Philippines Floods Declared a National Calamity

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: In the Philippines authorities are investigating what went wrong on Mindanao Island over the weekend. The island was slammed with a storm that spawned flash floods and mudslides. More than a thousand people died in the disaster. The BBC's Kate McGeown is in Mindanao in the Southern Philippines. She says residents were not expecting the storm to be so dangerous.

Kate McGeown: This storm brought an awful lot of rain; it brought 12 hours continuous rain in some places. And the banks of the rivers just flooded, huge areas were inundated with water.

Werman: I mean these sorts of massive storms are a regular feature of life in the Philippines, why wasn't the government better prepared for this storm and its aftermath?

McGeown: Absolutely, I mean there are about 20 major storms or typhoons in the Philippines every year, but they usually hit the north of the country, such as the island of Luzon, where the capital Manila is. And very few of them hit the south. So critics are saying that the authorities here in Mindanao were maybe a bit complacent, and partly they say that local people as well just weren't used to it. That they went to bed on Friday night and they didn't think. And the next thing they knew about it in the middle of the night they were woken up to find that their stuff was floating around them. And many of them had to grab on to the roofs of their houses in order to survive.

Werman: Now, Philippine President Benigno Aquino is now on the scene where you are. How's he being received by the local residents?

McGeown: Well, certainly when we were there at an evacuation center and he came to visit there to talk to people and to promise government support, people applauding wildly when he arrived you know. Evidently, people are glad to see him, but behind the scenes people were kind of saying well look, this happened early Saturday morning...how come it's taken until Tuesday for him to come down and see it? There was a lot of criticism in the media today about the fact that the president went to a party yesterday and he wasn't thinking about people in Mindanao, which is a long way away from Manila where he's usually based. And how did the government not realize that this was something so big because every day the death toll is rising and really now it's become a pretty major disaster in Philippine history.

Werman: We've also heard the effect of the storm was much worse because of rampant deforestation and logging in the area. I'm wondering if you've seen any evidence of that?

McGeown: We certainly have seen that there's people living cheek by jowl right next to the rivers, and this is an area where we know there is quite a lot of illegal logging going on. There's a lot of unregulated mining industries that deforest areas, and just generally Mindanao itself has pockets in it where there's rebel areas. So things aren't particularly well-regulated in this area. So it's no surprise about the illegal logging. We were talking to people here who said that it's not just the logging that's the problem, it's also the fact that the deforestation brings with it a lot of mud because the soil erodes easily. And that was part of the problem because the mud was at the bottom of the rivers, which made it much easier for the rivers banks to burst with those heavy rains.

Werman: Finally, Kate, I guess mass burials are expected to start today where you are. That's a grim prospect. I'm wondering is it happening now and how is that affecting the mood of people there in Mindanao?

McGeown: It is, yes, I mean it's a very difficult subject and it's something that the local authorities have said they really have to do because there are just so many bodies. There was a bit of an outcry when they initially said this, and so they're making a specially constructed big grave that the bodies are going to be put into individually. The aim I think is that if identification is needed later to run it might be possible to do that, but certainly for people looking for loved ones it's just yet another thing because they're obviously, they see it as a race against time to find their loved ones before they're buried in one of these mass graves.

Werman: The BBC's Kate McGeown speaking to us from Mindanao Island in the Philippines, a region ravaged this weekend by a tropical storm.