Tsunami scare haunts traumatized Panay residents

ILOILO, Philippines – It is not only the loss of loved ones and homes, and the lack of food and water, that residents of some parts of Panay Island have had to struggle with in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

There is, as well, the trauma that, in the past several days, manifested in the wake of rumors about tsunamis that turned out to be, well, rumors.

Tsunamis had often been mistaken for the storm surges that caused the widespread damage in many Visayas provinces during the onslaught of the super typhoon. (READ: Equating storm surge to tsunami 'dangerous' – expert)

On December 1, there was a tsunami scare in Antique, a province in Western Visayas that faces the Sulu Sea to the west.

Thousands of people who lived near the shores immediately left their homes after observations of a decrease in the water level was wrongly interpreted by some to be a prelude to a tsunami. The false information quickly spread.

According to Rosario Cabrera, regional director of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) in Western Visayas, the hoax began in the towns of Culasi, Pandan. and Sebaste in Antique. It later reached Roxas City in Capiz, as well as towns in northern Iloilo.

Cabrera said the absence of electricity and the lack of communication devices contributed to the heightened misinformation among the residents. There was no quick way for authorities to belie the false news and keep people calm.

Those who fled those Antique towns have since returned to their homes.

Misinformation in Aklan, too

A similar scare was experienced in Aklan, a province bordering Antique to the southwest. Residents, in fact, are readily alarmed when the water level of the 60-meter-long Aklan River rises.

The Aklanons have been regularly checking the river for flood alerts since Typhoon Frank (international name Fengshen) ravaged the province in 2008. Rain gauges have been set up in the town of Libacao to estimate the possible rise in water level, and trainings for disaster management and preparedness have been conducted.

Water from the said river comes from the mountains of Libacao, so when it starts to rain heavily in the upland, all the water goes down to Kalibo, the catch basin, after about 3 hours.

So if residents fled without an organized evacuation, it could have only been caused by trauma, said Social Worker Officer II Cecilia Paz of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Region VI.

“If the evacuation was preemptive or forced, then it’s part of disaster awareness,” adds Paz, who is assigned in Aklan.

Residents should never make a joke about Aklan River’s water level rising, Paz said, because it will surely cause panic among the misinformed.

“People will usually confirm the information by going to the Aklan Bridge and alerting those who live in areas that will be flooded, particularly C. Laserna Street, Oyo Torong Street, and Bakhaw Sur,” she explained.

Rumors spread by robbers?

Authorities received reports too that criminals were possibly behind the rumors about tsunamis in Antique, Capiz, and northern part of Iloilo.

The purpose, said Antique Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council spokesperson Leck Benitez, is supposedly so these robbers could loot houses once the owners had fled.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) has advised residents not to believe  supposed tsunami alerts unless they came from Phivolcs, which is the government agency authorized to issue such warnings.

Ramil Atando of Phivolcs explained that only strong underwater earthquakes can create tsunamis and there was no record of an earthquake at the time those rumors spread in Antique, Aklan, Capiz, and northern Iloilo.

He also said that only an earthquake with a magnitude of at least 8.2 in the Negros Trench can bring about a tsunami that could strike the neighboring areas of southern Negros, southern Guimaras, Anini-y in Antique, and southern Iloilo. – Rappler.com 

(The writers and photographer are volunteers for the Typhoon Yolanda Story Hub Visayas, a citizen journalism portal created on Nov 13, 2013, by veteran journalists, student writers, mobile journalists, and photographers based in Iloilo City. The Hub delivers reports from across Panay Island, especially the severely damaged and minimally covered area of northern Iloilo and the provinces of Antique, Capiz, and Aklan.)