NEW BATAAN, Philippines — Surrounded by steep mountains, far-flung New Bataan town has long been a tragedy waiting to happen in a valley of disasters. A government-issued geological hazard map identifies the extremely precarious location of the farming community in the southern Philippines as "highly susceptible to flooding and landslides."
Yet, like in many other places on resource-rich Mindanao Island and elsewhere in this disaster-prone Southeast Asian nation, such warnings went unheeded — until a powerful typhoon struck this week, washing away emergency shelters, a military camp and entire families. The storm killed more than 350 people, with nearly 400 missing.
Survivors of Typhoon Bopha like Joseph Requinto, a farmer, counted their blessings. After a night of pounding rain, floodwaters started rising around 4 a.m. Tuesday, trapping Requinto, his wife and two young children in their house near a creek.
"After that I saw some people being swept away. We were able to save ourselves by climbing up (the hill)," he told The Associated Press. "Some of my relatives died and their bodies were recovered near the village. We were on higher ground. ... The water was as high as a coconut tree. All the bamboo trees, even the big ones, were all mowed down."
He said he carried his two children and sought shelter behind boulders that shielded them from coconut trees rolling down the hill. "We were 70 plus in all," he said.
It was a repeat of a tragedy last December, when 1,200 people died on the opposite end of Mindanao as a powerful storm overflowed rivers. Then and now, raging flash floods, logs and large rocks carried people away to their deaths. In an impoverished nation where the jobless risk life and limb to feed their families, there is little the government can do once such danger zones spring up.
"It's not only an environmental issue, it's also a poverty issue," said Environment Secretary Ramon Paje. "The people would say we are better off here, at least we have food to eat or money to buy food, even if it is risky. But somehow we would like to protect their lives and if possible give them other sources of livelihood so that we can take them out of these permanent danger zones."
At least 200 of the victims of Typhoon Bopha died in Compostela Valley alone, including 78 villagers and soldiers who perished in a flash flood that swamped two emergency shelters and a military camp in the village of Andap in the Compostela Valley municipality of New Bataan. The town, crisscrossed by rivers, was founded in 1968 by banana, coconut, cocoa and mango farmers who cut down trees to make room for land on hillsides.
"There is the Mayo River there, it's a natural channel way of the water from the upstream," said Leo Jasareno, director of the Bureau of Mines and Geosciences. "The water has no other path but Andap village."
He said that even before the typhoon, his regional bureau in Mindanao served local authorities an "official notice informing them that it is a flood-prone area and it must be evacuated."
In fact, Jasareno said, about 80 percent of the Compostela Valley is a danger zone due to a combination of factors, including the mountains and rivers, as well as logging that has stripped hills of trees that minimize landslides and absorb rainwater. Logging has been banned since last year's fatal flooding but continues illegally.
Compostela Valley Gov. Arturo Uy, whose province is a rich source of timber and gold dug by small-scale miners, rejected criticism by scientists and government officials in the capital, Manila, that these towns should relocate.
"It's not possible to have no houses there because even the town center was hit. You mean to say the whole town will be abandoned?" Uy told the AP. He doubted the basis for classifying the area as dangerous and said he had urged the central government to review the hazard maps.
"Even when we have floods, the water would not spill over so much. People are wondering why there was such a huge volume of water," he said.
"We thought they would be safe there, but the volume of water was so huge," he said.
He said that residents sought shelter in the village hall, the health center and the covered court in an area that is elevated and was never flooded before this week. Most of the casualties occurred there.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who visited New Bataan on Wednesday, saw the town covered in 15 centimeters (6 inches) of mud. He was told by townsfolk that a pond or a small lake atop the mountain collapsed, causing torrents of water to rampage like a waterfall.
"There is hardly any structure that is undamaged in New Bataan town," he said. "Entire families may have been washed away."
On Thursday, residents armed with hammers began to repair devastated homes and wash their muddy belongings, taking advantage of the sunny weather. A rescuer in orange overalls blew his whistle after seeing a hand protruding from a muddy heap of logs, rocks and debris, drawing a throng of army troops and volunteers armed with shovels and crowbars.
Four bodies were pulled out from the muck, including two children.
Dozens of people in search of missing relatives waited at a government information center, staring blankly at their devastated town. Authorities planned to display about 80 newly washed bodies in coffins at a Roman Catholic church Friday, hoping relatives could identify some of them.
The deaths came despite efforts by President Benigno Aquino III's government to force residents out of high-risk communities as the typhoon approached. Vice President Jejomar Binay on Thursday directed local executives, police and military officials not to allow those displaced to return to their homes in areas classified as danger zones. However, it wasn't clear how quickly and where substitute homes would be built.
After slamming into Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley with winds of 175 kilometers (109 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 210 kph (130 mph), Typhoon Bopha roared quickly across the southern Mindanao and central regions. On Thursday, the typhoon was over the South China Sea west of Palawan province, and forecasters said it may dissipate after two days due to a surge of cool and dry air.
Some 20 typhoons and storms lash the northern and central Philippines each year, but they rarely hit the vast southern Mindanao region. Sprawling export banana plantations have been in place there for decades because strong winds seldom topple trees.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Teresa Cerojano, Oliver Teves and Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila contributed to this report.