Remembering Guinsaugon: The Worst Landslide in Philippine History
The 15th anniversary of the Guinsaugon Landslide on February 17 quietly passed as an ordinary day for most Filipinos. But for the people of Guinsaugon in the little town of St. Bernard in Southern Leyte, it is an unforgettable event that scarred their lives forever.
It started on a rainy day on February 4. The skies were darkened by a prevalent weather system that would cause continuous rainfall over Leyte for two straight weeks. According to records, there were at least 10 minor mudslides that occurred during this period around St. Bernard with several casualties.
On the morning of February 17, villagers at Guinsaugon continued their busy lives. It was 10 a.m. and the elementary school in the village was preparing for the end of the school year the following month. At a nearby facility, women were commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Guinsaugon Women's Health Association.
It was 10:45 a.m. The villagers heard a thunderous, roaring sound. For the victims of the landslide, it was the last thing they heard.
Survivor Dario Libatan told DZMM of the experience. “It sounded like the mountain exploded, and the whole thing crumbled. I could not see any house standing anymore.”
Guinsaugon had a population of Over 1,800 people, according to the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center (CDRC) and Leyte Center for Development (LCDE). After the landslide, more than half of the population had gone. Reports on the death toll vary from 1,126 to over 1,800.
Eugene Pilo, another survivor, lost his wife and children, along with all of his neighbors. “So many died. Our village is gone, everything was buried in mud. All the people are gone,” he told GMA.
Among the dead were 246 students from the elementary school. Seven of their teachers also perished in the tragedy. The women who were commemorating the anniversary of their health association also perished.
What Caused the Guinsaugon Landslide in 2006
According to official reports, the Guinsaugon Landslide was triggered by a minor earthquake (magnitude 2.6 on the Richter scale), but its effects were exacerbated by the 10-day period of heavy rainfall.
Guinsaugon had received 1,200 millimeters of rainfall from February 4 to 14, 2006. By contrast, Typhoon Ondoy, which submerged swathes of Luzon and parts of Metro Manila in 2009, dumped 448.5 millimeters of rainfall in less than 24 hours, which is the average amount of rainfall Metro Manila receives in a month.
In a post-disaster report, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) pinpointed the cause of the landslide:
“Geologically, St. Bernard is underlain by volcanic rocks characterized by intense fracturing and weathering…this makes it unstable and susceptible to mass movement.”
According to the DENR, Guinsaugon possessed all three major factors of a landslide: a weak integrity of the bedrock, a steep slope, and heavy rainfall.
“The rocks in the area are badly broken or fragmented, which are then prone to weathering and erosion. Constant rainfall could make water seep into the fractures of the rock mass and cause landslides,” it added.
Rescue and Retrieval Operations in Guinsaugaon
The original Guinsaugon village, which was buried in the landslide, was located in a remote part of Southern Leyte.
Guinsaugon was a farming village located at the foot of Mount Can-abag (also called Mt. Guinsaugon). It was 10 kilometers away from the town center. Rescuers had a challenging time rescuing people and retrieving victims. The continuous rain during the operations made their operations more difficult.
Around 6,000 American soldiers, who were taking part in the Balikatan Exercises in Mindanao, were ordered to assist in the rescue operations. The United States immediately sent three naval vessels to the area to provide assistance: the USS Curtis Wilbur, USS Essex, and USS Harpers Ferry. It was the U.S. Navy that took some of the first aerial photos of ground zero.
Aerial Photo of the Guinsaugon Landslide Taken by the U.S. Navy
Despite the massive scale of the search and rescue operations, very few survivors were found. Of the 1,800 residents of Guinsagon, only 53 survivors were counted, according to the Associated Press.
“We had 30 villages before, now we only have 29,” said Eulogio Dala, municipal assessor for Guinsaugon, to The New York Times.
The scar of the Guinsaugon Landslide on the mountainside is barely visible today. A lush forest has grown over the site, burying traces of the disaster. But for those who were left behind by their families, February 17 is always a painful reminder of the day nature erased a whole village and its inhabitants from the face of the earth.