First published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on April 21-22, 1992.
Ormoc Revisited


ORMOC, Leyte — Five months after the flood that claimed over 2,000 of its residents in 1991, Isla Verde is hot and dry. On both sides of the islet, the Anilao River has become a harmless stream. In the shade, half-naked men talk idly about how the water came and killed their families.

On the morning of November 5, 1991, water from a heavy rainfall roared down from the surrounding hills carrying logs and uprooted trees, and engulfed Isla Verde and much of Ormoc. Isla Verde used to be a crowded community of about 2,500 before the great Ormoc flood almost completely wiped it out.

According to the remaining residents of Isla Verde, only about 200 people here survived.

Since then, the government has said Isla Verde should never have been inhabited in the first place. But despite warnings that it is one of the most dangerous places in the city to live in, some 20 families have returned, along with a few migrants to Ormoc who were displaced by floods elsewhere in Leyte. They say their number is increasing.

Rosendo Lumanta, 57, a former farmer who moved his family to Isla Verde 30 years ago, survived the big flood by climbing a coconut tress after the roof his family was standing on was swept away. Twenty-two other survivors had climbed the same tree. His wife, a daughter and tow grandchildren couldn't hold on. They were among the 2,300 or so dead from Isla Verde alone, a sand strip of land that divides The Anilao River into two channels. Like his other neighbors who have returned, Rosendo believes the tragedy was a freak that is unlikely to happen.

A Warning to Other Communities
The city government counted 4,875 dead in Ormoc, but according to Mayor Victoria Locsin, remains of bodies were still found after the official count. As one of the country's worst natural disasters, the tragedy in Ormoc has been invoked across the nation as a warning to other ecologically devastated communities.

Here in Ormoc, however, most of the survivors have been too preoccupied with trying to piece their lives together to heed any words of caution. Finding the evacuation camps too crowded and resettlement slow, Lumanta has returned to Isla Verde with one daughter and her family. "This is where my family died and this is where I want to grow old. I don't want to live anywhere else." He says, wiping his eyes with a dirty towel.

Isla Verde is only one of this coastal city's many hazardous areas, where the settlement of people is prohibited by law. Along riverbanks around the city, where many residents were swept away by rampaging floodwaters, people are back. "We have been discouraging people not to move back there, but they have been hard-headed," says Dr. Gregorio Yrastorza Jr., Ormoc councilor and the chairman of the City Disaster or Coordinating Council (CDCC). "But you also can't tell them to leave if you don't have an alternative yet for families living in high-risk areas."

The city planned to resettle 2,668 Ormoc families displaced by the flood, and several hectares were purchased for the purpose with donations from private organizations. But negotiations for some of the land bogged down because, city officials say, some landowners raised the price at the last minute. In one instance, according to Yrastorza, representatives of the Makati Business Club were on the verge of buying nearly eight hectares of land about two kilometers outside the city when the owners abruptly jacked up the price from P60 per square meter to P65.

Even some flood victims who have been offered new lots have returned to rebuild their homes on the old sites. "The resettlement site is too small and too crowded," says Alfred Casicas, a father of four who lives with his family on the riverbank across from Isla Verde.

Even with the year's rainy season only a few months away, residents living in dangerous areas tempered their fears with a self-assurance that such a tragedy could happen only once in their lives. "What happened here was a buhawi (whirlwind)," says Jimmy Castillo, a resident of Isla Verde. "It was very rare. It never happened here before, and it won't happen again."

A Disaster Waiting to Happen
Experts who have studied the disaster disagree. The environment of Ormoc is even more critical now because of what happened," says Rosalio Goze, Eastern Visayas director for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) at the time of the flood and the Manila-based coordinator of the government's Oplan Sagip Gubat (Operation Save the Forest). "We could have the same kind of disaster with only half as much rain. And remember, that part of the country is hit by an average of five typhoons a year. We can never be sure that it won't happen again."

Experts now say that even before the flood, it should have been obvious that Ormoc was a natural disaster waiting to happen. Located on the delta where the Anilao and Malbasag Rivers meet, Ormoc was surrounded by ills that had been cleared of all its vegetation to make way for sugar cane. The soil around Ormoc was also naturally loose and unsuitable. When heavy rain fell on the hills, little of the water was absorbed or held back by the watershed. The rest poured into the city, quickly overflowing the fragile banks of the two rivers and leaving no time for most people to evacuate.

A DENR study points out that with adequate forest cover on the watershed, the flood would have been no more than four feet deep. The waters that killed thousands rose ten feet in about three hours.

Experts say the root causes of the flashflood were man-made. In particular, they cite the conversion of forest lands into sugar cane plantations, a process that began in 1952. That was the year when a proclamation by then President Elpidio Quirino reclassified all lands with less than 18 degree slopes as "alienable and disposable," meaning they could be privately owned. But the conversion of Ormoc's watershed from trees to sugar accelerated and was completed in the late 1970s when world prices of sugar peaked.

Tests by the DENR have shown that soil planted to sugar cane has a very low capacity for absorbing water — much lower, for example, than the soil underneath cogon grass. Today, according to records of the DENR, nearly 100 percent of the immediate watershed of Ormoc, an area of 4,500 hectares, is owned by six sugar-planting families, including the Larrazabals, the family of the incumbent mayor, Victoria L. Locsin.

Landowners as Part of Solution
But as the private landowners are part of the problem, they are also said to be part of the solution. In separate reports on the disaster, three government line agencies and a US Agency for International Development (USAID) engineering team, in addition to several private organizations and consultants, have all urged the immediate reforestation of Ormoc's ruined watershed. Environment officials argue that since the watershed is private land, only the landowners can decide when and where reforestations should begin.

Yet there is no indication that this task is being taken seriously by either Ormoc's landed elite or the city government. Says Locsin: "The landowners are waiting for the DENR to assist them and call their attention."

DENR Secretary Fulgencio Factoran Jr. insists, however, that under the new local government code, local officials must take the lead in the city's reforestation drive, while line agencies such as his provide technical support. "They (local officials) have more power now to do something," says Factoran. "But if there is no political will, wala."

National officials say the problem in Ormoc is that the landowners are reluctant to convert profitable sugar lands back to forest. "The economy there depends on sugar," says Rosalio Goze, the former DENR director for Eastern Visayas. "But it's a trade-off. The question should be whether they want to prevent a disaster or not."

City officials say it's not that simple. "Of course, given the choice between the survival of the city and economic interests, we will choose survival. But that is easier said than done," says Dr. Yrastorza, the city councilor in charge of disaster rehabilitation. "Some of these proposals (for reforestation) are basically telling the landowners, "We will make you poor."

A Department of Agriculture recommendation for the total reforestation of Ormoc's 4,500-hectare watershed is dismissed by Yrastorza as "very drastic."

"We are still waiting for a plan for reforestation that will not disrupt the economy," he says. "To make reforestation attractive, the landowners must be convinced that the economic value of the trees will be commensurate to the value of the sugar cane."

Yrastorza suggests a reforestation plan that would place trees between sugar fields. But Jose Alfaro, a local bank manager and founder of SOS Earth, an Ormoc-based environmental organization, says he believes any change in the status quo would be considered too drastic for the landowners. "Turning everything back to forests may not be viable," he says. "But the least that should be done is to start planting trees and shrubs along riverbanks and mountain ridges. The sugar planters should also start shifting to contour farming, to preserve the slopes of the mountains. But you can't change the farming system without disturbing the economy. In other words, you can't have your cake and eat it too."

As proof of what he says is a lack of seriousness toward reforestation, Alfaro cites the city's P1.5 million budget allocation for disaster rehabilitation. "Not a single item went to reforestation. Everything is going to infrastructure. It's election time."

Mayor Locsin confirms the lack of city funding for reforestation, but remarks that Ormoc has already received many seedling donations and is only waiting for Japanese assistance to support its reforestation program. The DENR has proposed the conversion of the steepest 30 percent of the watershed back to trees and shift to contour farming, or terracing, on the sugar plantations, a move that would entail enormous expense.

"We are expecting the DENR to come up with a reforestation plan that is practical," says Yrastorza. "Convincing the landowners is a problem. What we're trying to come up with is a solution that they will be happy with, realizing that it is good for the majority."

A 'Legal' Ecological Destruction
What if the landowners aren't convinced? Factoran explains that government's hands are tied. "Expropriation of the land is something you can do as a legal option," he says. "But that's not viable because you have to pay them a fair market value. With the kind of money our government has, and with the kind of Congress we have, who will appropriate funds for that?" He adds that the only realistic approach is to "put pressure on them. And how do you put pressure on the rich? By getting the poor who are plenty to demonstrate. If there is another flood, the poor will be the first to die. This is agrarian reform redux. You see it again and again and again."

Based on real estate records in Ormoc obtained by the DENR, the families owning most of the land comprising Ormoc's watershed are the Larrazabals, the Seraficas, the Torreses, the Torrevillases, the Pongos, and the Tans. The Larrazabal family owns most, nearly 16 percent, or about 413 hectares.

"The landowners may appear like culprits now," says Gary Tengco, a researcher with the Environment Research Division of the Manila Observatory. "But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the law legitimized the conversion of the watershed into sugar plantations. The owners claims on the watershed is legal…The law on land classification didn't consider the watersheds. Having seen what can happen, we need to put ecological considerations in the law."

In the aftermath of Ormoc's tragedy, however, lawmakers in Manila have tended to castigate "illegal orders," rather than initiate reform in a system that legalized the destruction of Ormoc's delicate ecosystem.

Ormoc residents who are once again living along the path of deadly waters seem oblivious to the issues that could determine their fate. "We are prepared now to evacuate at anytime," says Alfred Casicas, who moved his family back to the banks of the Anilao River. "But we don't think we will see that kind of flood again."

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