Bitter lessons

/ 11:22 PM December 19, 2011

Tropical storm “Sendong,” which slashed across Northern Mindanao over the weekend, might as well have been called “Ondoy 2.” The two storms were almost equally deadly and destructive, the factors that made them so fatal were almost the same, and the lessons learned, as well as the things that have to be done to avoid a recurrence of the same level of fatality and destruction are also almost the same.

The only differences were that Ondoy struck Luzon, mainly Metro Manila, while Sendong hit Northern Mindanao, principally Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities, and while Ondoy swirled in daytime, Sendong roared in the wee hours of the morning, when almost everybody was sleeping.


The fatal scorecards: Ondoy: 464 people dead and 37 missing, tens of thousands left homeless, and damage to public works and private property amounting to about P11.1 billion. Sendong: more than 700 dead and the toll still rising, hundreds missing, property damage still to be estimated.

Ondoy dumped one month’s worth of rainfall in just six hours, sending floods rampaging across Metro Manila and much of Luzon. Sendong dumped one month’s worth of rain over a 24-hour period, but killed more people because the floods struck at 2:30 a.m. when most of the people were sleeping soundly at home.


In the Sendong postmortem, the following factors were pinpointed: the absence of a flood warning, high tide, a false sense of security and the complacency of the people because Northern Mindanao is rarely visited by storms, the hesitancy of the people to leave their homes for fear that they would be robbed, deforestation due to  illegal logging and mining, rapid urbanization and heavy siltation of rivers and other waterways.

The absence of a flood warning was a key factor that made both Ondoy and Sendong so deadly. Metro Manilans were used to the occurrence of floods that reached up to the waist, but they were not prepared for a level of inundation that forced many of them to seek safety on the roofs of their houses. People in Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan City said there had been floods before, but it was the first time the rainwater from a storm reached the second floor of their houses.

As in Ondoy there were the human factors in Sendong: People thought that while storms sometimes strike Northern Mindanao, the rains are not so heavy and the flooding is not so deep. While they received the usual weather bureau warning, they were lulled into a false sense of complacency because of past experience. Many of them refused to leave their houses for fear that their belongings would be stolen. It should be drilled into the minds of all the people that nothing is more valuable than human life. In the future, the police and the army may have to carry out forced evacuation.

There are the usual environmental factors: The deforestation of watersheds in Lanao del Norte and Bukidnon, which feed into the major rivers of Northern Mindanao, worsened the effects of heavy rains, Presidential Adviser on Environment Nereus Acosta said. Deforestation, in turn, was caused principally by illegal logging.

Mining, both large-scale and small-scale, also contributed to deforestation, according to Acosta. Rapid urbanization has reduced the capacity of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan to hold water, reducing the area for water runoff and causing the siltation of the Cagayan River.

After the relief and rehabilitation efforts shall have been completed, both the public and private sectors have to give priority to the adoption of a comprehensive action plan to prevent a recurrence of the disastrous flooding. Of course, storms cannot be diverted from their paths. Neither can the heavy downpour that they spawn and the occurrence of high tide be prevented. But can’t the weather bureau issue timely flood warnings to give people time to evacuate to higher ground?

Deforestation has to be stopped, and a massive reforestation campaign will have to be conducted to restore the capacity of watersheds to absorb rainwater and prevent it from rushing down to the plains. Rivers and other waterways will have to be desilted to be able to hold the water load during storms.


As usual, we learn our lessons only after many people have died and billions of pesos worth of public and private property have been lost. These are bitter lessons that should prompt both the government and the people to undertake urgent corrective and precautionary measures.

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