By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
CATEEL, DAVAO ORIENTAL–It is a scene straight from a post-apocalyptic movie.
Fallen tree trunks, mostly coconut palms, line up the hills like scattered matchsticks mysteriously leaning in a single direction.
The trees left standing are no better and hardly alive. Their leaves are twisted and splayed in that same direction–the track of strong winds brought by Typhoon Pablo (internationally, Bopha).
The remaining palm leaves can be called lucky. The other trees are barren, shook of their leaves.
Everywhere you turn on the roads of Davao Oriental is evidence of the wrath that passed through Mindanao.
The analogies do not end as you approach the coastal town of Cateel (pronounced kati-EEL).
With trees out of the way, all you see is carnage.
Houses crushed or overturned like cardboard, their contents spilled or exposed. Fields of banana saplings abruptly stunted in growth. Piles of twisted metal where covered courts or towers once stood.
A van is stopped as it traverses this succession of desolation.
Meters in front, two men hack axes at a leafless two-storey-tall tree. A rope encircles the dead trunk as a group of men wait to pull it down.
The van waits for the fall, its passengers getting off to the stinging heat of the late morning sun.
Past the fallen tree, the van reaches the town’s plaza. Or at least what’s left of it.
Our reporter Chiara Zambrano describes it on TV: “It was as if someone lifted the entire town up and then dropped it.”
At the center of the plaza stands a statue of Dr. Jose Rizal on a pedestal.
Aside from a broken transmission tower, it is the tallest body in sight. Rizal’s right arm is outstretched, as if calling attention to the destruction around him.
The plaza is strewn not only with fallen trunks and chunks of leaves, but remnants of the park it once was: bent lampposts devoid of their lamps, and metal benches dislodged from their cement bases.
Many familiar structures around the plaza still remain—roofless nonetheless. The roads are the only clear space in the place, but that was only after they were unclogged of debris.
Tossed and turned as if by the whims of a playful cosmic child, Cateel is a shell of its former self. All it took was a storm named Pablo.
Pablo was feared to be another tragic finish to an eventful year, mimicking the onslaught of Typhoon Sendong nearly a year ago.
Tropical storms lacing through the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao are a rarity. Most of them are usually pulled upward to the direction of Taiwan or Indo-china.
But as it came close, weather services predicted Pablo to be a super typhoon. Warnings grew dimmer, especially for the country’s eastern seaboard.
At first, disaster management officials slowly breathed sighs of relief as reports of few or no fatalities arrived. It seemed the lessons of past storms were finally learned.
Until authorities and reporters learned of New Bataan and Cateel.
New Bataan was inundated with a landslide and debris flow, hitting even supposed evacuation centers. Its dead quickly grew to 300, with more than that still being searched for.
ABS-CBN crews which first welcomed Pablo at Agusan Del Sur and Leyte were diverted to the two towns.
Cateel’s tragedy is more than just lost life–over 155 were killed here. Worse is its lost beauty.
Cateel is Davao Oriental’s oldest settlement, established during the American occupation.
Esther Marquez shares some shots she took of the plaza area weeks back. On vacation from abroad, her family’s house is one of few nearly intact–minus a roof.
Now the municipal hall is hardly recognizable. The plaza’s biggest landmark, St. James the Apostle Church had its roof blown away, its pews upended with rage, and its metal walls knocked down.
More noticeably, the trees and greenery are gone.
Some of the two-floor buildings nearby no longer have their second floors. Near the beach, residents walked up on one such floor to catch just a hint of cellular signal.
Other than those very few high places, the entire area is a mobile dead spot.
Perhaps the grimmest picture of Pablo’s death and destruction is at one of Cateel’s shores.
The town and the province boast of a beautiful coastline, the waves of the East Philippine Sea tumbling at it angrily.
But this shore not far from the plaza is littered with a junkyard of lumber and tree trunks as far as the eye could see.
Locals hop from wood to wood, looking for good timber to sell or use. Two men sift through a pile of washed coconuts, prying them open to dry.
Adjacent to it is the town cemetery, which was not also spared. Some of its crypts were shoved to the beach, others thrown open.
In one, a coffin is exposed to the elements. Pieces of clothing are scattered under the rubble.
At the middle are dozens of week-old graves, the soil in well-smoothed or haphazardly-done heaps. Three men squat around a newly-dug mound, mourning a newly-buried friend.
Small wooden or granite crosses mark each mound. Dwarfing them all is a thin giant cross.
While the days are scorching hot, occasional rains pour down unexpectedly.
It is worse for residents who have no roofs. Some obtain plastic tarpaulins for momentary house covers.
Rainwater has another use, since clean water only comes from the few homes with deep wells.
Meanwhile, visiting soldiers, policemen, and even media workers have pitched tents at the still-littered plaza.
Power lines are struck down, and only a week after Pablo have teams from electric companies been arriving to put up new ones.
For now, the sole sources of electricity are the satellite setups of the TV networks, where locals ask for outlets to charge their cell phones.
At night, television lights and the random bonfire provide some illumination.
Once the TV crews pack up and their generators go off for the day, Cateel goes dark and silent.
A clear sky of stars is the sole consolation in the moonless night–a little inspiration for an uncertain future.
(UPDATE: As of Dec. 16, streetlights have returned courtesy of a generator, but only for a few hours each night.)