Bohol: Rising from the rubble

Bea Cupin
It's a different thing to talk about the devastation caused by the quake, but it's also another story when you are in the midst of it, says Bohol Gov Edgar Chatto

HOPE, DESPAIR. Two siblings say a prayer atop the ruins of the Church of Our Lady of Light. Their father is believed to be among those buried under the rubble. Photo by Bea Cupin/Rappler

TAGBILARAN CITY, Philippines — He’s been to countless disaster preparedness seminars. But when the aftershocks of the October 15 Central Visayas earthquake came, Bohol Governor Edgar Chatto admits even he could not help but panic.

“[The Governor’s Mansion] was shaking, I could not help but immediately react and I was about to move out of the building immediately then my security officer held me back, telling me to stay put,” he said.

“You talk about it many times over but when it really comes, at times you lose your senses,” said the cool, collected, but visibly tired Chatto.

It’s been 4 days since the quake wrecked havoc on several towns and cities in Bohol and nearby Cebu. Those severely hit are now mere shadows of the bustling communities they used to be — centuries-old Churches reduced to rubble, homes transformed into an odd mix of concrete and metal, and bodies still trapped under debris and dirt.

Government officials and members of civic society have barely had time to sleep, as the death toll rises to at least 172. It is expected to climb even higher.

Still learning

When the quake hit, Chatto was at him home with his wife and daughter. “When that was happening, my first thought was: oh my God, please save us. My mind was fast moving. I knew that there would be destruction in the province because of the strength.”

The pace picked up after that — members of Bohol’s disaster council were already on their way to the Governor’s Mansion. In times of disaster, Chatto explained, this was protocol.

But no amount of planning could’ve prepared them for the devastation caused by the quake. “It’s a different thing to talk about it, but it’s also another story when you are in the midst of it,” he said.

Power was out in Bohol and communication lines were at a standstill. Reaching local government executives was the provincial government’s first priority. Text messages were sent out to the mayors of Bohol’s 47 municipalities and one city.

“I didn’t know whether it would reach them, but we tried to send it to them via text blast,” Chatto said.

They would later find out that towns left of Carmen, the epicenter of the quake, suffered the most damage.

The towns closest to the provincial capital of Tagbilaran City were the hardest to contact. Nearby Loon and Maribojoc, which, so far, have the most number of deaths, were cut off from the rest of the province after roads and bridges became impassable.

REBUILDING. Even as relief and rescue operations are underway, Bohol Governor Edgar Chatto thinks about ways to move the disaster-struck province forward. Photo by Rappler

Bohol command center

Key decisions in relief and retrieval operations are made at the Governor’s Mansion, which the disaster team has been calling home since the disaster struck. Members sleep at the ground floor to make alerts easier in case of more emergencies.

He is a determined man. When told by a provincial officer that the Loon hospital was still inaccessible because of a damaged bridge, Chatto was gentle but firm: “Mao na atong gisabutan kagabii. Find a way.” (That’s what we discussed last night. Find a way.)

Chatto joked he’s been virtually stuck inside the provincial capitol since October 15, except when he conducts surveys or needs to meet key personalities.

“That’s one aspect of management,” said Chatto, who graduated with an economics degree from the University of the Philippines.

“You cannot move around yourself but you have people go because you have to make decisions and receive people also who are extending support. The provincial admin and other teams were there,” he added.

The outpour of help has been strong and steady. Prior to his interview with Rappler, Chatto met with an international non-governmental organization to give a briefing on the situation in Bohol.

National government has also made its presence felt, with the president and vice president making visits on different occasions. Members of the President’s Cabinet have also flown in and out of Bohol to help assess and respond to the crisis.

Local, provincial, national

On Friday, the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (PDRRMC) held a briefing, attended by Interior and Local Secretary Mar Roxas, Social Welfare and Development Secretary Dinky Soliman, and Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda.

“This is our first time to encounter this thing. We’re looking at this also as a learning experience. I think the national government has handled several situations like this in the past so needless to say their help is a big factor,” he said.

Still, Chatto is very particular about the roles of local government units in responding to the needs of the quake victims. On the day the quake struck, Chatto explained, the provincial government was unable to deliver aid.

“At its initial stage, it’s the municipality then the province… I think that’s the normal system because every LGU has a calamity fund,” he said. Bohol was placed under a state of calamity in the hours following the quake, allowing local officials to tap their calamity funds.

He is quick to admit, however, that Bohol’s disaster workflow isn’t perfect just yet. Security, for instance, was an issue in some municipalities as evacuees scampered to get a hold of much-needed relief goods.

Chatto sees it as a learning point for the province. “When you have situations like this, it’s not all the time that things go smoothly,” he added.

RUINS. Locals looks at what used to be the historic Holy Cross Parish Church in Maribojoc, Bohol. Photo by Jay Directo/AFP

Bohol’s faith

The full effect of the quake has yet to be measured — more deaths are being reported, as help reaches far-flung towns and barangays. In the town of Loon, locals believe at least 8 persons remain trapped under the rubble of what used to be the Church of Our Lady of Light.

At least 22 are still missing in Bohol, including 5 children. Bohol police said it’s unlikely those missing will still be found alive.

Fear grips communities living in makeshifts tents pitched in their town’s open spaces. To date, there are no concrete plans yet about how to address the housing needs of those rendered homeless. They are unable to return to their homes because they’re not safe anymore. Even if they they were, locals refuse to, traumatized by the quake. It’s been a week of uncertainty.

Also immeasurable is the damage to 10 of Bohol’s iconic Churches. Typically the social centers of devout Boholanos, Chatto is confident that theirs will not be a sad story.

Plans to restore the churches are already in place, said Chatto. On Wednesday, Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez, members of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, and Bohol Bishop Leanardo Medroso met with the provincial government to discuss how Bohol’s churches would be saved.

While repairs are underway, the ruins will serve as “tourist attractions.” “That will be part of the story, that will be part of history,” Chatto said.

He’s barely had sleep, but the governor is hopeful — optimistic even.

“Boholanos are very hardworking, we have strong faith. The destruction of the churches does not affect our faith, it continues to be strong,” he said. Chatto wants Bohol to continue being a major contributor to the country’s growth, earthquake or no earthquake.

Two aftershocks — of magnitudes 4.7 and 4.6 — rocked Tagbilaran City during the PDRRMC briefing but the meeting went on, as Bohol will. “We now start about rebuilding our bridges, our road systems. And above all, building the confidence of our people,” said Chatto.

Find out how you can help victims of the Visayas quake here.

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.