FAST BACKWARD: Storm of Malalag, 1891

Fast Backward by Antonio V. FigueroaExperiencing freak storms entering Davao gulf is not an altogether rare phenomenon. In the annals of the Manila Observatory and in missionary chronicles, typhoons occasionally entered their accounts, and almost always the outcomes were in extreme devastation.

On May 6, 1891, the town of Malalag, then known as Mercedes, was devastated by a strong wind attributed to a typhoon.  A note received by Fr. Mateo Gisbert, S.J. three days after from a certain Maximo Dison, stated:

“Wind as strong as a typhoon blew yesterday and felled all the houses. The church has also fallen to the ground. Coconut trees, bananas, everything has been destroyed, In the fields, nothing left to eat. Pobres ang mga bag-ong binoñagan sa Pare [Pity the newly-baptized by Father!].”

Upon receipt of the extent of destruction, district governor Domingo M. Gijou promptly gathered all the elite, the principalia, of Davao and asked them to donate for the relief of the homeless and starving victims. The governor also gave away “two cavans of rice, two pieces of clothing, and an arroba of meat,” which, without delay, were shipped to Malalag.

For his part, Fr. Gisbert, who hastily left for Malalag, dispatched four sacks of rice, coconuts, four pieces of clothing and two cases of tobacco, which would be of help to the natives who were fond of masticating betel nut than consuming morisqueta (boiled rice).

In his letter dated June 12, 1891, Fr. Gisbert explained the severity of the devastation, attributing it in part to the non-preparedness of the population which was not accustomed to typhoon visits. Only two days earlier, the town was also hit by a strong earthquake. The priest’s report, written from Malalag, was heartrending:

“Built with love five years ago, the church is a heap of ruins. All the people’s houses have tumbled down. In one frightful night, everything fell. Inside the houses were their inhabitants, and with the pouring torrential rain, the flooded river spilling over its banks, some were stuck in the water until dawn, others were crushed under the ruins of their houses and drowned in the floor, still others were dragged by the waters down to the valley from the heights…

“As a result… of so much destruction and death, the waters here of the rivers and swamps formed after the typhoon smell terribly. I dare not drink water even from the Malalag River… Since the crops have been flattened, with absolutely nothing for people to chew; the bananas whose shoots were already coming out will not immediately bear fruit; nor will there be a harvest of rice or corn or camote, the people along the coast come to Kasilaran Bay to eat buri

“The first thing almost everyone does on arrival is to place the hand on the natked stomach, telling me it is empty. Convinced even before they open their mouth, the first thing I do is check he sack and immediately give them rice as they need it.”

More reliefs arrived in weeks to come. Fr. Cayetano Satorre, S.J. contributed two sacks of rice, while another sack was added by the district governor. But still these were not enough. To assist the hungry folks, Fr. Gisbert also gave them wire and hooks for fishing.

Prior to the destruction, the town of Malalag, two years after its creation as Mercedes, was already a flourishing suburb. Because of the plan to transfer the district governor’s office there, the government sent exiles to construct approved public works. Nevertheless, they were not able to convince the people of the locality to resettle from their mountain abodes for fear their ignorance and weakness would be exploited.

A year later, after the exiles had left, a small military contingent was sent to the area on orders of the governor-general in Manila. Even if the town returned to what it was before, populated and thriving, the plan to make it the district governor’s home was quashed. Interestingly, people from Piapi, an old barangay of Padada, Davao del Sur, started moving to Malalag after the military detachment was removed. The demographic expansion also led the adding of new roads in the town proper. Fr. Gisbert wrote:

“Since after the departure of the military detachment the big group of Piapi was merged with Malalag, a fifth [road] was added to the four streets already laid out. It is long, populated by residents who, like the others, have built ordinary houses and planted their orchards. With a good church, a teacher, a school, and town hall, I had the consolation of witnessing Malalag relived of its past misfortunes. This allowed me to pay attention to other new settlements.”

Through ration, which assured residents of food, the priest was able to enlist the support of the community in rebuilding the village hall, clearing the streets of debris, replanting the flattened farms, and repairing houses based on available resources, to name a few.

Of importance also to the cleric was extending help to the people in the forest who suffered most. Fr. Gisbert wrote that “many of them [were] killed when the violence of the hurricane felled the trees. Numerous horses and an infinite number of deer, monkeys, and wild boars drowned. An abundant harvest of wax and honey ready [for trade] this year was also lost. In the rivers fishes and eels died.”

Such was the destruction left behind by the tropical storm.