MALACANANG, December 29, 2003
(STAR) President Arroyo shut down yesterday the emergency command center at Malacañang after tropical depression "Zigzag" weakened into a low pressure area.

Last Saturday, Mrs. Arroyo activated the command center to monitor any possible landslide that might again hit Southern Leyte and the Surigao provinces.

Mrs. Arroyo said the operations at the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) headquarters will continue until Zigzag leaves the country.

"Let us aim for a zero casualty count," she said. "Let us learn from our lessons in disaster management and safeguard public safety and welfare."

As a precaution against landslides, Mrs. Arroyo had ordered the evacuation of people living on mountainsides in Southern Leyte, Samar, and other provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao.

Mrs. Arroyo said she had been monitoring Zigzag from the command center in Malacañang as early as 3 a.m. yesterday, when it was already on the boundary of Bohol and Camiguin island.

On the other hand, Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita said there had been no casualty from Zigzag, and that passengers stranded in Sorsogon have been allowed to proceed with their trip.

The NDCC headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City and the various regional disaster coordinating councils will continue to operate for 24 hours while Zigzag remains in the country. — Marvin Sy


With the goal of a "zero casualty" count, President Arroyo ordered yesterday the forced evacuation of mountainside residents in Leyte, Samar and other provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao that are prone to deadly landslides as tropical depression "Zigzag" entered the Philippine area of responsibility.

These mountainous areas in the central and southern Philippines are home to coconut planters and farmers.

The President ordered the local government executives in these areas "to start evacuation of residents in areas deemed prone to landslides and flash floods in order to prevent the occurrence of another tragedy in Leyte and Caraga amid the latest weather forecast of rains that will hit the Visayas and Mindanao.

Mrs. Arroyo announced her directives at the end of an emergency meeting of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) at Malacañang.

"Let us aim for a zero casualty count," she said. "Let us learn from our lessons in disaster management and safeguard public safety and welfare." The President has instructed the NDCC, chaired by Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita, to also "pre-position food and medical supplies in areas that could be isolated."

Also present at the NDCC meeting yesterday were Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman and Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo Jr.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) is in charge of collecting and distributing relief goods for the evacuation centers, while the President has tapped the Department of Agriculture to assist farmers forced to comply with law prohibiting the planting of crops on 18-degree mountain slopes that are susceptible to landslides.

"Let us face these challenges with fortitude, resiliency and preparedness," the President said.

While local government disaster management councils are already devolved, the President said she has set up a command center at the Palace Guesthouse, where she can personally monitor the evacuation centers.

The President also said the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) reported that Zigzag is not considered a strong typhoon, since it was monitored to be packing winds of only 55 kilometers per hour.

However, "tropical storms tend to pour continuous rains, so that is what we have to watch out for," she said.

This new rainfall is expected to arrive on top of previous rains dumped on Leyte and Caraga by the inter-tropical convergence zone that loosened soil and triggered landslides there — posing yet another threat to residents of these landslide-prone areas.

The NDCC reported that the casualty count of the Leyte and Caraga landslides is 198 people killed, 57 injured and 26 missing. Of the dead, the NDCC said 31 remain unidentified

The President said Zigzag is expected to hit the islands of Surigao and Samar at 8 p.m. last night, reach the middle of the Visayas region by Monday morning and hit Western Mindanao by nightfall Monday.

"That is why we have to start the evacuation now," she said, but did not say how many families or residents would have to be forcibly evacuated from their mountainside homes.

The President said she would call every local government executive whose areas of jurisdiction lie along the storm’s path to issue this order.

Zigzag will pass through the southern tip of the province of Samar, cut across two-thirds of Leyte island, pass over the whole province of Bohol, two-thirds of Cebu and Negros Oriental, which makes up two-thirds of the island of Negros. The storm will also pass through the provinces of Surigao del Norte, Agusan del Norte, Misamis Oriental and, possibly the provinces of Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Misamis Occidental, Basilan island and Maguindanao.

Landslides And Yuletide Cheer

On Christmas Eve, volunteers and officials of the Provincial Disaster Coordinating Council (PDCC) as the DSWD found themselves distributing more than just the usual Yuletide cheer — they gifted the residents of landslide-hit areas of Southern Leyte with a new lease on life.

In the aftermath of the tragic landslides that hit the area just days before Christmas, volunteers and disaster management officials worked overtime to ensure that goods and medicines reached families affected by the calamity.

While families in safer areas enjoyed the traditional Noche Buena, PDCC and DSWD volunteers, officials and staff were packing and shipping food, medicines and vital supplies through Gov. Rosette Lerias.

They also tenaciously made repeated efforts to penetrate areas cut off from rescue and relief teams by the landslides. "They exemplified the true meaning of Christmas just to see to it that the needed goods and medicines will be delivered to the areas that our rescue teams have not been able to penetrate," Soliman said.

Soliman said that had these "unsung heroes" not kept up their "determination," reaching all areas affected by the landslides would have been impossible, since rescue teams have been experiencing difficulty reaching survivors cut off by the deluges of mud and rock.

"What the rescuers did was a tremendous job and this is all because of their determination," she said, recalling how Lerias led her volunteers through waist-deep mud just to reach survivors of the calamity.

"It is, indeed a testimony to the leadership of Governor Lerias in that she herself led the rescue, recovery and relief efforts against all odds," Soliman said.

At least 500 families from many barangays in the towns of San Ricardo and San Francisco need food and other supplies, including clothing and medicines, she added.

She also said San Ricado was the most devastated area, while San Francisco posted the highest number of deaths.

Recalling the efforts of the PDCC, DSWD and the Department of Health (DOH), Soliman said Lerias immediately dispatched and mobilized the rescue teams of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on the morning of Dec. 20 to retrieve the bodies of those who died in the calamity and to care for survivors.

That night, the combined rescue teams of the DOH, DSWD and the PDCC used motorcycles to ferry equipment and supplies needed to dig through the landslides and reach survivors.

The President visited Southern Leyte and provided financial assistance to 89-year-old Lucrecio Labandia Sr. of San Francisco.

"The rescuers found him (Labandia) with his head resting on a Holy Bible as pillow," Soliman said. "The President immediately went there to provide him with assistance for his medical expenses."

Labandia is recuperating at the San Francisco health center in Poblacion and is expected to recover soon, Soliman said. – Marichu Villanueva

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved