Reduced to silence

Fr O'Donoghue gives us an update on the devastating flash floods caused by Tropical Storm Washi on the island of Mindanao on December 17, 2011.

I arrived in Cagayan de Oro in the early afternoon of  January 2, 2012.  While the signs of the calamity that hit the people of Cagayan were visible from the air, the full extent of the damage hits you when you stand on the river bank or visit those places where whole neighbourhoods were simply washed away.

The human suffering also hits you as you listen to the terrible stories of what happened to the survivors. In truth, these stories reduced me to silence. Some of this trauma is being dealt with by survivors living together in “tent communities” where they can share their story and be comforted. Religious sisters and Columbans are helping in this way, using various techniques including massage to help people get rid of the bodily symptoms of stress.

There is a lot of pain and trauma not only for those directly affected but also for those who heard the cries of others for help and were unable to do anything.  The story is more or less always the same.  People awoke around midnight or shortly afterwards with water rushing into their homes and had to swim inside their homes frantically pushing out window shutters or screen doors and scrambling onto the  roofs of their houses and pulling others up.
These people had the further trauma of listening to the desperate cries of those trapped in their homes and being powerless to respond as the water cascaded down sweeping away people and houses, all the while terrified that they too would be swept away.
Those higher up on the banks of the river who woke to the commotion (as for instance the priests of the Cagayan Cathedral, whose house is on the river bank and whose ground floor was flooded) reported people clinging desperately to bits of their houses or other floating items as they were swept down the river towards the open sea.

Most heartrending of all is to listen to parents who frantically tried to gather their children to safety but were not able to hold on to all of them and then hearing their children screaming for help and simply being pulled away out of reach and safety.  I’m not sure that time will heal all this, but certainly God can and the faith of many of these people is both challenging and humbling.  One eight year old boy who lost his mother and two of his siblings had found a photo of her and would look at it and say: “I will see you in Heaven Mommy.”

One 16-year-old I met in Iligan stopped speaking when I asked him how he had survived – his house and all those of his neighbours were simply swept away with nothing to indicate that any house had stood there.  He and his 18-year-old brother began swimming together and tried to help other members of the family.  His brother is still missing; he stopped talking and just looked out towards the sea – unbearable grief and painful memories. 

A father was holding four of his children until struck by the galvanized roof of a house.  His legs were so  severely injured that he could no longer swim.  He tried to put the children onto some debris believing that was their best chance.  He survived, the children did not.  Another father clung tenaciously to his two children and got them to safety but both died shortly afterwards because of water inhalation. The cousin of Columban Fr Rolando Aniscal was among the victims and her two children are still missing.

There are the “happy” stories too: the child who was saved by riding on the back of a neighbour’s labrador.  Or my little friend Cedric, who is all of four years old, who clung to a floating refrigerator when he got separated from his parents.  He was found by fishermen several miles away later that morning.  He is one of seven children. One, younger than Cedric, died, decapitated by a log that hit him; the other, older than Cedric, is still missing.
A parish priest showed me photos of the party at the elementary school the day before the tragedy.  There must have been a hundred photos of children having fun, making faces at the camera and performing in a show.  Then he showed me a second set of photos of the aftermath of the flood with some of these children now dead or missing.

There is much more that could be added to this but I simply want to give you some “snapshots” of the situation as I experienced it. As I listened to the stories and simply held a hand or embraced the person, I was glad I was there and privileged to be with such people.  May Jesus show his face to all those who are still suffering so terribly and may all of us who try to help be the face of Christ for others.

Fr Pat O'Donoghue is the Regional Director in the Philippines.

Read more from The Far East, March 2012