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Thousands of flood survivors face life in tent cities

Members of the Army’s Light Armor Division and their relatives help in repacking relief items to be distributed to the victims of tropical storm ‘Sendong’ in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan Cities.  VAL RODRIGUEZ

MANILA, Philippines - Tens of thousands of flashflood survivors face life in tent cities for months while efforts to relocate them to safer areas continue, top relief officials said yesterday.

Meanwhile, 20 more bodies were fished out of the sea by Navy retrieval teams yesterday, bringing the death toll from the country’s worst natural disaster in two decades to 1,259 with about 1,100 others missing.

More than 60,000 people displaced by tropical storm “Sendong” are sheltering in government buildings in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities, most of them in schools that reopen after the holidays, National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) chief Benito Ramos said.

“We can’t construct permanent shelters for them immediately. It will take some time. They have to move into tents when schools reopen on Jan. 3,” he said.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said army engineers were building temporary bunkhouses and latrines in Cagayan de Oro, which accounted for half of the confirmed deaths.

More would be built in Iligan once the local government finds a suitable relocation area, she added.

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“The target is to have transition shelters and bunkhouses in the first two weeks of January so families can feel some personal space that they can’t get at evacuation centers,” Soliman told ABS-CBN television.

But at just 12 units each there will not be enough space for all the displaced and the rest would have to stay in tents, she added.

Ramos said there was no definite timetable for building permanent houses, but he expected some to be ready in six months.

Death toll increasing

Brig. Gen. Roland Amerille, deputy commander of the 1st Infantry Brigade and ground commander of the ongoing search and retrieval teams, said 16 of the newly recovered bodies were floating off the coast of Maigo and Kolambugan towns in Lanao del Norte, while four were retrieved by fishermen in Panguil Bay off the coast of Oroquieta City, Lopez Jean and Plaridel towns in Misamis Occidental.

Of the twenty, only the remains of a certain Fernando Isip was identified by his family.

Amerille said there were indications that more bodies are still submerged along the illegally cut logs at Iligan Bay and are just waiting to be retrieved.

In Cagayan de Oro, worst hit by the flashflood, the number of fatalities continues to increase with bodies being unearthed daily by Army retrieval teams from tons of debris.

As of yesterday, Maj. Eugenio Julio Osias IV, spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division, said that a week into the search and retrieval operations troops have already accounted for 677 bodies.

Benito said the death toll is expected to rise as retrieval operations are still continuing.

“Aside from our ongoing retrieval operation, we are slowly shifting to relief and cleanup operations in preparation for the government’s massive rehabilitation activities,” Osias said.

Maj. Gen. Victor Felix, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, and his men went to Barangay Pagatpat to distribute relief goods and medicine to 2,000 marooned residents.

“While more than 60,000 homeless from hundreds of flood-ravaged villages spent a miserable Christmas in jampacked schools and gymnasiums, search teams retrieved an additional 150 bodies from the sea as far as 100 kilometers from worst-hit Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities,” said Ramos.

With more bodies found floating farther away, Ramos said authorities sought the help of fishermen to scour the sea.

“We’ve stopped counting the missing. There are no accurate figures. Those recovered, we don’t know who they are. We have a system in place so that families can claim them later, based on fingerprints and dental records,” he said.

Support pouring in

The United Nations last week launched an urgent appeal for $28 million to help an estimated 600,000 affected people, more than half the population of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.

PLAN International, a global children’s charity that operates in 50 countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas, leased a cargo plane to bring assistance to the victims.

President Aquino, who banned logging in February following previous flooding deaths that experts say were caused partly by deforestation and soil erosion, has ordered an investigation.

Another factor in the staggering death toll was the illegal settlements along Cagayan River. Thousands of people lived in shanties on the banks and islands directly along the water’s path.

In the evacuation centers, where about a third of the displaced are children, aid workers were providing food, clothes, blankets, bottled water and hygiene kits.

Lack of running water was still a major concern. Many shelters had poor sanitation with open drainage and defecation sites, said Ariel Balofinos, Mindanao manager for Save the Children aid agency.

“Children in particular are susceptible to health threats because immune systems are weak,” he said, adding that many youngsters were also traumatized.

“Many children have witnessed friends and family dying. We’ve come across children who have been orphaned, but the good thing is they have relatives, which is part of the Filipino coping mechanism,” he said.

Palace steps up effort

Malacañang said psychologists and counselors will be going to the affected areas to help victims cope with the trauma.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte also called on local officials and residents, particularly those from Isla de Oro in Cagayan de Oro, not to return to danger areas anymore and heed the President’s call to relocate.

Aquino had said that temporary shelters would be built while permanent relocation for people in danger areas was being worked out.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said Aquino directed his department to release P52.8 million for the rehabilitation of Cagayan de Oro’s water supply system, as well as P619.6 million for the continued implementation of the potable water supply project to increase access to safe water in the area.

Valte said rehabilitation work did not stop even during Christmas Day and that donations continued to pour in, both in cash and in kind.

She said the President authorized the release of an additional P1 billion before Christmas to augment the P1.295 billion left in the Calamity Fund for 2011.

She said the President was continuously monitoring the situation and that he had asked concerned government agencies to prepare for the latest low pressure area that was reported.

Valte said the NDRRMC had been sending information as to the possible areas to be hit if the low pressure area would develop into a storm or typhoon.

Abad said the funds for the water project in Cagayan de Oro would be released to the Local Water Utilities Administration overseeing the development of water supply systems in provincial cities and municipalities outside Metro Manila.

The P32.4 million of the LWUA fund for Cagayan de Oro will be used to repair source and production facilities damaged by Sendong. The rest of the fund – amounting to P20.4 million – will be directed to restoring critical service connections to local concessionaires.

The potable water supply project is concurrent with the conditional cash transfer program of the DSWD as well as other key social protection programs initiated by the Aquino administration.

The 2011 budget provided a total allocation of P1.5 billion for the potable water supply program. The complete amount was issued to the DOH in the last quarter of the year. – Jaime Laude, Aurea Calica, Edith Regalado, AP

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