Typhoon Washi victims who are made homeless after their houses were swept away by flash floods rest at an evacuation center in Cagayan de Oro in the southern Philippines. Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro courtesy of Alertnet.org

By Jennifer Hardy, CRS Regional Information Officer for Asia

When people living along the river went to sleep in Cagayan de Oro on Friday night, they didn’t know that a wall of water was barreling toward their homes. By 11 pm, communities in this part of the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines were mostly quiet. Radios were silenced for the night. Residents didn’t hear the emergency warnings broadcast by the government shortly before water crashed into homes on the riverbank. Survivors made it out of the water with their lives, but few possessions. Others perished before they could even leave their homes.

Joe Curry, Catholic Relief Services’ country representative for the Philippines, arrived at the flood zone and met people who had lost everything. “Some people don’t even have shoes – their sandals were pulled off their feet in the flood,” he says.

The topography of Cagayan de Oro was ripe for disastrous flooding. A river flows down a mountain, through a ravine, into the city and out to the ocean. But there had been storms before that didn’t cause such widespread death and destruction. Tropical Storm Washi (known locally as Sendong) took an unusual path that brought torrential rain to the mountains around Cagayan de Oro. City residents didn’t have a precedent for the flash floods that followed. More than 50,000 people are now living in emergency evacuation centers.

Homes along the river belonged to some of the poorest people in the city, but all of Cagayan de Oro is feeling the effect. The flash flood wiped out the city’s water main and pump stations along the river. About 80% of the city’s 600,000 people are without running water. Student groups at Xavier University, one of CRS’ local partners, are using Facebook to share information about where people can access drinking water. Government officials say that it could be up to 30 days before water is restored to most of the city.

Curry reports that CRS is prepared to help those most affected by the floods. “CRS is partnering with the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro to find how we can help those in greatest need. We’ve seen that people in the flood’s path need basic household goods like water jugs, cooking utensils and soap. Water is most important over the next few days. The government has distributed food to some people, but they don’t have water or pots to cook a meal,” he says.

“I’m hopeful that we will be able to reach people quickly and help them meet their most urgent needs,” says Curry. “We’re seeing people in the community pull together and share what little they have.”