Thursday, February 23, 2006

Leyte Mudslide

Formula for a land slide: Take a mountain slope of porous rocky soil, add copious amounts of rain water steadily for at least four days to soak deep into the soil; inject a tremor at the mass and leave the rest to gravity. The resulting incited muck behaves just like an avalanche, a deadly mass smothering everything in its path.

Apply the formula on a Friday morning of 17 February, 2006 to a village in Southern Leyte in the central part of the Philippines and the result is a massive tragedy wiping out the entire village population of over 300 families (which translates to over 1,500 indiviuals based on 5 members of an average family).

Many commentators in the press and TV were quick to blame the horror to the pet villain of logging and denuded forests and to lament the phenomenon as an accident just waiting to happen. As expected, the brickbats included insinuations of government complacency and neglect for lack of geohazard maps and adequate contingency procedures (a ricochet rap of an earlier accusation by a bureaucrat against the organizers of a popular noontime show that resulted in 71 stampede deaths.) But as more information trickled in, some curious facts begin to emerge. It was known at the time that the continuous downpour was a manifestation of the La Nina phenomenon, the reverse of the El Nino drought. Townspeople stated that there were no logging activities in the area to denude the greenery. A meteorologist interviewed by the ABS-CBN TV network belied the claim that government had no geohazard maps of the area, and even stated that the residents who perished were advised of the danger and actually evacuated to safety centers on each of several nights before the event, returning to their homes and occupations at daylight. Unfortunately, the disaster caught them unawares at about 10 a.m.

Neighboring friendly nations quickly responded with rescue teams from Taiwan, Malaysia Spain,Portugal, Japan and U.S., while others sent financial and material aid (China) and spiritual (the Pope’s prayers are assumed closer to heaven). Even the communist rebels pitched in, skewed as it may seem, by promising not to attack the U.S. Marines (diverted from joint military exercises with local troops) if they do not stray from the site. For their part, the U.S. Marines showed no resentment about the rape charges brought against their comrades in Subic a few months back.

To understand the magnitude of the disaster, a study of the topography of the surrounding region is necessary. The ill-fated barangay (village) of Guinsaugon, a component of St. Bernard town, is situated east of a mountain range that runs North to South in the center of Leyte island. The barangay sits on the plain at the base of the mountain whose ridge is elevated 600 meters above sea level. A mountain cleft sloping eastward has its channel directly pointing towards the barangay (perhaps settled for the convenient availability of water from the rivulet). When the soil/rock conglomerate, lossened by rainwater, slid down the slope, the mass was funneled by the cleft and assumed a thicker layer before breaking loose on the flatlands, blanketing the barangay with a layer several meters thick. Victims caught by the sea of mud would have been asphyxiated within minutes. Such a massive juggernaut carries enough force to crush wooden structures, let alone human bodies. The shallow perimeter front of the surging soil mass gripped some people but they managed or were helped to extricate themselves from the muds grasp. These were the survivors, muddy, bruised and battered, but alive. (A man interviewed on TV said he had an eye out for a warning sign – when the rivers waterflow diminishes noticeably its time to flee because the mudslide has started to march. Survival is the award for vigilance.)

Watching the spectacle of the rescue effort on TV arouses pathos for the bereaved surviving family members and the hopeful anxiety of the kin of those missing. It also arouses a sense of

disappointment for the ineptness of Pinoy officialdom. I would have liked to see a command center with a competent commander assigning specific tasks to various disparate teams, coordinating their activities and tracking progress reports. But I see only a lonely lady Governor Rosette Lerias attired in orange color (rescue) garb, with no aides and means of communication, no strategic or contingency plan. I failed to see the local bureaucrats. Although I also see the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) dutifully holding a press conference in the comfort and mud-free convenience of the capital city.

The latest official tally (probably the final one) is about 100 dead, 1000 missing, 400 survivors (from my thumb rule estimate of 1500 barangay population). At the same time, the official report states that 1,645 families (roughly 8000 individuals) are in evacuation centers. (I sense a horde of freeloaders loading up on the flow of free stuff.) By Tuesday, five days after the disaster, several of the rescue teams have accepted the reality that further rescue would be futile. The next phase is search and retrieve.

So what is in store for preventing similar disasters in the future? Government says geohazard maps will be produced and published. (Provided funds appropiated for the purpose is not diverted for electioneering purposes.) Print media editorials propose reforestation (a bootleg logger's paradise), shore up the mountains and hills that are prone to landslides and mudslides (as in avalanche prone mountains of Europe) an idea that thumbs the nose at Nature (what will they think of next?). After all, a mudslide is a natural process that Nature uses to sculpt the earths features. Geologists studying these changes call it erosion.

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