Olongapo residents: 'We have no homes to return to'
OLONGAPO CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – "I've lived here all my life but this is the first time this has happened."
Pacita Garcia, a resident of Barangay Sta Rita, is at a loss. Her home by the river was swept away by flood water leaving her and her family homeless.
Garcia, 70 is just fresh out of a hip surgery, and she still has difficulty walking. She does not only know where to get her next meal, she also has no place to sleep.
Along with her neighbors, Garcia spent the past night sleeping on the streets and waiting for rations. She said the rains have been relentless here, and the water rose so fast they could not save anything from their homes.
Other residents meanwhile, have fled to evacuation centers in Sta Rita Elementary School and Sta Rita High School, but there is no electricity nor drinking water there.
"We have no homes to return to," Cristina Hallare, 57, told Rappler as she lined up for food.
On Tuesday, September 24, locals have tried to begin clean up by removing the mud from inside their homes and clearing the streets, but stores continue to be closed with businesses halted by the damage.
Classes in all public and private schools in the city remain suspended.
Sta Rita, the biggest of the affected barangays with 45,000 residents, is the worst hit barangay in Olongapo City, which was declared under a state of calamity on Monday, September 23. Of the 17 barangays in the city, 16 were badly affected by monsoon rain worsened by typhoon Odette.
Watch a video report on the situation in Sta. Rita below.
One resident, the former principal of Sta Rita Elementary School, Hermenilda Escobar, was reported dead after she was swept away by flash floods. She is one of Olongapo City's 3 casualties.
The Olongapo local government said it is now in "full swing on its clearing operations and relief operations." It said almost 600 families are in evacuation centers around the city.
In the province of Zambales, excluding Olongapo, the Provincial Disaster Risk and Reduction Management Council (PDRRMC) have confirmed 30 have died — including 17 from landslides in Brgy San Isidro and Wawandue in Subic. At least 161 families in Subic have been displaced.
Cause of flooding
Residents described the rise of water as "very fast." They said they were surprised at how quickly and how high the waters rose to, with the flood reaching the second floor of houses.
"The continuous rains were the cause of the flooding. The sand and soil falling from the mountains contributed to," Olongapo City Vice Mayor Rodel Cerezo said in an earlier interview.
Cerezo has been in charge of caring for those affected, with Mayor Rolen Paulino in the United States.
But locals said there is a different cause for the unusual flooding, saying the local government has continuously dumped sand into the river, which caused the overflow. They said local politicians would dig the sand out of the river during election season, and stop afterwards.
Malacañang also on Tuesday, admitted dredging of the Calaclan River in Olongapo City – which connects to tributaries, including Sta Rita river – has been stopped for two years.
Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte said a missing part of the dredger prevented it from continuing.
"Apparently, there is already a dredger from DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways) that is on standby in Olongapo. But it has not been operational since August of 2011 because there is a certain part—apparently, this dredger is an old model... It’s not working because of that and there are no available parts on the market. That’s why [DPWH] Secretary [Rogelio] Singson said that they are already considering contracting out the dredging to a private company," she said.
But she refused to admit this was the sole cause of the flooding in the city.
"My understanding is they tried to find replacements first and that their search did not turn up anything. That being said, Secretary Singson will be looking into the situation. As I am not (the) Secretary of Public of Works and Highways, I would defer to the Secretary’s opinion on whether the cause of the flooding is really the lack of dredging in Calaclan River," she added.
"Normally, the widening is hampered by the presence of some structures along those rivers—or, at least, in this particular river—and the DPWH is dependent also on the local government to help in clearing the structures along the waterways."
Lack of resources
Because of the unprecedented rise in water, both residents and rescuers admit to being unprepared.
Residents said had they known water would rise the way it did, they would have left their homes earlier and tried to salvage at least some belongings.
They said when the water was at its highest, their pleas for help were ignored by rescuers.
"We were standing on our roofs and the children were yelling for help but no rescuers came," Garcia said.
But Rescue Team Leader Antonio Ebuenga explained they were not only undermanned – with 24 team members called to serve a town of 45,000 – they too were surprised by the downpour.
He said they could not enter specific areas because it was also dangerous for them.
"We did not expect the the flood would be that heavy. This is the biggest flood here ever," he said. "We could not penetrate because of the strength of the current, the places were too low. If we were to enter, we would not be able to come out."
He said they instead advised the people to find higher ground.
Ebuenga said since 11pm on Sunday, September 22, he and his team have barely slept. As residents of Sta Rita, their houses too have been badly affected by the floods and have no place to stay.
While locals in Sta Rita have received some food and supplies from foundations, they said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) have not yet come to help. Residents are appealing for food, clothes and blankets. - Rappler.com