18 February, Southern Leyte --- The payloader truck trudged unsteadily across the river. For the past 24 hours, it had been the bringer of grim news. On its hauler lift, rescuers carried a black body bag. Another body of a woman was recovered from the disaster site. Still unidentified, she would be known only as number 53.
As night descended, hopes that more lives would be saved also dimmed, including those of the 247 children who were in school when a landslide rolled over the remote village of Guinsaugon in the town of St. Bernard in the province of Southern Leyte. The province is in the Central Western region of the Philippines.
“We fear that we have lost the children,” said Romana Quizon, social welfare officer.
At around 9 am on 17 February, a raging slosh of mud rammed through the village of Guinsaugon. Continuous rain for the past two weeks eroded a portion of the slope of Mt. Can-abag, causing a mudslide that covered 90 per cent of the village.
Over 300 houses were buried, including the elementary school. Almost all children were in school for the annual achievement examination. Six teachers and one principal were among those buried under feet of mud and boulders.
“The mudslide buried our hopes for these school children,” Quizon said.
Twenty people have so far been rescued and treated, including a one-year old girl. The number of survivors is estimated at 400, while 1,200 more are considered missing.
An hour before the tragedy, mothers gathered at a rural health station to celebrate a recognition bestowed on the community for its women’s health program. Among them was the municipal health nurse, Athena Letigro. Letigro was said to have called up Mayor Norma Lim during the first few seconds of the disaster but the mobile line was abruptly cut.
Her husband, the municipal health officer, Dr. Freddie, could only stand at the edge of the river that bounds the village, waiting for the payloader truck to bring any news about his wife.
Duty bids him to stay at the health center to spearhead the medical emergency operations. But his fellow health workers understand the grief he is experiencing. Dr. Liza Coraza, municipal health officer of the nearby town of San Juan, appeared flustered as she led a team of medical workers and volunteers.
“But we have to stand firm. Victims and other affected families need our help,” she said. Over 3,000 people from adjacent villages had been evacuated to 10 centers. Coraza and a support team had just set a four-pronged strategy to address the health and nutrition concerns of the evacuees and residents. Immediate actions would focus on environment and sanitation, surveillance, medical consultation, and nutrition.
Children from evacuation centers had complained of upper respiratory tract infections and diarrhea. A day after the tragedy, relief assistance poured in. UNICEF immediately sent an emergency pack containing essential drugs and medical equipment.
The medical assistance pack was transported to St. Bernard via a military airlift and after seven hours of grueling land travel from the city of Tacloban. Landslide rendered the national road leading to St. Bernard almost impassable.
According to Coraza, the health center desperately needs more cough syrup bottles, antibiotics, and oral rehydration solutions. “We fear that a diarrhea outbreak will erupt.” A pre-disaster test showed that drinking water in the town tested positive for amoeba.
A UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team will be dispatched to Southern Leyte to assess the needs of the community.
Consulting with social workers on site, UNICEF will prepare a second round of assistance, consisting of packs for 1,400 evacuated families. The packs contain mosquito nets, blankets, mats, kitchen utensils, dinnerware, and water jugs. Regional director of the Social Welfare and Development Department Leticia Corillo appealed for education assistance for 800 school children from the affected communities.
Social worker Quizon looks forward to the family packs. “The families in the evacuation centers want to cook their own meals but they have nothing to use. Receiving these family packs will somehow give them a sense of normalcy in this time of tragedy,” she said.
UNICEF Representative Nicholas Alipui said that UNICEF’s emergency fund makes it possible to respond immediately to those in need. “Our humanitarian action should be swift and appropriate.”
In January 2004, UNICEF provided emergency assistance to the towns of San Ricardo and Liloan in Souther Leyte where landslides buried two villages, killing over 200 people and affecting more than 2,000 families. Geohazards in the town of Southern Leyte had been identified since last year. The province lies on the edge of the highly unstable undersea Philippine trench and mountains are prone to weathering and erosion.
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