NEW BATAAN, Philippines — Surrounded by steep mountains, far-flung New Bataan town has long been a tragedy waiting to happen in a valley of disasters. A government-issued geological hazard map identifies the extremely precarious location of the farming community in the southern Philippines as "highly susceptible to flooding and landslides."
Yet, like in many other places on resource-rich Mindanao Island and elsewhere in this disaster-prone Southeast Asian nation, such warnings went unheeded — until a powerful typhoon struck this week, washing away emergency shelters, a military camp and entire families. The storm killed more than 350 people, with nearly 400 missing.
Survivors of Typhoon Bopha like Joseph Requinto, a farmer, counted their blessings. After a night of pounding rain, floodwaters started rising around 4 a.m. Tuesday, trapping Requinto, his wife and two young children in their house near a creek.
"After that I saw some people being swept away. We were able to save ourselves by climbing up (the hill)," he told The Associated Press. "Some of my relatives died and their bodies were recovered near the village. We were on higher ground. ... The water was as high as a coconut tree. All the bamboo trees, even the big ones, were all mowed down."
He said he carried his two children and sought shelter behind boulders that shielded them from coconut trees rolling down the hill. "We were 70 plus in all," he said.
It was a repeat of a tragedy last December, when 1,200 people died on the opposite end of Mindanao as a powerful storm overflowed rivers. Then and now, raging flash floods, logs and large rocks carried people away to their deaths. In an impoverished nation where the jobless risk life and limb to feed their families, there is little the government can do once such danger zones spring up.
"It's not only an environmental issue, it's also a poverty issue," said Environment Secretary Ramon Paje. "The people would say we are better off here, at least we have food to eat or money to buy food, even if it is risky. But somehow we would like to protect their lives and if possible give them other sources of livelihood so that we can take them out of these permanent danger zones."
At least 200 of the victims of Typhoon Bopha died in Compostela Valley alone, including 78 villagers and soldiers who perished in a flash flood that swamped two emergency shelters and a military camp in the village of Andap in the Compostela Valley municipality of New Bataan. The town, crisscrossed by rivers, was founded in 1968 by banana, coconut, cocoa and mango farmers who cut down trees to make room for land on hillsides.
"There is the Mayo River there, it's a natural channel way of the water from the upstream," said Leo Jasareno, director of the Bureau of Mines and Geosciences. "The water has no other path but Andap village."
He said that even before the typhoon, his regional bureau in Mindanao served local authorities an "official notice informing them that it is a flood-prone area and it must be evacuated."
In fact, Jasareno said, about 80 percent of the Compostela Valley is a danger zone due to a combination of factors, including the mountains and rivers, as well as logging that has stripped hills of trees that minimize landslides and absorb rainwater. Logging has been banned since last year's fatal flooding but continues illegally.
Compostela Valley Gov. Arturo Uy, whose province is a rich source of timber and gold dug by small-scale miners, rejected criticism by scientists and government officials in the capital, Manila, that these towns should relocate.
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