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A statistics major, Leticia Subang spent the first 10 years of her professional career as an economic reporter covering for the Philippines' leading business paper. She later opted to become a free lance writer while working for her Masters Degree in Development Management. In the next ten years, she worked for a number of leading government agencies - the National Power Corporation, Public Estates Authority, Departments of Trade and Industry, Agriculture, Labor and Employment, and Energy.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A YEAR AFTER: New village rising where 120 died

First posted 10:12pm (Mla time) Dec 24, 2004
By Leticia M. Subang
Inquirer News Service
Editor's Note: Published on page A1 of the December 25, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
(First of two parts)


SAN FRANCISCO, Panaon Island, Southern Leyte-A new village is slowly taking shape in Barangay Punta.

The survivors of last year's devastating landslides are building new homes at a relocation site, collectively working to get on with their lives.

We gathered once more in Punta on Dec. 19 for the hugkas or babang luksa (the first death anniversary), which culminated in a Mass and an offering of flowers and candles at the huge wooden cross that marks the place where most of the victims' bodies were found huddled together the day after the landslides.

With us were two boatloads of Limasawa residents led by fishermen Robert Galvez and George Betonio.

On Dec. 19 last year, the two fishermen along with 11 other passengers from Maasin were heading to Limasawa. Navigating with a small compass in the midst of strong rain and zero visibility, they missed Limasawa and found refuge in Punta--only to be shocked by a series of landslides a few minutes after they pulled their boat ashore.

It was Galvez and Betonio who brought my cousin, Eduardo "Bebot" Subang, who was seriously wounded, to the provincial hospital in Maasin the next day. Bebot's leg later had to be amputated.

"We wanted to visit Bebot and see how he is doing," Betonio said as we gathered along the shore after the Mass.

"Punta will always be part of us," added Galvez.

Constantly in fear

The survivors of Punta can easily validate the ordeal that the residents of devastated Real in Quezon--which was hit by four successive storms early this month-are now experiencing.

According to Barangay Captain Ricky Subang, all 22 barangay of San Francisco have passed a resolution to set aside some money to be donated to the families dislocated by the landslides and flash floods in Quezon.

The rains brought by the recent storms have also triggered landslides in Panaon, but smaller in scale and farther from the villages.

Yet some residents are constantly in fear. In the nearby barangay of Sta. Paz, where a huge crack resulting from geological faults has been found on the mountain, classes are suspended and the residents prepare to evacuate whenever it rains continuously for at least two days.

Many of the survivors, particularly the children, still live with the trauma caused by the tragedy. Thunder, lightning and heavy rains send the children crying and cringing in fear.

Nightmare

Some of the elderly, particularly those who lost their spouses in the landslides, often fall into moments of deep silence. Or they resurrect their lost loved ones by recalling funny anecdotes, and in the next breath scaring themselves with stories of apparitions and ghosts.

Our relatives keep going back to Punta, hoping to retrieve lost valuables from the earth that crashed down on their homes that fateful night.

On Christmas Day last year, while temporarily living with relatives, Bartolome Subang or Tiyo Ome wished aloud that he had not lost the vintage carpentry tools my grandfather passed on to him before Lolo died in 1980. He knew he would need those tools once construction at the relocation site started.

Florencio Subang (Tiyo Florin) wanted to return to Punta that night, after realizing that in the confusion, he had left a wad of cash in his cabinet. But his children insisted that they keep on moving.

Along the road Tiyo Florin spotted and greeted his cousin Paterno Subang (Tiyo Pater), who was holding a flashlight and an umbrella.
Tiyo Florin, together with his younger children, later made it to the town safely.

Manong Gaudencio Benero is still haunted by the nightmare of skulls and skeletons that he had shortly before the tragedy.

Upon learning that the first landslide had destroyed Tiyo Pater's house, Manong Gaudencio instinctively knew that the nightmare had begun.
There were only four people living in that house--Tiyo Pater, his wife Tiya Pering, and their two grandchildren.

Manong Gaudencio's elder brother, Patron, also did not make it, and it took our relatives three months to find the bodies of Tiyo Pater and Tiya Pering.

2-month-old baby

Tiyo Florin's son Ricky, the barangay captain, found himself on a more uncertain path that night.

The third landslide was now blocking the road his father had taken only a few minutes earlier. Ricky's group was forced to go toward the shore, only to move inward again after they found they could not cross Kagpanga, the river that separates Punta and the town.

Clutching his 2-month-old son, Ricky led his group through the clan's rice fields, grappling with waist-deep mud and thorny nipa fronds, constantly calling out the names of his other children and his companions, refusing to move further until he had heard them reply.

Ricky and Tiyo Florin were eventually reunited in the house of our aunt, Jenny Subang, who lives across from my parents' house in the town.

Max, Ricky's baby and the youngest survivor, emerged from the ordeal unscathed.

Another aunt, Carmen Gitigan, could not imagine how she made it through that night.

She was in her house, standing on top of a table and trying to reach something when she was swept by the raging mud toward the sea. She found herself still on top of her table, floating on the water.

Whole family

Meanwhile, Tiyo Ome, totally buried in the mud, was losing hope--until he realized that he had been pushed toward the sea and was thus able to slowly swim to safety.

His wife, Tiya Rosing, and the entire family of his daughter, Renee Subang Paug, the principal of the town's high school and my childhood playmate, perished that night.

Renee's daughter, Karen, had just arrived that evening from Sogod where she was studying.

Tiyo Ome's son, Bebot, was seriously wounded and had to be confined in the Maasin hospital for weeks.

More than 120 Punta residents died on Dec, 19, 2003. Our clan lost 26 children--16 in grade school and 10 in high school.

My mother, Peregrina, particularly misses the kids who used to kiss her hand and greet her every morning as they pass our house on their way to school.

Opening old wounds

Watching the images on TV of the recent tragedy in Quezon is like opening old wounds. I am brought to tears as I remember receiving phone calls from my relatives the day after the landslides, frantically asking for help.

I also remember thinking that with the coming year being an election year, politicians were bound to use our tragedy to project themselves.

But I could not understand how a presidential party, supported by elaborate media coverage and security arrangements, could visit our place and yet could not provide masks, gloves, boots and body bags so we could perform the grim task of pulling out our dead from the mud in order to give them a decent burial.

Every year, our country is hit by typhoons, floods, earthquakes and other calamities, both natural and man-made. We have had a devastating earthquake in Baguio, towns buried in tons of ash from Mt. Pinatubo, countless numbers of lives lost in Ormoc, Cherry Hills, Payatas, and Ozone ... The list is endless.

In fact, the tragic death of Speaker Jose de Venecia's youngest daughter only highlighted a pathetic condition--our continuing incapability to immediately respond to emergencies.

Yet our generosity during times of crisis and our ability to bounce back after seemingly insurmountable challenges are admirable and amazing.

"We have gone through a lot of difficulties in trying to rehabilitate our community and rebuild our lives. But we have also experienced how generous people can be in times of crisis," Ricky said.

Far from forgotten

The past year was not an easy one for the Punta survivors.

As they tried to cope with the trauma, they bickered with one another, presented to and argued their cause with various government officials and donors, got caught in the heat of partisan politics during the May elections, and even had to deal with a bit of religious intolerance. (We trace our roots to the Philippine Independent Church; many Punta residents are now affiliated with the Catholic Church.)

The survivors strove to keep the clan's enclave, which had survived for four generations.

They could not even begin to think of changing the name of their barangay--Punta, or "point," a simple geographic description of the fishing village that is now deserted but far from forgotten.

The settlement was started by my great grandparents, Marcela Moreno and Eusebio Subang in the 1800s. My grandfather, Gervacio, born in 1896, was one of the 13 children of Eusebio and Marcela.

Nobody lives in Punta anymore. But the people regularly visit it--to harvest coconuts from the trees that have remained, or to gather driftwood along the shore for their firewood.

The fishermen, lured by Punta's rich waters, keep coming back to cast their nets. Along its shores, entangled among the corals, are shreds of clothes, blankets and mosquito nets, toys and many other parts of their lives.

Picking up the pieces

And with the help of relatives, various government agencies and civic groups, the survivors have been able to cope with the tragedy.

For the relocation of the 98 households that survived the landslides, the family of Rosario Peregrino Maglana, a member of our clan, donated a piece of land by the national highway, and the municipal government of San Francisco acquired the adjacent property.

Now based in Davao, Tiya Sayong had requested that a portion of the land be reserved for her family so she could eventually live with them as she had earlier intended.

She had always dreamed of retiring in Punta and was about to purchase a lot near the village chapel, but the landslides crushed that dream.

The houses are still unfinished, but the survivors now live there. They continue to build using materials supplied by the Red Cross, with financial support from the US government.

The new village will be called Barangay Punta Extension.

Because it is far from the sea, we will miss the times when the village folk gather on the shore to meet the fishermen blessed with a good catch and help them remove the fish entangled in the nets.

It was one of the communal activities that bound the village folk together in the past, and that cannot be replicated at the relocation site.

To be concluded

A YEAR AFTER
Tragedy brings Punta folk even closer
First posted 01:22am (Mla time) Dec 26, 2004
By Leticia M. Subang
Inquirer News Service
Editor's Note: Published on page A1 of the December 26, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
(Second of two parts)

SAN FRANCISCO, Panaon Island, Southern Leyte -- The pace of construction at the relocation site in Barangay Punta is understandably slow.

Those who survived the floods and landslides that killed more than 120 in Punta alone on Dec. 19 last year have to work under the government's "food-for-work" program. But they also have to make some money to send their children back to school and buy basic needs such as medicines.

The skilled carpenters who are leading the construction have to take time off to earn a living. It is the women and the youth who are in charge of transporting the filling materials, as well as the water, sand and gravel needed in mixing the cement.

On rainy days, the mud makes work a lot more difficult. And a large portion of the relocation site is dark at night because it has yet to be connected to the local electric cooperative's distribution lines. (The few lights they have are just tapped from the houses near the site.)

But from the banter of the survivors, one can envision what the new village would eventually look like. Their spirit of unity is obvious in the way they proudly recall the times they won most of the contests -- the cleanest, the greenest -- in the 22 “barangay” [villages] in San Francisco.

Punta is a strip of land at the foot of a mountain along a coast lined by volcanic rocks.

There is not much space for gardening and yet every Tuesday before their lives were changed forever, the villagers would bring to town their weekly harvest of vegetables, mostly planted in recycled cans and plastic bags.

Even during the critical months after the landslides, the women revived their potted vegetable gardens around the makeshift shelters.

Beloved nurse

The people of Punta fondly remember Natividad J. Rich, who recently sold all her assets in the United States to retire in her native Maasin City.

Rich herself remembers how she first gained recognition as a newly sworn rural health nurse in the early 1960s by turning Punta into a model pilot rural health unit.

"The people helped me a lot; they were very cooperative," she recalled when she visited San Francisco for my father's 80th birthday in November last year, more than three decades after she left Panaon island.

Rich was our rural health nurse at a time when there was no doctor to provide primary health care to the people of San Francisco. I remember having to take an hour-long ride on a frail motorboat with her just so I, then a 5-year-old, could see a doctor in Maasin in the mainland.

She willingly got up at night to answer calls from ailing villagers, walked mountain trails for hours, and braved the strong waves brought by the “habagat” [southwest monsoon].

For complicated cases, she consulted her brother Gil, who was then working with the province of Southern Leyte as a rural health doctor.

Rich stayed with us for many years. As my surrogate mothers, she and my aunt Corazon wept when they brought me to Davao City, where my parents lived, to start my schooling.

After Rich left for the United States in the mid-1970s, the people she had served missed her greatly. They never forgot her, for there was no other nurse as dedicated and gutsy as she.

Urgent need

The need for reliable health service is as urgent as ever.

The nearest hospital is about two hours away by car (in Sogod) or by pump boat (in Maasin).

It is no wonder that the people welcomed orthopedic surgeon Diego Yuboc when he decided to come home to San Francisco in the late 1980s after years of practice in Mindanao.

With the competent medical services he gave, the people embraced him. He was our town mayor for nine consecutive years until May.

Yuboc's mayor-by-day-doctor-by-night stint required him to convert a small room beside his office into a clinic. There, he would sometimes perform minor operations under the light provided by a small reading lamp.

Abundant help

The survivors are grateful for the help they have received from various groups.

At the height of the crisis, Ormoc residents brought truckloads of rice and sugar. Other donors gave bancas and fishing nets that enabled the fishermen to resume their livelihood, and carpentry tools that proved equally valuable when they started building new homes.

The Salvation Army donated 10 motorized bancas, each of which is now being run by a group of five fishermen.

When we visited the relocation site, Barangay Captain Ricky Subang was supervising the setting up of a decorticating machine. Cocotech is helping the village organize a cooperative that will produce twine and textiles from coconut coir.

Plan International also donated a small truck as part of its project to rehabilitate the areas destroyed by the landslides.

Environmentalists are studying various options, including the propagation of vetiver grass on the mountain slopes to help stabilize the soil, according to my cousin, Jilson Maitim, who has accompanied many of these groups to the numerous landslide areas in Punta, Liloan and San Ricardo.

Relatives now based in the cities and abroad sent cash, which was used to buy food and other necessities.

In one instance, we were able to pool P120,000 from relatives. The money was used to hire extra labor to speed up the construction of the houses and the excavation of the septic tanks.

Improving infrastructure

When the landslides hit on Dec. 19 last year, San Francisco was isolated by the numerous streams that swelled and made the road impassable. My children were then on a vacation, and my cousins had to come in a motorboat from Liloan to collect them.

It was the first time my family decided to spend Christmas in Leyte.
In the past, on good days, we had to negotiate the bumpy, 10-kilometer road linking Liloan and San Francisco for over an hour.

The tragedy must have awakened the consciousness of our national leadership. The roads have since been widened and graded, and the long-delayed concreting of the national road was started by the contractor, Italian-Thai, immediately after the May elections.

The project, expected to be completed in about three years, will link Panaon's four municipalities of Liloan, San Francisco, Pintuyan and San Ricardo.

When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo visited San Francisco immediately after the landslides, Smart Communications Inc. set up a small antenna that was strong enough for people to send and receive text messages on their mobile phones.

As the construction activities went on full swing this year, Smart's facilities were upgraded. Even subscribers of Globe Telecom Inc. now enjoy a strong signal in areas along the seashore.

With better communication and transport facilities, the people of Panaon are hoping for better economic opportunities.

The island is the take-off point of the roll-on-roll off (ro-ro) ferry service between Leyte and Mindanao. There is now talk of putting up a ferry terminal in San Ricardo on the other end of the island as an alternative to that operating in Liloan, which in turn is linked by a span as long as the Quiapo bridge to mainland Leyte.

If this materializes, then Surigao City in Mindanao will be about an hour and a half away by ro-ro. At least, the much-hyped Strong Republic National Highway is getting to be a reality in our place.

Reunion

On Nov. 4, we gathered once again for the 80th birthday celebration of my father, Dominador.

Like the time when we all came home for my grandfather's 80th birthday in 1976, the whole village took part in preparing for the occasion.

The common questions were: "Will we push through with our reunion in May 2005? Where will we hold it?"

As far as I am concerned, we should, and it does not matter where.

We still have a lot of work to do and we still have to mobilize resources and support. But all of us are looking forward to the completion of the relocation site.

The survivors plan to clean up the now deserted Punta and slowly revive it into the economically productive enclave that it once was.

Our relatives may not be able to live there anymore, but for most of us, Punta is not meant to be abandoned and forgotten.

"We shared so many happy memories there," said my cousin Marilou Maglana, a Davao-based cardiologist, who rushed home to Punta immediately after hearing about the landslides last year.
She had been away for more than 30 years.

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