TUGUEGARAO CITY, Philippines – Brown water submerged almost everything as entire villages were swallowed up by the flood.
The floods, fast and furious, left few people with enough time to make it to their rooftops. Houses offered little refuge from the devastation.
Francisco Pagulayan, 45, sat dazed and stared at three white coffins on the roadside near his village. Two of his seven children – Ian, 17 and Frank, 19 – and his mother-in-law Virginia Bautista were killed when a landslide buried their humble wooden house.
“There was a loud boom and it was all gone in seconds,” 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 time in the Philippines. People know what to do. Who can evacuate. If you can’t, prepare as well as possible. The province of Cagayan at the northern tip of the Philippine island chain knows the exercise.
But the storms are getting more violent and frequent, the tragic consequence of a changing climate that exacerbates the disasters. Rapid development and deforestation in flood-prone areas has exacerbated the devastation.
The Cagayan River extends for more than 300 miles and meanders through the north. It is one of the longest and most beautiful rivers in the country and is valued as a source of abundance and life. As of Monday, 24 of the 28 cities in Cagayan Province were under water.
From the air it is now difficult to tell where the Cagayan ends and the land begins.
Heavy rains and successive typhoons have ravaged the Philippines for the past two weeks, turning the once picturesque river into a sea of murky brown, killing dozens and causing deadly landslides.
“I was born here and have never seen the water rise so quickly,” said Jocelyn Malilin, a 49-year-old widow in Tuguegarao City.
Ms. Malilin was climbing onto the roof of their bungalow with her two daughters, two grandchildren and other relatives last Friday when the Cagayan began to overflow. Her aunt Socorro Narag lived nearby but had resisted appeals to prepare for the typhoon. It was only later, in the midst of the chaos and confusion, that Ms. Malilin realized that her aunt was missing.
“‘It’s just a storm,'” she remembered her saying.
Ms. Malilin sent two nephews to see Ms. Narag. But when they came back they told her that her aunt had died, apparently after she fell. Her body was placed on the roof so that it would not be swept away by the rising water. It stayed there until the whole family was saved.
“We knew the water would stop rising at some point,” said Ms. Malilin. “Maybe she was watching over us.”
Last week, Typhoon Vamco forced water over the Magat Dam, a tributary of the Cagayan on Luzon Island and one of the largest reservoirs in the Philippines. The banks of the Cagayan overflowed quickly.
“It is the first time this has happened in 45 years,” said Manuel Mamba, governor of Cagayan. “The Cagayan River was so wide before. But now it resembles an ocean. “
State weather forecasters hadn’t put the region on the treacherous path of Typhoon Vamco, only realizing that it could lead to flooding. 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 and left many Filipinos unprepared.
In some areas, power and communications have been down for days. It didn’t help that President Rodrigo Duterte already owned ABS-CBN Corp. had closed, the only radio network in the country available in some areas, which could alert residents of the looming crisis.
According to the United Nations Humanitarian Office, eight regions and three million people are now affected by the floods. Up to 70 have already been killed. Many of the deaths occurred in the lower suburbs of Cainta and Rizal, east of the capital Manila.
The water is now steadily receding, but many villages remain inaccessible, said Governor Mamba. Rescue workers, the military and police were forced to provide assistance by air and have torn hundreds of survivors from the rooftops since Sunday.
“There are places here that even a boat cannot go to,” he said.
Mr Mamba attributed much of the tragedy to illegal logging and quarrying along the river, which the government has been trying to prevent for years. Deforestation in catchment areas and silting up have made life near the river more dangerous.
“Our losses may be small, but you have to think about how that would affect the local economy,” Mamba said.
Bong Quizzanganong, a Catholic businessman in Tuguegarao, described the flood 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 that.”
Mr. Quizzanganong tried to drive around in his SUV to investigate the damage from the flood, but was forced to retreat because of the raging current.
Helicopters watched children splash around in the dark. A man led a carabao, a type of water buffalo, on one of the few roads that are still accessible.
“We want all remote areas to be reached because when you see people live sleeping on the rooftops and waving to you, you can almost feel how relieved they are to see you,” said Lt. Col. Wildemar Tiu, a fellow pilot on the relief mission.
Some locations have remained completely isolated since the storm, but Colonel Tiu said the flight missions would continue until all areas were reached.
“You wonder how you must feel now,” he said of those who were still waiting to be saved. “We want to believe that we at least give them hope.”