially with natural disasters.
Next, have a plan of risk reduction measures. Then, fund the plan. Localities usually have plans that mostly remain plans accumulating dust and molds on shelves simply because they’re not funded. In this age of crowd-funding and bitcoins, localities need to go beyond the IRA mindset into that of the successful salesman or woman and “sell” the plans to donors and investors out there. Tailor fit the sell. If the plan is for an early warning system ie. communication equipment, monitoring tools like drones, and such then sell the plan to people or companies who are into funding that sort of schemes. If the plan is to relocate families on protected coastlines then do some research about it and recommend policy changes to convince land managers and owners with. The bottomline is, that tsunami-warning sign board will not in itself reduce the risks. Community education will. A well-backed plan will. Community action will.
Quoted texts, source: Moro Gulf Tsunami of 17 August 1976, Badillo, Victor L., S.J. & Astilla, Zinnia C., 1978, Manila Observatory