Dryness. Devastation. Desperation. These were the words that came into my mind as I travelled east of Davao City, to bear witness to the full impact of Typhoon Pablo’s fury in Southern Mindanao. For four straight days, our crew of six traversed nearly 1,000 kilometers to take photos and videos of the calamity that struck the towns of New Bataan in Compostela Valley, and the coastal municipalities of Boston, Cateel, and Baganga in Davao Oriental. We were warned that some roads would be impassable, and that there would be no electricity, no dependable network provider, and no running water where we were headed. It was an indication of the massive infrastructural damage that Pablo had inflicted on these affected provinces.
From green to grim
Throughout our journey, we saw how many trees fell down on houses, school buildings, and electric posts. As soon as we hit the highway leading to Compostela Valley, we were struck by the sight of hectares of fallen banana trees, as far as the eye can see. Along the road, residents--mostly farm hands- -beg for food and money, asking for whatever jobs they can take just to be able to support their families and get through the crisis.
In New Bataan, we saw how Purok 14 town was covered in mud and debris, following the flash floods that descended into town and which claimed so many lives.
Driving towards the coast, we saw brown-colored hills with sad-looking coconut trees--their tops hunched and leaves folded to one direction. They looked like umbrellas that got turned outside-in.
As you reached further inward, the trees simply broke in half. You could just imagine the sheer force of the winds that toppled down decades-old trees. Other trees that remained standing looked dry and lifeless, the kind you would find in a Tim Burton movie.
In Cateel, we saw thousands of logs washed ashore. The mere number further expanded the shoreline. Now, these timber can be used to rebuild people’s houses, to shield them from the unusual December heat.
A storm to remember
In our every stop, we interviewed people and asked them about their Typhoon Pablo experience. Although they were warned of the impending storm, they simply had no experience, no comparison of the difference between a typhoon signal number 1 to a signal number 3. Ever since they could remember, Mindanao only gets minimum rainfall during this time of the year, not hurricane-like weather with wind speeds of 160 kph which instantly flattened their farm lands and ripped off the roofs and walls of their houses.
Baranggay Captain (town chief) Mara Ching from Cateel, recalled how she and her family were forced lie flat on the floor and cling to each other, in the early hours of December 4. Other residents like Teresa Obatonon hid in the bathroom to avoid being sucked in by the vortex. She thought it was the end of the world.
In Banganga, where 95% of the houses were completely dismantled, we found a mourning Richard Masamayor whose son died in his arms as they were seeking shelter in their church. He suffered a broken arm as a collapsed wall hit him.
In New Bataan, we followed a rescue team as they searched for dead bodies that remain buried under the mud a week after the tragedy struck. Judging from the stench in the town, there are a lot more to be retrieved. Rescuer Tony Tabutabu just couldn’t believe the high death toll caused by such an extreme weather phenomenon.
In Latin, the name Pablo means humble, or little. Unlike its namesake, Typhoon Pablo showed that he was a force of nature. He certainly humbled the province of Southern Mindanao.
Post-Pablo, these people now live altered lives. Like the rest of their townsfolk, they now have to deal with rebuilding their lives--resurrecting their homes, finding a new source of livelihood, or coping with the loss of a loved one.
Documenting the devastation and listening to the survivors’ tales, the team cannot help but be moved as well. I was particularly struck at how people in general never blamed anyone, not even the government, for the catastrophe that had befallen them. Some took it as a wake-up call from the Divine, others as Mother Nature’s retribution for cases of environmental abuse.
Typhoon Pablo struck as the UN climate change talks were being held in Doha, Qatar. A delegate from the Philippine government’s negotiating panel broke down in tears as he recounted the tragedy. Countries like mine are bearing the brunt of more frequent extreme weather events like Typhoon Pablo. Unfortunately, while this might be the new normal with the onset of climate change, the talks are still far from delivering any coordinated international action that will prevent climate change from getting worse.
The world has sympathized with the people of Mindanao. Aid is pouring in. Although rehabilitation might take years, even decades, I look forward to the day when Compostela Valley reclaims its former glory, and for the hills of Davao Oriental to be lush and green once again. It would certainly look much more picturesque in photos and videos. Soon, the land will heal and its people will be stronger than ever.
Therese Salvador is media officer for Greenpeace Southeast Asia based in the Philippines.