'Within Seconds Everything Was Gone': Devastating Floods Submerge the Philippines

November 18, 2020 

TUGUEGARAO CITY, Philippines -- Brown water submerged nearly everything, as entire villages were swallowed by the deluge.

The floods, fast and furious, left few people with enough time to make it even to their rooftops. Homes provided little refuge from the devastation.

Francisco Pagulayan, 45, sat dazed as he stared at three white coffins on the roadside near his village. Two of his seven children -- Ian, 17, and Frank, 19 -- along with his mother-in-law, Virginia Bautista, were killed when a landslide buried their modest wooden home.

"There was a loud boom, and within seconds everything was gone," said Mr. Pagulayan, who lives in Baggao, a village in Cagayan Province. "They survived the flash flood, but were buried by the landslide."

This is typhoon season in the Philippines. People know what to do. Those who can, evacuate. Those who can't, prepare as best they can. Cagayan Province, at the very northern tip of the Philippine island chain, knows the drill.

ImageThe coffins of Ian Pagulayan, 17, Frank Pagulayan, 19, and Virginia Bautista, their grandmother. All three were killed by a landslide.
The coffins of Ian Pagulayan, 17, Frank Pagulayan, 19, and Virginia Bautista, their grandmother. All three were killed by a landslide.Credit...Jes Aznar for The New York Times

But the storms are getting more ferocious and more frequent, the tragic consequence of a changing climate that is making disasters more intense. Rapid development and deforestation along flood-prone areas have exacerbated the devastation.

The Cagayan River stretches over more than 300 miles, snaking through the north. It is one of the country's longest and most beautiful rivers, cherished as a source of abundance and life. As of Monday, 24 of the 28 towns in Cagayan Province were under water.

From the air, it is now hard to distinguish where the Cagayan ends and the land begins.

Torrential rains and back-to-back typhoons ripped through the Philippines in the last two weeks, turning the once picturesque river into a sea of murky brown, killing dozens and setting off deadly landslides.

"I was born here and I never saw the water rise so fast," said Jocelyn Malilin, a 49-year-old widow in Tuguegarao City.


A resident standing in the debris of her ruined home in Tuguegarao City, Cagayan Province.Credit...Jes Aznar for The New York Times

Ms. Malilin clambered to the roof of her bungalow with her two daughters, two grandchildren and other relatives last Friday just as the Cagayan began to overflow. Her aunt, Socorro Narag, lived nearby, but had resisted appeals to prepare for the typhoon. It was only later, amid the chaos and confusion, that Ms. Malilin realized her aunt was missing.

"'It's just a storm,'" she recalled her saying.

Ms. Malilin sent two nephews to check on Ms. Narag. But when they returned, they told her that her aunt had died, apparently after falling down. Her body was brought to the roof so it wouldn't be swept away by the rising water. It stayed there until the entire family was rescued.

"We knew that the water would eventually stop rising," Ms. Malilin said. "Maybe she was watching over us."

Last week, Typhoon Vamco forced water to spill over the Magat Dam, a tributary of the Cagayan on the island of Luzon and one of the Philippines' largest reservoirs. The Cagayan's banks quickly overflowed.


A house destroyed by a landslide in Baggao, Cagayan. Many people were not prepared for the flood after a typhoon that occurred a week earlier caused relatively little damage.Credit...Jes Aznar for The New York Times

"This is the first time in 45 years, that I know of, that this has happened," said Manuel Mamba, Cagayan's governor. "The Cagayan River was so wide, even before. But now it resembles an ocean."

State weather forecasters had not placed the region in Typhoon Vamco's treacherous path, only noting that it could cause floods. Typhoon Goni, which occurred a week earlier, had been described as the region's strongest storm of the year, but it caused relatively little damage, leaving many Filipinos off guard.

In some areas, power and communications have been out for days. It didn't help that President Rodrigo Duterte had already shut down ABS-CBN Corp., the country's only broadcast network available in some areas and capable of alerting residents to the unfolding crisis.

The flooding has now affected eight regions and three million people, according to the United Nations' humanitarian office. As many as 70 have already been killed. Many of the deaths occurred in the low-lying suburbs of Cainta and Rizal, east of Manila, the capital.


Residents worked to save their rice crop as floodwaters subsided in Baggao. Illegal logging, quarrying and deforestation have made living near the river more dangerous.Credit...Jes Aznar for The New York Times

The water is now steadily receding, but many villages remain inaccessible, said Mr. Mamba, the governor. Rescue workers, military and the police have been forced to deliver relief by air and have plucked hundreds of survivors from rooftops since Sunday.

"There are places here that are impossible to go to, even by boat," he said.

Mr. Mamba attributed much of the tragedy to illegal logging and quarrying along the river, which the government has tried to prevent for years. Deforestation in watershed areas, as well as siltation, have also made living near the river more dangerous.

"Our casualties may be low, but you need to think how this would affect the local economy down the line," Mr. Mamba said.

Bong Quizzanganong, a Catholic businessman in Tuguegarao, described the flooding in biblical terms: like a raging wall of water sent from above. He said he was used to the river causing minor flooding, "but not like this."


Residents of Tuguegarao City with a pile of relief goods. The flooding has so far affected eight regions and three million people.Credit...Jes Aznar for The New York Times

Mr. Quizzanganong tried cruising around in his off-road vehicle to survey the damage from the flooding, but was forced to retreat because of the raging current.

Helicopters observed children splashing around in the murk. A man led a carabao, a type of water buffalo, on one of the few roads that remain accessible.

"We want all the isolated areas to be reached, because when you see people living, sleeping on the rooftops waving at you, you could almost feel how relieved they are to see you," said Lt. Col. Wildemar Tiu, a co-pilot on the relief mission.

Some places have remained totally isolated since the storm, but Colonel Tiu said the air missions would continue until all areas had been reached.

"You wonder how they must feel right now," he said of those who were still waiting to be rescued. "We want to believe that, at least, we are giving them hope."


Relief workers unloading aid in a village affected by flooding. Credit...Jes Aznar for The New York Times

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