ORMOC, PHILIPPINES – More than 25 years after being devastated by a massive flash flood that claimed the lives of thousands of residents, the central Philippine city of Ormoc has revived its sense of safety thanks to the ongoing effects of Japan-funded flood-mitigation projects.
While memories of the November 1991 tragedy caused by Tropical Storm Thelma remain strong for the people of Ormoc, located nearly 1,000 km south of Manila on Leyte island, many said they have stopped worrying about the recurrence of killer floods after the Japan International Cooperation Agency completed ¥3.321 billion worth of projects there more than 15 years ago.
“It’s a big help to the people of Ormoc,” Sofronio Cayanong, 67, a local village councilor, told Kyodo News during a recent monitoring trip of the JICA-funded projects in the city.
“In fact, no flash flood (has) happened here … because the water has a wider area to flow. The projects (have saved) the people of Ormoc from another flash flood,” he said.
Between 1997 and 2001, JICA, through a grant, built four bridges and three slit dams to mitigate floods and landslides. It also facilitated the widening of the city’s main rivers of Anilao and Malbasag, and the relocation of residents from the riverbanks.
The city also reforested an upland area that in previous decades was utilized mainly for sugarcane and rice plantations.
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the tragedy on Nov. 5 last year, local and Japanese officials held a commemorative program to honor the estimated 8,000 people who died and to celebrate the city’s resilience to disasters in recent times.
Irwin Antonio, a provincial government engineer who took part in the JICA projects, attributed the high death toll and massive damage caused by the 1991 flash flood to the combined effects of unusually heavy rain, the damming of rainwater in the upland areas and the proliferation of illegal settlers along the riverbanks.
“The worst happened at exactly 12 noon (on Nov. 5, 1991). Within 30 minutes, the entire Ormoc city was devastated,” Antonio told a group of JICA volunteers who took part in the project monitoring work.
Following the completion of the projects in 2001, the city formed the Flood Mitigation Committee to monitor the infrastructure and promote other disaster preparedness measures.
In his 25th anniversary remarks, Japanese Ambassador Kazuhide Ishikawa thanked the people of Ormoc “for their great effort in taking care of the facilities” built with Japanese assistance.
He noted that the overall project in the city was “often taken up as the ‘best practice’ of our official development assistance projects in the Philippines” for its effectiveness as well as maintenance work.
Antonio said that when Ormoc was hit by severe Tropical Storm Koni in 2003 and Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, its two main rivers did not overflow, proving the JICA projects’ effectiveness in controlling floods.
Jennifer Lunzaga, 43, a resident near the Anilao River and a survivor of the killer flash floods, said, “We now feel safe living near the river. We are not afraid anymore because the river has been widened. Since … that 1991 tragedy until now, we don’t experience that kind of flooding anymore.”
Dioscoro Loreto, 62, one of those relocated to the safer village of Lao, shares Lunzaga’s sense of safety, although he complains that their new community is partially inundated during rainy days.
Ormoc Mayor Richard Gomez assured the visiting JICA officials and volunteers that his government was “taking good care of the flood mitigation projects,” citing the installation of lamps along the riverbanks and improved disaster risk-reduction programs.
“We are always getting ready for something that we do not know is coming. We do not know when disaster will strike us,” Gomez said.
JICA flood management expert Takeshi Muronaga said he was satisfied with the maintenance work on the projects, saying the facilities “now have enough capability to accommodate flooding.”
“Once we believe the facilities are no longer any good, maybe we’ll talk directly to the Ormoc mayor and the Department of Public Works. But at this moment, I’m not concerned,” he told Kyodo News.
Gomez described his city of over 200,000 people as “so vastly different from the horrific scenes spawned by the flood,” and as a vibrant one “full of potential and promise.”
“With the flood mitigation project, people in our city can rest easy knowing they are safe from future floods,” he said, adding that the city is proceeding with development plans such as constructing more bridges to address traffic problems.
The impact of JICA’s projects is so greatly felt in Ormoc that a baby girl born there in 2000 was named after the aid agency. Jaica Marie Dumalan was born at the height of the construction of the projects, including one that involved her engineer father.
“She is probably the only person in the world named after JICA,” Narciso, 54, said of his daughter, explaining that he inserted the letter “a” in her first name “to add a girly sound to it.”
Jaica said she learned a lot about JICA when a teacher assigned her and her classmates to look into the origin of their names. “I really became proud of (my name), especially because it is associated (with) Japan’s international aid agency,” she said.
The city has even named a street, which leads to a typhoon victim resettlement area, after Japanese engineer Makoto Migita, who worked on the projects.
“I wish that JICA’s cooperation with Ormoc will remain as an enduring legacy and symbol of the mutual friendship between the Philippines and Japan,” Susumu Ito, JICA’s chief representative to the country, said during the anniversary commemoration.