Survivors of devastating flash floods in the southern Philippines face growing threats from disease, officials warned yesterday, as the toll of dead and missing tops a thousand.
Some 44,000 people who fled as huge torrents swept away shantytowns five days ago are packed in evacuation camps with rudimentary facilities, but officials fear these sites could be potential breeding grounds for epidemics.
“We may be paying so much attention to the corpses we will ignore the evacuation centers,” Assistant Health Secretary Eric Tayag said in an interview on ABS-CBN television. “If there is any epidemic or threat to health, it will come from the evacuation centers.”
In recent days, local authorities in the hard-hit port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan have struggled to deal with the hundreds of dead, decomposing bodies and their overpowering stench.
Iligan on Tuesday began mass burials of identified victims, while Cagayan de Oro is preparing a swimming pool-size communal tomb at the local cemetery.
Officials of the two cities said the evacuation centers — mainly schools and gymnasiums — have escaped epidemics so far, though conditions remain chaotic due the shortage of skilled relief workers to run them.
Levy Villarin, health officer of Iligan, said the city’s tap water distribution facilities had been shut down to prevent possible contamination by floodwaters and fire trucks have to deliver water to 16 evacuation camps.
“The problem is we only have one or two toilets per school, and they have to cater to 3,000 or 4,000 users,” he said.
“In order to avoid epidemics we need clean water and portalets [portable toilets],” Villarin added.
Dante Pajo, a member of the Cagayan de Oro city council who is in charge of health matters, said there was not enough food or water for the more than 26,000 evacuees.
“The affected areas still don’t have water or electrical services. We have to bring water to them with firetrucks,” he said.
At a Cagayan de Oro gymnasium, 52-year-old grandmother Adela Campaner lined up for porridge in mid-morning to get her and her two grandchildren’s first meal for the day.
“I am ashamed that I have to beg for food,” she said, vowing to go back to their devastated riverside shantytown, called Consolacion, as soon as possible so she could resume normal life selling cooked food at a roadside restaurant.
Wearing a mismatched T-shirt and pants obtained from relief workers, she said she had not taken a bath for three days and was forced to retreat from the school’s toilet earlier in the day due to the repulsive smell.
The gym was filled to the rafters with people sleeping on mats and cardboard cartons.
“I want to get out of here,” said her son Rex Campaner, a 35-year-old security guard who said he had difficulty sleeping at night because of the noise from more than a thousand other evacuees.
“I would much prefer to live in miserable conditions in my own house,” he added.
The civil defense agency said that more than 348,000 people were affected by the storm with 276,000 people receiving emergency assistance, including 44,000 at evacuation centers. Many others that are getting government aid are sheltering with relatives.
Many of them cannot return home because their houses were destroyed by the flood and the government has said they would not be allowed to go back to potentially dangerous areas.