Covering Mindanao storm for the first time

Emilio Mabalio hopes to find his missing relatives so he could finally lay them to rest

Emilio Mabalio hopes to find his missing relatives so he could finally lay them to rest

Covering disasters in Southern Philippines was something I have never done in the past for a couple of reasons. First, I’m new to this field since I only started in 2009. Second, this is the first time in decades that a storm badly hit what was once called “typhoon-free” Mindanao, to borrow one of the words of Sec. Lualhati R. Antonino, the chairperson of the island’s socio economic planning agency.

Our managing editor, Fil Sionil, phoned me Wednesday (Dec. 23) afternoon while I was in Davao City looking for human interest stories I could write for our paper on the 25th. “I want you to write a story about the flood survivors so we could put it on print on Christmas day,” she said.

My blood ran cold.

“How could I do this?” I asked at the back of my mind. The road going to Cagayan de Oro is a disaster itself. Traveling from Davao City via Bukidnon now takes 9-10 hours, said the driver of the Rural Tour bus I rode Wednesday evening. Immediately rushing home after Fil’s call to pack my clothes, I went to the terminal 7:30 in the evening. Had adrenaline failed to keep me going, I would have arrived Cagayan de Oro Thursday afternoon, a big mistake for broadsheet reporters who wish to make it to the daily midday deadline.

I arrived Agora terminal in Cagayan de Oro just few minutes before sunrise. While sipping the first coffee of the day, questions began to pop out of my mind: What am I going to do first?

Stepping out from the terminal, I began to converse to residents, asking them to help me find where Barangay Macasanding was, the village hit worse by tropical storm Sendong (International Code: Sendong). Urgency, said my friend who works for a TV Network, is what pushed me to wrap this coverage.

Here is a copy of my December 25 story for Manila Bulletin:

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines — The day Jaydhan Sapio asked his mother to come over their shanty this week to attend his six-month son’s christening today turned vain.

Sitting on a bench with his daughter held close to his chest, Jaydhan recalls his most traumatic incident in his life like nothing had happened. His face was blank, like most other survivors who found temporary shelter just a stone’s throw away to where I found him.

Floating iron bars swept by the raging floodwaters tore his mother’s right thigh apart, causing serious injury which eventually led to her demise Saturday morning (December 17, 2011).

“I was very close to my mother. We never saw it coming,” the 23-year-old construction worker, whose grandfather and nephew are also missing, said.

“She repeatedly called our name until her last breath,” he added.

At least 1,080 dead bodies have been recovered in Northern Mindanao since Christmas eve. And officials say a thousand people are yet to be rescued.

Like him, 60-year-old Emilio Mabalio’s relatives are missing. And until this day, his efforts of returning to the now devastated Sitio Cala-cala in Barangay Macasanding are for his hope that someday he would find them.

“If they are already dead, I just want to see their bodies so I can finally lay them to rest,” Mabalio told the Manila Bulletin while on his way to Sitio Cala-cala, scouring for anything he could while at it, possibly looking for signs of his relatives’ lives.

“They’re still in my mind every time I go to sleep,” he added.

At least for now, he said, the searching will never end.

Luck came down on Epafrodita Padilla, 39, when her 14-year-old daughter held her in his young arms and fought the torrential water.

“He is my angel. Without him, I would have been floating dead,” she said.

But everyone in their community, she said, were unprepared as they thought Tropical Storm Sendong will just be like any other storms they have had in the past.

“It was the worst of all the storms we have encountered here in Cala-cala,” she said.

Michelle Malate used to have 14 cousins. She now only has one remaining, Maria Jane, who is turning one-year-old today.

But while the search for her missing cousins continue, Michelle fears Maria Jane will be celebrating Christmas without her siblings and other cousins.

“We feel that she knows exactly what is happening here. When we say her missing cousins’ and siblings’ names, she begins to cry,” said Michelle, who said she he wants to see the rest of her cousins and that her hope has not gone out of flame yet.

“Christmas is about being happy. Before the storm, my cousins and I talked that we would exchange gifts even though the items they would wrap weren’t expensive at all,” she recalls as she fights the tears falling from her eyes.

The Balili siblings, too, say it is their darkest moments of their lives. The torrential downpour washed their parents, leaving the four children orphans.

Rolando Balili Jr., the eldest son of their family, shares his grief as flashbacks of the distressing event recur in his mind. His two children, too, are missing until this day.

“My parents reminded me to take care of my children and my three other brothers,” 29-year-old Balili said, adding that the chance in finding their mother again is far from possible.

“She has hypertension and overweight. And the carcasses recovered by authorities don’t have any of her distinct physical features, not to mention that the rotting bodies have inflated,” he said.

His father, who bore an overgrown scar on his chest, could also no longer be found for now.

“It’s a painful and bitter feeling,” he explained.

Many of the residents here fear from returning back to what used to be their homes. They say they want to live a place far from water, one that is safe from storm.

But for now, family members who survived while experiencing the pain of losing their loved ones, as well as the fears that the missing ones are already dead will have their “saddest” Christmas in their lives.

“This is the saddest Christmas in my whole life. No amount of fun can take away the pain. I just want to see their bodies so I can have a peace in mind. I was 15 when I became pregnant to my eldest child,” said Romelyn Nulla, 23, whose live-in partner works in Saudi Arabia and is yet to fly to the country to be reunited with her.

“My (husband) who works in Saudi Arabia sent money to buy my kids bicycle on Friday morning. But they have never used their father’s gift,” she said.

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