Rescuers search for 5 missing tribe members in Camarines Sur

CAMARINES SUR, Philippines (UPDATED) – Rescue teams continued to search for 5 missing tribe members in Buhi town, a week after Tropical Depression Usman brought heavy rains that triggered flooding and landslides in this province.

The missing members of the Agta-Tabangnon tribe are aged 5 to 16, Buhi officials said on Tuesday, January 8.

Carmelita Marquez, chief of the Buhi Municipal  Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (MDRRMO), said that rescuers have been searching for the following:

The Iraya, Sta Cruz, and Ipil villages are adjacent barangays located in the mountainous area of Buhi where 22 Agta tribe members were killed in landslides caused by heavy rains and flash floods last week.

There were at least 8 dead in Barangay Ipil, 6 in Barangay Iraya, and 8 in Barangay Sta Cruz.

“Even the tribal chieftain Ana Conde and her entire family were buried alive because they’re residing along the river, the water pathways,” Marquez said.

"Majority of the members of tribal community killed in landslides and flooding are abaca planters who reside in the mountainous area,” she added.

Marquez said while the residents were told to evacuate ahead of time, some people might have decided to stay put since Camarines Sur was placed only under Signal No. 1 and Usman had already weakened into a low pressure area.

Disaster scientist Mahar Lagmay had earlier said that a wrong forecast, late warnings, and a lack of hazard awareness worsened the death toll due to Tropical Depression Usman in the Bicol region.

The MDRRMO  official said climate change had affected indigenous people residing near the mountains in Buhi, as their villages have now become prone to landslides due to heavier rains. 

Tribal school teacher survives landslide

Meanwhile, a tribal school teacher who had lost contact with school officials after a landslide struck Ipil village is alive but ill.

Carmen Dapilos, president and founder of the Hansel and Gretel Foundation, headed to Buhi from Naga City to look for Chona Arenes, a pre-school teacher of the Ipil Tribal School, after she lost contact with school officials after a landslide hit her village.

The Hansel and Gretel Foundation built the school in Barangay Ipil for Aeta children.

Dapilos said she finally heard from Arenes herself on Wednesday morning, January 9. She said Arenes survived the landslide that killed several people in her village, but fell ill as there was no potable water.

Though sick, Arenes reportedly dragged herself to the town proper to charge her mobile phone and get basic needs on Tuesday, January 8. That was the only time she managed to call the Hansel and Gretel Foundation to let them know she was safe.

"Our school…was flooded and muddy as well.  Very sad and heartbreaking but thanks to the Lord, our very dedicated teacher Chona survived,” Dapilos said.

Arenes is a graduate of the tribal school – built by the Hansel and Gretel Foundation 25 years ago – and was the first college graduate of her tribe. She completed her education degree and passed the licensure examinations for teachers as well.

"She inspired other Aeta families, and now two are graduating this March in College,” Dapilos told Rappler.

Dapilos, who was accompanied by German couple Stefan and Martina Breiting, earlier went to the Buhi MDRRMO as they wanted to visit Ipil village but they were not allowed for safety reasons.

'Unexpected'

Mayor Margie Moran-Aguinillo told Rappler that the landslides in Buhi which killed at least 22 people were unexpected, even though authorities had told residents to evacuate beforehand. She said as far as she knew, it was the first known landslide in the area.

“We didn’t expect the big volume of water that triggered the first occurrence of a landslide that killed 22 members of [the tribe],” Aguinillo said. 

She added that in the low-lying areas of Buhi, the flood reached as high as 8 feet since heavy rains caused Lake Buhi to overflow.

“The flooding in the downtown [area[ is 5 feet but in low-lying areas, it was at 8 feet or so. Lake Buhi was overflowing by 2.5 meters – it was the highest flooding in the history of Buhi,” the mayor said.    

The flooding was exacerbated when the National Irrigation Administration was forced to open the floodgates which released more water into low-lying areas.

Marquez said displaced families from all over Buhi remained in the parish social hall and schools.

She said heavy flooding had submerged evacuation sites, prompting the MDRRMO to move the evacuees to the St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Buhi town.

“We’re grateful because our parish priest allowed the church to be used as evacuation centers even today,” Marquez said.  

Rains brought by Usman caused flooding in several towns in this province –  Buhi, Nabua, Bula, Baao, and Bato – and Iriga City. Homes continued to be submerged in flood waters in Nabua, Bula, Baao, and Bato towns. – Rappler.com