Reprint from Arts, Humanism and Spirituality Bulletin (May 2012)
“What a privilege for a religious order to experience what the people are going through. Living with the destruction, with so much symbols of death; the daily task of cleaning, one day at a time, is a powerful witness of hope for the people. That is your message to the Sendong victims and survivors. Our people need to hear that message all the more this time. In your vulnerability, people look up to you for hope. You will be able to restore your place. People await to see that it will happen.” – Fr. Raul Dael, SSJV
December 16, 2011. First day of the Aguinaldo Masses, a nine-day dawn Novena Mass celebrations before the Christmas Day. Everyone was in high spirits. It was Friday, the last day of classes before Christmas break. Students were excited for Christmas parties at school and with immersion groups in different communities. That included members of Lestonnac Flame Circle (LFC) for the kids in their tutorial classes in Sitio Cala-cala, a fifteen-minute ride from the university campus. In Niña Maria Learning Center (NMLC), the preschool kids just finished their Christmas program. The communities in Nazareth and in Sunshine (novitiate) and the staff of Lestonnac Youth Center (LYC) were likewise looking forward to the annual joint Christmas celebration with the Scholarship Program of NMLC on December 18, Sunday. It would be with the scholars and alumni with their families, with friends and local benefactors. Practically everyone was in the mood for Christmas celebrations. In the evening, many people and families made sure to go to bed early to be able to wake up on time for the second day of the Aguinaldo Mass.
The weather forecast hinted the coming of a typhoon pegged at Signal #2 to hit Northern Mindanao area. Residents in Cagayan de Oro had never experienced devastating typhoons in the past.
December 17, 2011, 1:15 a.m. Messages asking for help started coming to my mobile phone. At 1:30 in the morning, the four of us in Nazareth community were already awake, offering hot milk, shower and clothes to victims who sought refuge at home. Out in the streets were survivors checking out who were lacking among their household members, looking for missing loved ones, praying while crying in utter helplessness under the rain, shocked. Stories of guilt abound as survivors started recounting how they were able to survive but failed to help others on their rooftops or children and neighbors taken away by the water. Many of them saw their own houses and their neighborhood washed out by the strong current. Pain, fear, guilt, confusion, worry, shock, gratitude, resignation; everything together. The horror of it all reminded them of the movie “2012”.
The direction of floodwater hit LYC, the novitiate and NMLC. But our sisters and the LYC staff never heard my emergency call around 2:00 in the morning. They slept so soundly.
December 17, 2011, 5:30 a.m. As water subsided rapidly and as darkness gave place to light, devastation became visible. We were not spared. Floodwater reached above the roof of NMLC; it almost reached the second floor of LYC and the Novitiate House. The Catholic Center Campus Ministry in Iligan City was also flooded. Sitio Cala-cala was totally washed out and many of the children and families were missing.
Thanks be to God our sisters in the Novitiate and the staff in LYC were safe. But destruction of the property was huge. Later in the morning, and even days after, several dead bodies were found in the grounds of LYC. NMLC could not be used. It was filled with mud and was partially damaged. All classroom materials were destroyed.
Later in the morning hundreds of muddy dead bodies were retrieved from many places in the city and were brought to different funeral homes until they could not be accommodated anymore. There were places where rescue and retrieval operations could not be coordinated with barangay officials because everyone was a victim. Properties that took years of labor to put up and had been home to families of several generations were totally wiped out in just a few hours of rainfall.
In an instance, thousands of families found no place to go home to. According Archbishop Ledesma, out of the archdiocese’s 21 city parishes, 17 riverside parishes were extensively inundated. Nearly a third of the city’s population was severely affected by the floodwaters. More than 10,000 families sought refuge in evacuation centers put up in public schools, barangay covered courts and churches. Others stayed with relatives or friends.(PDI, 1/30/2012) In Sitio Cala-cala where Lestonnac Flame Circle was supposed to hold their Christmas party with kids, there used to be almost a thousand households but only seven structures were left standing the following day. The floodwater submerged and destroyed even concrete houses in several subdivisions in the city.
Immediately after the flood, relief goods spontaneously poured out from everywhere. Christmas parties were cancelled and all in-kind preparations were redirected to the evacuation centers. Two days after, a private-public multisectoral relief operation center in Xavier University was set up to coordinate deployment of all forms of assistance to the victims.
NMLC and LYC became part of the recipients of the tremendous assistance of the multisectoral operation through Xavier University’s network of non-government organization particularly XU Science Center Foundation and Catholic relief Services (CRS), among others. Volunteers paid for by CRS came for days to remove the mud from the preschool and from the ground of LYC. The CRS approach is a two-way process: volunteers help people and communities to be able to start life over again. At the same time, they are being helped with their income since as volunteers, they are at the same time Sendong survivors.
But it will surely take a longer time to bring things back to normalcy.
In an attempt to help children re-connect with their life before Sendong so as to start the psychosocial support process, NMLC was cleaned well to welcome children-survivors last January 9, 2012. It was far from ideal condition but was the best initial step, and the only way to know how many NMLC preschool kids were heavily affected, or at worst, died or missing. Thankfully, unlike the January 2009 flooding where a Kinder 1 girl died, there was no casualty for NMLC this time. Last January 24, classes were transferred to Nazareth community while reparation and restoration is ongoing in the NMLC buildings and classrooms. It is hoped that the kids will be able to go back to the school’s premises for the preparation and closing of the school year early in March.
As for LYC, it is being projected to be able to receive again groups for retreats and recollections on June 2012, in time for the opening of the next academic year. Rhythm of life in the novitiate has returned to normal.
For LFC, the members were able to trace the whereabouts of tutees who survived the tragedy. They are able to revive their weekend tutorial class now held in the evacuation center where the children are temporarily located.
More than a month after Sendong, it is safer to say that in general, survivors have tried their best to move on, in faith and hope. Much is left to be done for healing to take place. In the psychosocial processing sessions that our team from Xavier University conducted with groups of survivors and even rescuers, I cannot but be amazed at the resiliency of the human spirit especially those of the victims. In the process of moving from being victims to survivors, onward to healing, I can only but thank God for the gift of faith, hope and love that have become more evident throughout these weeks of an even still ongoing grieving for many residents in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. The tremendous outpouring of local, national and international support has been a big morale booster.
As the survivors continue to make sense of all that happened to them, we also continue to listen attentively to what God is speaking to us through the typhoon Sendong. A priest aptly put such invitation in his homily during a Eucharist celebration with the ODN sisters Cagayan de Oro communities when he said, “What a privilege for a religious order to experience what the people are going through. Living with the destruction, with so much symbols of death; the daily task of cleaning, one day at a time, is a powerful witness of hope for the people.That is your message to the Sendong victims and survivors. Our people need to hear that message all the more this time. In your vulnerability, people look up to you for hope. You will be able to restore your place. People await to see that it will happen.”
In an effort to build communities of hope in the aftermath of Sendong, let this then be our small and hidden contribution as Company of Mary Sisters in the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro.
And the listening and discerning presence continues.
Ranette, ODN is the AHS pointperson for ODN-Philippines