Rescuers struggle to find Bohol quake victims

Jaime Laude (The Philippine Star) - October 18, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Rescuers struggled yesterday to find more survivors of last Tuesday’s earthquake, which devastated Bohol province the most, with aid and disaster workers forced onto boats and helicopters to help thousands left isolated in their villages.

Disaster officials placed the death toll last night at 171 with scores still missing.

Road access to the worst hit towns in Bohol remained cut, two days after the 7.2 magnitude quake destroyed buildings and triggered landslides that engulfed homes, regional civil defense chief Minda Morante said.

“I hope the people will understand. While we want to bring aid to them, our main adversary is accessibility,” Morante said.

“We acknowledge that there are still gaps in the emergency response. We cannot address the many needs all at the same time,” Morante said.

Morante said helicopters were being used to evacuate some of the injured as well as resupply the isolated towns with emergency food rations.

Tens of thousands of survivors had taken refuge at government-run shelters in public buildings left standing in Bohol, while others were sleeping in tents beside their homes, terrorized by aftershocks, she added.

The search for 21 missing people had narrowed down to the coastal town of Loon and neighboring Antequera, which were close to the earthquake’s epicenter, Bohol police chief Senior Superintendent Dennis Agustin said.

Search and rescue teams had reached those areas by boat and narrow dirt roads over the past 24 hours, he added.

In the upland farming village of Cantam-is, about 10 kilometers from Loon, Salvador Bonito waited yesterday for help beside a large pile of mud, rocks and debris that buried the house of three of his friends.

“Rescuers from our church tried to reach the buried house, but we had to give up because the ground kept shifting due to aftershocks,” Bonito said, adding they had yet to receive outside help. “We leave it up to God.”

National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council spokesman Rey Balido said the number of people confirmed killed in the earthquake had risen to 159.

Nearly all the fatalities were in Bohol, one of the country’s top tourist destinations, which boasts of rolling Chocolate Hills and tiny primates called tarsiers.

Rosario Mejares, 42, said they haven’t received relief goods since Tuesday, forcing them to make do with available food and water in the area, including some retrieved from collapsed homes.

With their homes flattened by the quake, Mejares said they chose to stay in makeshift tents outside the ruins of the Our Lady of Light Church.

“Aside from drinking water, what we need here are medicine, IV fluids and generator sets to keep our makeshift hospital running,” Mejares said, adding that as of yesterday power was still out.

Fifty of the 100 patients at the Loon hospital had been transported by sea to a hospital in Tagbilaran City. A pregnant woman gave birth inside a makeshift tent at the height of heavy rains Wednesday night.

Tootsie Escobia, information officer of the Bohol provincial government, said bad weather was making it more difficult for disaster teams to reach devastated areas.

“We have many challenges now in Bohol. The problem I think is how to deliver the relief goods, considering the situation,” Escobia said. “There are roads that remained impassable, then there are still aftershocks plus these rains that we’re experiencing.”

She added that of the 1.2 million people in the province, around 150,000 to 200,000 have been directly affected by the quake. Loon alone has 50,000 residents, most of them now homeless.

“We saw two helicopters flying over the other day but it never dropped anything for us to eat or drink,” a local resident complained.

Transport hassles

With one of its ships failing to leave yesterday for Bohol as scheduled, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) had to send an Islander plane – a light aircraft – to ferry trained dogs and their handlers to the municipality of Loon to help in search and rescue efforts.

PCG spokesman Commander Armanda Balilo said they had to postpone the departure of BRP Corregidor, originally scheduled to sail Wednesday night, because the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) had not yet completed loading relief goods intended for Bohol and Zamboanga.

The ship was also supposed to carry the K-9 teams as well as rescue and medical personnel.

“Time is of the essence. We need to get our K9 units to Loon town immediately to help find trapped victims inside buildings and houses. An hour of air travel could spell a big difference between life and death,” Balilo said, explaining why they had to put the trained dogs on the first available flight to Bohol. The BRP Corregidor is expected to reach Bohol in two days.

The PCG also deployed its helicopter to evacuate seriously injured survivors and patients from Loon to other hospitals in Bohol.

Balilo also said the BRP EDSA had already reached Tagbilaran City carrying relief goods and supplies obtained from DSWD’s warehouse in Cebu.

He added that PCG Central Visayas District commander Commodore William Melad was coordinating with operators of small ships for assistance in transporting relief goods to Loon.

“We received information that the pier in Loon would not be able to accommodate the 56-meter BRP EDSA so Commodore Melad said that the BRP EDSA would lower its anchor near Loon and he commissioned small ships to bring the relief goods from the ship to Loon,” Balilo said.

Two other PCG vessels – BRP Corregidor and BRP Pampanga – are on standby for deployment to Bohol for transport of relief goods.

The Department of Public Works and Highways said four roads and 20 bridges remain impassable in Bohol.

The DPWH said it had sent out quick response personnel from its Bohol District Engineering Office and Regional Office 7 “to conduct assessment of damages while warning signs were installed to pre-warn the general public.”

In a radio interview, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson said they would now be implementing the Structural Resiliency Program (SRP) “which means that instead of just repairing old buildings we would retrofit and upgrade (the buildings).” The program would prioritize hospitals, schools and other public buildings.

The Department of Education (DepEd), for its part, said it has readied around P300 million for the rehabilitation of public schools damaged by earthquake. –With Ricky Bautista, Danny Dangcalan, Evelyn Macairan, Helen Flores


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