This week’s torrential rains and flooding, with many people caught off guard and refusing to evacuate even as floodwaters rose, remind us that we need to address the cultural aspects of disasters. In particular, we seem to underestimate the monsoon rains because we are more likely to see danger in a typhoon, one with a name.
Monsoons and typhoons have been part of our lives for centuries. “Bagyo,” the local term for a typhoon, is found in “Vocabulario Tagalo” by Fr. Francisco de San Antonio, published in 1624, and in Fr. Ignacio Alcina’s “Historia de las islas e idios de Bisayas,” published in 1668. But it is not likely that Filipinos had names for typhoons until the 20th century.
International meteorological agencies have a naming system. In our part of the world there is a Regional Specialized Meteorological Center that coordinates international names (e.g., “Haikui”), leaving individual countries to provide a name when a typhoon enters their “area of responsibility.” The Philippines’ Pagasa takes care of the local names, which used to be exclusively female, perhaps reflecting the Pinoy fear of female wrath. But today we have both male, female, and a few androgynous ones. After “Gener,” look out for “Helen,” “Igme” and so on until we hit “Zosimo,” and if still another typhoon comes in this year we start again with “Alakdan.”
Naming typhoons is useful, giving Filipinos a greater sense of danger, like an invader about to attack. The names of strong typhoons also remain in public memory, becoming a marker in people’s lives. Tropical Storm “Ondoy” has even become a verb to suggest misfortune or disaster befalling someone: “Na-Ondoy ako!”
But our association of typhoons with danger means that we downplay the risks that come with monsoon rains. When the rains began last weekend, many Metro Manila residents dismissed them as “habagat lang,” only the southwest monsoon. As the rains continued, people began to get nervous, but were somewhat assured that we were not having a typhoon.
We need to develop a system to warn people that even without a typhoon, the monsoon rains can be dangerous. School science lectures should include a discussion of the weather in general. I found myself scrambling for the computer and the Internet with all the questions my kids had, from something as basic as “why does it rain?” to “what is habagat?” Let’s do a crash course then in meteorology or, more specifically for the study of rain, hyetology.
First, why it rains. The dry scientific explanation is that water vapor rises into the atmosphere, and when the clouds get too heavy, the rains fall. The monsoon is another matter; the term comes from the Arabic “mausim” meaning season. It is brought about by temperature differences between land masses and the ocean. Around May to September, a large part of Asia, from the Indian subcontinent through Southeast Asia and into the Pacific, goes through a southwest monsoon brought about by the summer. From September to November, there is the winter or northeast monsoon, locally called amihan, which affects parts of the Philippines (Mindanao for example, and our northeast coastlines), Indonesia and Australia.
An old issue of National Geographic (December 1984) had monsoons as its cover story, with a title “Life breath of half the world.” The monsoon is important, bringing the rains for agriculture. Ignacio Alcina’s 17th-century account of the Visayas talks about how the “bagyo” was seen as cleansing, wiping out pestilence and disease.
There are songs and dances in many parts of Asia to celebrate the coming of the monsoon. The 5th-century Indian poet Kalidasa was graphic in his description of the monsoon rains: “They come forward as kings among tumultuous armies; their flags are lightning, the thunder is their drum…” The epic Ramayana has several scenes with monsoon rains, thunder and lightning as a backdrop.
Strong monsoon rains were welcomed as well as feared because they could turn from nurturing to destructive, especially with the episodic typhoons or tropical cyclones marked by strong winds and water.
But the perception of risks varied. It is not surprising that people in Mindanao tend to be caught off guard by typhoons, which rarely strike that southern island. When destructive typhoons do hit, people react almost with a sense of betrayal, as they did in northern Mindanao last December.
But even in Luzon and the Visayas, people tend to belittle both monsoon rains and typhoons unless there are strong winds. This week government rescue teams complained about how people refused to evacuate. It’s a problem we find during most disasters, spurred in part by people’s unwillingness to leave their homes and belongings and reinforced by hope that one would be spared.
Acts of God?
This hope ties into our perception of disasters as “acts of God”—a term used by insurance companies. The idea is that if we pray hard enough, we may be spared from destruction. A good example of this behavior happened after Ondoy, when a typhoon entered the Philippine area of responsibility and religious leaders called for prayers. The typhoon skirted Metro Manila, and the Internet and media reports were full of declarations of gratitude to the heavens, and never mind that it wreaked havoc instead on northern Luzon.
And if we believe we can pray away storms, there is also the idea that these can come as gaba or divine retribution. This week critics of reproductive health stormed the Internet with declarations that the rains were gaba, sent by God to punish Filipinos because last Monday Congress officially ended interpellation on the RH bill. Sigh. If we were to play this silly, if not perverse, game, we could attach similar gaba attributions to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was hailed by the Catholic bishops for her anti-RH position, and whose choking on a piece of melon prevented her from attending an anti-RH religious rally and House hearings. And what about Typhoon Gener roaring away on the day of the anti-RH rally? Or floodwaters rushing into the hospital of the pontifical University of Santo Tomas?
We have come to our senses: Hospitals get flooded if they are geographically disadvantaged. It happened to the University of the East’s hospital in Sta. Mesa, a nonsectarian hospital, because it is geographically disadvantaged. There is no God or gods of the typhoons or the monsoon, targeting pro- or anti-RH people, or choosing between farmers praying for rains and urbanites offering eggs to Santa Clara to intercede for fair weather during a wedding, or rally.
We have to learn to view the rains, the monsoon, and the typhoons as part of natural cycles that balance the planet’s temperatures. Monsoons are seasons, marking our transitions of life and death. Metaphors like gaba should be banished with all its ignorance and bigotry, but others are worth retaining. I thought of one as I read of the usually combative and trenchant Fr. Melvin Castro of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines calling for a truce between the pro- and anti-RH camps and for Filipinos to work together to launch relief operations. Aba, I thought, sumisilip ang araw, the sun, the light is peeking through the clouds.
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