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The new normal

For as long as anyone can remember, Mindanao has been blessed with great weather; it is practically typhoon-free. On Wednesday, that blessing turned into a curse, as Typhoon “Pablo” slammed into the island—and hundreds of thousands of residents did not know what hit them.

Despite the intense preparations at all levels of government, despite the early networking that social media channels made possible, despite the numerous advisories aired on TV and radio, many proved unprepared for the full fury of a typhoon. In all the wrong ways, for many, Pablo was a virtually new experience.

“This is the first time a typhoon with Signal No. 3 crossed our province,” Arturo Uy, governor of Compostela Valley, one of the two worst-hit provinces, told Reuters the other day. “We evacuated people from riverbanks and shorelines. But the floods and strong winds battered not just the riverbanks but also places where residents were supposed to be safe.”

The winds were so strong (at one time clocked at 210 kph) that Davao Oriental, the other badly battered province, found itself grappling with an unprecedented posttyphoon emergency. “We had a problem where to take the evacuees. All the evacuation centers have lost their roofs,” Davao Oriental Gov. Corazon Malanyaon told the Associated Press.

The problem was so serious the government reportedly sought the help of the International Organization for Migration to build temporary shelters. “The priority is to build bunkhouses so that there will be shelter for them,” Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said on ABS-CBN.

The unusual nature of the weather disturbance—unusual, that is, for Mindanao—was reflected in the number of survivor anecdotes about the sudden rise in floodwaters.

“We were surprised that the water rose so fast,” Walterio Dapadap Jr., of hard-hit New Bataan town in Compostela Valley, told Inquirer Mindanao.  “The water rose so fast,” Dionisia Requinto told AP. “The waters came so suddenly and unexpectedly, and the winds were so fierce, that compounded the loss of lives and livelihood,” Governor Uy told Reuters.

The death toll has risen to about 350, with 400 or so listed as missing; the likelihood that more bodies will be found is unbearably high. The last time a typhoon or a storm claimed hundreds of lives was… a year ago, and in Mindanao, too, when Tropical Storm “Sendong” turned the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan into floating death traps.

To update the old saying: Once is coincidence, twice is climate change. Any resident of Mindanao who banked on the improbability of another Sendong happening, and so soon, is kin to those residents of Metro Manila who wagered on the improbability of another “Ondoy” striking the capital region again. And yet disaster struck again. The  habagat-induced floods last August, and the unusual track Pablo followed this week, should tell all of us that climate change is for real.

“The abnormal is the new normal,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the annual climate change conference, held this year in Doha, Qatar. “This year we have seen Manhattan and Beijing under water, hundreds of thousands of people washed from their homes in Colombia, Peru, the Philippines, Australia.”

It is only prudent to expect more unusual weather patterns in the years to come; in the Philippine context, this means, among other priorities, preparing for the possibility of major typhoons crossing Mindanao again. The high death toll in the towns of New Bataan and Monkayo must have been caused in part by the proliferation of small-scale gold mining sites; if frequent landslides claim miners’ lives even in good weather, another Pablo will surely claim a ransom in people’s lives—unless local governments can find the political will to regulate the continuing gold rush.

Preparing for the possibility of another Pablo also requires a change in people’s behavior. In Mindanao as elsewhere, residents learn to calculate risks from previous experience; now that the typhoon’s swift, sweeping scythe has killed hundreds of people, leveled thousands of trees and turned hundreds of thousands of victims into refugees, we should have a more realistic assessment of future risk. Sendong was like a plague that descended on Cagayan de Oro, but that experience helped prompt widespread emergency preparedness in the city last Wednesday—helping prevent the loss of a single life.


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