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Living the story: ‘Sendong’ and the journalists of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan

Northern Philippines – Their story started on a quiet Friday night, supposedly the end of another week at work, the start of a much-awaited weekend with loved ones, just nine days before Christmas Day. The place is northern Mindanao.

Cong Corrales

Leonardo Vicente “Cong” Corrales sat in front of a borrowed computer to write what just happened.  Tropical storm Sendong ripped through the province and other parts of northern Mindanao.

As a provincial correspondent for various local and foreign media agencies, Cong had to report on the devastation.  The storm had left hundreds dead, homeless and missing. The morgues were overflowing.  The streets were flooded. Cadavers were floating along with heaps of trash. Crumbs of homes were all over.

But after three hours, the only words that came out were: “Cagayan de Oro City. By Cong Corrales, correspondent.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011.  A few hours before, Cong and his family rushed to the roof of their wooden house to escape the flashfloods unleashed by the surging storm.

They waited for the waters to subside. In the darkness, they could hear the cries of pain. People were shouting the names of missing loved ones. The screams for help went on for hours, struggling to be heard amidst the sounds of the howling winds.

Cong’s home, the second floor of a two-story shelter, is along Burgos Street, Barangay La Consolacion, one of the hardest hit areas in the province.

The morning after the flood, Cong’s home was a portrait of mayhem. Everything was covered with the thickest mud and the stench of garbage filled the damp air.

But Cong did not have enough time to clean the trash.

He had a story to write.

“But I did not know where to start,” Corrales said.

Cong is one of at least 35 journalists from Cayagan and Iligan affected by the storm. Two Iligan-based journalists died while others lost everything.

Merlyn Manos

GMA-7 correspondent Merlyn Manos, a single mother to two children, was already asleep when the floods came.

She was in deep slumber in a worn-out white nightie, exhausted from a day’s work. She was out all day doing a feature story about the Christmas Village in the center of town.

Her son roused her from sleep. “The house is flooded!” he said in a shaking voice. Their house is a small rented space in Green Village, Hinaplanon, Iligan City.

Merlyn had no time to pack. She managed to slip on a shirt before they rushed out to the roof. They could not open the door, as the waters were already high. The only way out was through the hole for the air conditioning unit.

The winds were wild and the waves were punching hard. Merlyn felt it was the end.

“I felt then that we were going to die,” she said.

From above, they could hear the cries of mercy – loud, shrieking screams for help from mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sons and daughters.

“We could not do anything. We were helpless up there,” she said. As Sendong battered their street, the shouts grew louder.

They went back to the house when the waters subsided. It was then that Merlyn realized she had lost everything.

“When I went to my room, I saw my laptop floating.  I said to myself, ‘it’s gone. It’s gone,’” Merlyn said.

But by 12 noon, Merlyn had to file a story. Her desk had called. She had to report something. Amidst the chaos, she managed to do a phone patch — a live report via telephone — as it is known in broadcast industry parlance.

Merlyn ended up reporting her own story. At that time, she did not imagine how she would be able to work again without her laptop and camera.

Jigger Jerusalem

Jigger Jerusalem, a correspondent of The Philippine Star in Cagayan de Oro, also lost his laptop in the flood; and everything else in the rented room where he stays.

“Now, I have to start from scratch again. I have to buy new things and tools. I need a digital camera and a laptop,” said Jigger.

But Jigger can’t bring himself to write just yet. The trauma is still very fresh. At night, he can still see in his inner mind’s eye the flood of mud that gatecrashed his room. He can still hear the winds and the screams from little voices, the cries for help; the sounds of panic, desperation and pain.

“I promise I will write again when the time comes when I can again function as a working journalist,” Jigger said.

On January 4, Jigger’s by-line appeared again on the front page of the Philippine Star. He wrote a story on the opening of classes in CDO.

Bonita Ermac

She works as a correspondent for Mindanao Gold Star Daily in Iligan.  When the floods came, Bonita, also a single mom, secured her son and her 80-year old mother.

“From our room, we went down to the kitchen. The waters were already high. We had to hold on to wooden bars in the ceiling. My 80-year old mother was with us. She was hospitalized after because of pneumonia.

After that, Bonita could not think of writing again just yet.

“I lost all my things,” she said.

Michael Kundimann (missing)

Leni Kundiman lost her husband, Michael and her home. Michael was a radio reporter and news anchor and the last time Leni heard his voice was at the height of Sendong’s wrath.

They held on to a rope just outside their house in Bayug Island in Iligan City but a shanty that had been washed away by the flood hit Michael. His voice trailed off and was never seen again since that night.

Bayug Island had been wiped out. What used to be a village where hundreds of families lived and survived the daily fare is now a barren lifeless land. There are no more homes, just makeshift wooden altars with candles and flowers for the dead. The laughter of children who used to roam around will never be heard again.

There’s only a deafening silence and an eerie shade of gray in Bayug Island and in the rest of Iligan and Cagayan.

But the story does not end here. Each and every journalist affected by Sendong will carry on. “Padayon,” as they say it. They will again find the words and capture the images. They will start again and again and they will keep on telling other peoples’ stories the way they used to do before howling winds and a merciless storm struck that fateful Friday night.

(This project is produced by Jes Aznar and Iris Gonzales, in cooperation with the Center for Community Journalism and Development and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines. To those who wish to help the affected journalists, you may call the NUJP office at (02) 3767330.)

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