x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Christmas washed out in Calamba, two months after the storms

A neighbourhood usually decked out with lights as a tourist attraction at this time of year still has large areas under water

Nimfa Tan Gana seen in one of the flooded areas in the Lingga barangay of Calamba, 54km south-east of Manila.
Nimfa Tan Gana seen in one of the flooded areas in the Lingga barangay of Calamba, 54km south-east of Manila.

CALAMBA, Philippines // The street Sonny Mendoza used to live on still looks like a canal, more than two months since a lake nearby overflowed and flooded his neighbourhood. Mr Mendoza, a 49-year-old auto-rickshaw driver with six children, saw his home destroyed and now sleeps on a basketball court. Dozens of other evacuees are living alongside him in makeshift shelters, stuck there until the waters recede and they rebuild their homes. "I'm sad," he said. "I cannot go back to my home because it's beyond repair."

Calamba, a city of 360,000 people 54km south-east of Manila, was hit by the storms of late September when Laguna de Bay, the Philippines' largest lake, overflowed. Hundreds of families in the barangay or district of Lingga, where Mr Mendoza lives, were evacuated from their homes when the waters rose. First they were sent to a school, then to the grounds of a church before, last month, those remaining were shifted to the basketball court.

"They've lost their livelihoods," said Herley Sabidor, the secretary of the Lingga barangay. "The sanitation around the evacuation centre is not that good and they're only eating twice a day because of the scarcity of food." Manila was swamped by 117mm of rain, more than a month's worth, in only six hours in late September when Tropical Storm Ketsana lashed Luzon, the country's largest island. The capital suffered its worst flooding in four decades as more than 900 people died, and damage said to exceed US$1billion (Dh3.67bn) was caused.

Compounding the misery of locals, Typhoon Mirinae a month later saw further heavy rains and 12 deaths. Piles of accumulated rubbish, blocked drains and an unregulated growth of squatter settlements beside waterways were blamed for much of the flooding in the capital. At Lingga, a pedestrian boulevard lined with street lights that used to jut out into the lake is still under water and is around 50 metres away from dry land. "That was our baywalk," said Nimfa Tan Gana, 54, a local nurse, pointing to the boulevard. "We used to have exercises there."

Indicating a metal pyramid-shaped structure next to the boulevard, Mrs Gana said it would normally be covered with decorations and turned into a Christmas tree early each December. That will not be happening this year. "It was a tourist spot. Now it's unrecognisable," she said. Makeshift bridges made from bamboo poles lashed together have been laid down to let residents walk the streets. Some locals prefer to just wade through the water.

Water levels have dropped considerably from their peak, and many have returned to their homes. However, it is likely to be weeks before the floodwaters recede completely to allow all residents to return home or to start rebuilding what is left of where they used to live. "Maybe it will be a month to two months to go," Mrs Gana said, looking across a street still submerged in water. "Their houses are still under water. Not only under water, but also mud. Now, the problem is the rehabilitation of the place.

"Some of them need wood for the repair of their houses. Some of them need cement for construction." The United States Agency for International Development and the British non-governmental organisation Oxfam, as well as government organisations and other groups, have provided assistance to the area, setting up temporary toilets for refugees. There have been outbreaks of water-borne diseases in the wake of the flooding.

Mrs Gana, who has worked in the community for more than three decades, has seen the area hit by floods several times. "The first time I saw this kind of catastrophe was in 1972," she said. "It's repeated every six to 10 years. This year and 2000 were the worst." Calamba has suffered particularly because a drainage channel due to link Laguna de Bay with Manila Bay, which extends to the South China Sea, has not been built. That means lakeside residents of the city, which is famous as the birthplace of Jose Rizal, considered the Philippines' national hero for his resistance to Spanish rule, remain acutely vulnerable when storms next strike the country.

Meanwhile, Mr Mendoza is left living in a shack on the local basketball court, sleeping on a multicoloured mat with a fan nearby to keep him cool. "I cannot feel it's Christmas in the Philippines here because of the situation," he said. @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae