Floods: Benue communities struggle to regain life
• Women and children bear the pains of devastations
By Onche Odeh, Head Science & Education ?
The road to recovery for most of the communities in Benue state that were affected by the deadly floods of last year may still be farther as they now battle several challenges that are direct consequences of the floods.
That has become even more challenging for women and children in communities in Agatu, Apa, Makurdi, Otukpo, Guma, Logo, Tarka and Kasina-Ala local where over 200,000 persons were displaced by the floods that poured out in September of 2012.
In Agatu, Daily Independent found that about 38 villages spread across six communities in the LGA were the most devastated by the historic deadly floods that wreaked havocs across various states in the country.
According to residents, the floods brought out the poor state of infrastructure in the affected areas.
Vice Chairman of Agatu LGA, Idris Audu Ojimbili, who could not hold back emotions as he narrates his experience of the flood, told Daily Independent in Obagaji that Agatu was taken unawares by the floods.
“To some of our very old ones, the floods were not a surprise, but to me and majority of the people that are around now, it was a thing that we have never seen or ever imagined,” Ojimbili who is obviously in his mid ages disclosed.
The people were obviously taken unawares by the waters, as they watched helplessly while the water swept their homes and belongings away helplessly.
According to Ojimbili, “The signs were there. They government and experts were constantly on the radio to announce that a fierce amount of rainfall was on its way. So the information was there.”
“Agreed, the people may have taken the announcement for granted. However, the level of infrastructure development in Agatu is very poor. This has made the environment vulnerable and hard for the people to do otherwise,” Ojimbili said.
He said, “Our roads are in terrible conditions and it is hard to see well constructed drainages that could channel the volume of water flow that the flood brought on us. In fact we were lucky not to get a total wash out.”
This was alluded to by other victims of the flood that spoke in separate interviews.
Honourable Agogo Dele, a Supervisory Councilor on Special Duties at Agatu LG council.
Dele was away to Makurdi on a political trip when he got news that a different kind of rain was washing houses away, and that his house was threatened.
Speaking to Daily Independent, he said his immediate concern was for Aishatu, his nine months pregnant wife, Omata, his other wife who is nursing a five months old baby and the entire household of about 20, mostly children with the oldest being 15 years.
By the time he returned, what was once a home for him and his family was standing in ruins and buried in the belly of a large puddle of water.
“The water started coming like a joke and we thought it would go back soon,” Aishatu who gave birth three days after the floods swept away their home alongside others in Okoklo said.
Fisherman, Shehu Audu, head of a 15 member family in Oweto said his family lived on an elevated barn in the house made mostly of bricks for three days.
“When it became obvious that the waters would not go back, we had to raise the barn (mostly used for food storage) to a reasonable level above the waters. My family stayed on this barn for three days,” Shehu disclosed.
These were the worse three days in the lives of the Shehus and some other families in the affected community.
“We were kept on the barn alongside the domestic animals. We were using waters from the pool of flood waters in the house to shower, cook and as drinking water,” one of Shehu’s wives told Daily Independent.
“The children would defecate on the barn, which served as our kitchen and everything,” she further narrated.
Shehu said gathering food to feed the family was as tough as processing it.
“We would place some metal roofing sheets on the mostly wooden barn and make fires for cooking on it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Shehu and some of the fairly grown children would go out through the waters in the day to fish for food for the family, while the others would hang on the barn for most of the day until they return from the fields.
“I was on the barn with my children for three days before a boat was brought to move us out of the place,” Omata, the young nursing mother of a five month old baby disclosed.
“At a time I was so frightened that I did not know when I threw my baby into the water,” she said. At that time, Aishatu, who was almost due for delivery was moved to a hospital in Usha, near Nasarawa state, being the closest health facility. Three days after, she put to bed.
While on the barn, the Shehu and Deles suffered countless bouts of illnesses.
“My two pregnant wives were frequently falling ill. They vomited frequently because of the bad smell of the waters and the children were constantly experiencing high fever and stomach aches too,” Shehu said.
For the children, it looked like the kind of rains they wanted when it started. But the next two days would show that it was not the one to joke with.
“We were jumping in and out of the water when it started coming, but in the next two days it became so much that were so afraid and could not sleep at night,” Khadijat, the five year old daughter of Shehu managed to narrate in local agatu dialect.
Succour came the way of the affected families the third day as the council officials arranged for speed boats that moved them to make-shift camps, where over 50, 000 persons displaced by the floods across communities in Obagaji, Okoklo, Oweto, Ogwule, Egba, Usha and other wards had taken temporary refuge.
Settling back to devastating realities
The make-shift camps brought the victims face-to-face with the reality of the devastations the flood that lasted over two months had caused.
“We were evacuated into the primary school camp in September of last year and remained there till November 29, 2012 when we were asked to return to our homes,” Shehu said.
Olegochepo, one of the flood ravaged communities in Alokpa is just a few kilometers away from Obagaji. However, its connection to any kind of civilization is through streams of footpaths that would make any kind of travel a terrible experience.
“All of these areas were covered with water like an ocean,” Omia, a popular photographer in Obagaji who offered to give the reporter a bike ride to one of the affected villages said while trying to paint a picture of the severity of the floods that closed access to the village composed of more than 1,000 compounds.
At Olegochepo, the ruins from the floods were ominous. Young men in their 20s were seen in scores idling under a big tree that serves as market square for the village.
Although the Vice Chairman spoke of adequate government assistance while the flood lasted, the community members had different stories to tell. They say settling back to life has become the biggest challenge for them now.
“Our farms, houses and everything that we stored were destroyed by the waters from the floods. Now there is nothing for us to fall back to,” John Okpum, a senior (old) member of the community said.
And as usual, the women and children are made to bear the bigger brunt.
Fatimah Ogboche a mother of six lost all that she and her family had to the flood.
She and her children were made to wade through the water on a boat cramped with loads and other people from neighbouring communities.
“I have never been afraid like that in my life,” her 10-year old son Oka Ogboche said while telling the story of how they escaped being drowned in the floods that engulfed almost all of Olegochepo and adjoining villages.
“I was glad to see Obagaji after traveling through the waters that evening and all that I wanted was food,” Oka said.
His desires were, however, far from satisfied at that time, as he said, “There was no food for us when we arrived at Obagaji.” This turned out to be what they faced for most of the days they spent in the make-shift camp.
This was confirmed by Shehu who said, “While we were in the make-shift camp, some people brought a bag of gari and half bag of rice for all members of the 38 villages affected to share, which we rejected.”
How then were they feeding? He said, “Most of us are fishermen. So we would go out during the day to fish in boats and used some of the proceeds from our catches to feed our families.”
This could only do little to prevent the children and women from frequently taking ill with nowhere to go for help.
“All the hospitals were submerged in water. So we only relied on some local herbal concoctions to treat our sick babies and mothers,” Shehu confirmed.
Two months after the floods, this situation has persisted with prevalent hunger among the people.
“As I speak to you, I am not sure of where the next meal would come for me and my six children would come from,” Fatimah told this reporter, while the youngest of her children, who was looking obviously unhealthy with skin rashes, hung to her left arm.
“Our farms are in total ruin, houses have been destroyed and with no means of livelihood, we watch our sick children go pale praying for the worst not to happen,” Okpum said, in a voice that revealed hopelessness.
“As you can see, hunger is everywhere. Our children and mothers are sick yet we are neglected,” Okpum who claims the government has not shown enough concern to their plight, especially after the floods added.
Agatu maybe far-flung from the Makurdi, where the state officially hoisted camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). However, the plight of those affected in communities around Makurdi, the state’s capital bears similarity with the Agatu situation.
Two months after the camps were closed, Mr. Alloysious Umalo and his family are still struggling to settle down in their Tilley Gyado Villa apartment, which was submerged by water during the flood.
His wife has not found life pleasant afterwards, especially with her twin daughters and five year old son, as they were are made to hump around relatives homes for succour.
“We were made to face hard conditions while putting up with relatives. Now that the waters have receded, we still cannot move back because we need to put the place in habitable condition before doing so,” he said.
Corroborating this, the wife, Juliet Umalo said, “With the kids, one cannot just move back because we need to fumigate the house and put things back in shape which is not possible within a very short time.”
The Umalos and other families affected in the same vicinity are not in a hurry to move back to their original home for fear of similar event in the nearest future.
Meanwhile, it has been tales of vomiting, high fever, diarrhoea, stomach ache among most of the children that are brought into hospitals from the communities affected by the flood.
Benue state government had, in November constituted a committee for the resettlement and rehabilitation of the flood victims. Two months after, the victims are still far from rehabilitated.
The committee has been accused of being too slow and uncoordinated in their actions, even as it has become obvious that it has subtly taken over what should have been the responsibilities of the State’s Emergency Management Agency (SEMA).
Accusations are also rife that some persons sent out to evaluate the ruins caused by the floods may have found a way of extorting them with promises that they would be compensated.
“They asked us to give them N5000 (five thousand naira) so that they could process money that would be given to us by the government for our houses that were destroyed. Now that is gone and we do not have any information about anything anymore,” a female Makurdi resident who lost so much to flood lamented.
Mr. Agbatse Adikpo, who is Executive Secretary of SEMA and ad hoc chairman of the committee, was unavailable for comments or reactions to the allegations that the committee is the reason for the slow pace of action towards rehabilitation of the flood victims during the series of visits to the SEMA office in Makurdi by Daily Independent.
However, it was found that most of the items that were donated by individuals and organisations through the state’s government for the victims were still lying in the stores of SEMA with no knowledge on when they would be distributed.
All physical visits to the SEMA office in Makurdi yielded no results as Adikpo was persistently out of office.
Meanwhile, Benue State’s commissioner for Health, Dr. Urduen Abunku, who is also a member of the committee, said allegations that nothing has been done to resettle and rehabilitate the victims of the flood may not be entirely correct.
Abunku said, “The state, in conjunction with the Federal Government did set up clinics in the camps. We attended to all the health issues that emanated at the camps and ensured that they were treated.”
According to him, the committee is taking its time to ensure equitable distribution of the items in SEMA custody, saying, “It is better to take time to do it right than hurry to do it wrongly.”
With the six weeks deadline mandate for the committee to round up its activities over in December, and the apparent quietude from its headship, people are beginning to raise questions about what they may be up to.
According to a source, about N95 million was approved for an estate consultant to do an assessment of the houses that were destroyed by the floods in the state. It was also revealed that separate fundings have made available for others to ascertain the level of devastations caused on the farmlands in the affected areas.
According to the initial report submitted by the estate valuer, 4,295 houses were destroyed by the floods in the affected communities.
Meanwhile, arguments has continued on the huge amount of money spent on evaluation of houses and properties destroyed since the government is looking at rehabilitating and not giving refunds or compensations to the victims.
“Agreed, such evaluations would give a reasonable idea on the level of destruction caused by the floods as is usually done with similar incidences in the past. But why spend such a huge amount of money on this when the government has agencies and personnel on ground that could do this for almost nothing,” was the argument of one of those against it.