Philippines: The trouble with the second landslide

Filipinos angered by haphazard approach to safeguarding their lives after a mountain quarry collapsed.

The deaths of dozens of people in landslides in the Philippines could have been prevented [JC Gotinga/Al Jazeera]
The deaths of dozens of people in landslides in the Philippines could have been prevented [JC Gotinga/Al Jazeera]

Perhaps the most painful thing about the killer landslide in Naga City in the central Philippines was that it appears the human death toll could have been prevented.

Mayor Kristine Chiong told Al Jazeera she had personnel inspecting fissures on a mountain quarry site two days before it collapsed on the sleeping village below, killing at least 62 people.

That was because she had doubts about a clearance document issued by the country’s mining monitoring agency that said those fissures did not pose an imminent threat.

Clearly, they were wrong. The question now is could the agency and the local government have risked erring on the side of caution, evacuated the villagers and stopped the Apo Land and Quarry Corporation from further exploiting the already deeply scarred mountain?

Catholic Relief Services have responded to dire situations in the Philippines following Typhoon Mangkhut [JC Gotinga/Al Jazeera]

Instead, the company got the all-clear to continue its business, despite some villagers expressing fears about their safety. True enough, when the monsoon came along, the mountain gave way.

It’s a scenario that reflects the reason many Filipinos die in natural disasters every year: man-made conditions exacerbate nature’s mood swings and the government is more reactive than proactive.

Victims are almost always desperately poor: people who live in flimsy houses in vulnerable places, clinging to their few possessions despite official orders to evacuate.

Susan Gepuit, whom Al Jazeera interviewed at her husband’s wake, is left with seven children to raise. She is jobless, uneducated and now penniless. The family did not have much to begin with.

She showed her strength as she welcomed mourners to the mass mortuary at the city’s tennis court. She was not alone in her plight, as some families lost several members in the tragedy.

When our correspondent Jamela Alindogan started asking her about herself – how did she feel, what she was going through? – her emotional dam burst and she broke down.

It’s the kind of interview that underscores the problem of trying to cover calamities: ultimately, a person’s grief and desperation are a solitary experience. We can only watch and listen, because their pain is theirs alone, no matter how much journalists and the audience commiserate with them.

But to not tell the story, to leave them to their fate lest we violate their dignity or privacy – that would be wrong, wouldn’t it? The last thing they need now is isolation.

A Filipino mourns the loss of a loved one at a local graveyard [JC Gotinga/Al Jazeera]

The fact was they were one village in a bustling city that went on with its business the very day the monsoon dried up.

And this landslide came just five days after another one in the northern part of the country that was caused by super typhoon Mangkhut, which got more news coverage worldwide.

We wrapped up our coverage at the mass funeral for the first 21 victims unearthed from the rubble.

Mourners at the largest Catholic church wore surgical masks as a putrid odour filled the sanctuary from the coffins lined up on the aisle. The smell of incense did little to mask the stench.

To provide victims a proper religious burial was a token gesture from the city government. It was the least they could do.

The grieving families have no clue how to carry on, and when public attention to their plight fizzles out in the coming weeks, they will return to their obscure lives at an even greater disadvantage than before.

As I write this, 28 people from Tinaan village remain missing. Disaster responders keep searching the rubble as relatives hold out hope of finding their loved ones, if not alive, then at least in one piece.

There are a few months left to the year, and more monsoon rains and typhoons are bound to come.

Source : Al Jazeera

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