Change subject, if only out of an instinct for survival.
It’s one after the other.
One, there’s the wreckage of Compostela Valley. The death toll, as of last count, is by no means comparable to the one in Cagayan de Oro in the wake of “Sendong” in 2011, we may think, but which can only reflect the extent to which we’ve become inured to death and dying.
What exactly the death toll means you see more clearly, more chillingly, in a woman wailing inconsolably at the loss of her husband and children whom she last saw flailing in the raging floodwaters. What exactly it means you see in the stumps that used to be stalks of ripening banana stretching into the horizon as far as the eye can see, spelling hunger for a community, spelling death for those hunger stalks. What exactly that means you see in a girl chilled to the bone after enduring 24 hours keeping her head above the floodwaters, desperate for food but even more desperate to hear word about the fate of her parents and siblings.
The utter devastation brings tears to the eyes. Brought on in great part from it being unexpected. Of course the warnings were there, “Pablo” was going to be a superstorm. But this was Mindanao, Sendong was a fluke, things like this do not happen to it. This was a land of milk and honey, a land beyond reach of wind and rain, beyond reach of sand and storm, beyond reach of Nature’s fury.
No longer so.
Two, there’s the massive 7.3-magnitude earthquake that just hit Japan, stronger than the one last year, but which had the mercifulness to strike at the heart of the sea and not of shore. As it was, though it hit Ishinomaki City in northeastern Japan, its impact was felt as far as Tokyo. TV footage showed a news station in the throes of violent swaying, its fluorescent lights blinking in and out, its employees clinging to their desks. The earthquake roiled a meter-high tsunami that struck the shore of Ishinomaki, sending residents fleeing to higher ground.
Chikako Iwai typified the discipline the residents showed after broadcasters warned in the wake of the earthquake, “Escape to a high area as fast as you can. If there is no high area, move to a tall building, or escape as far away from the coast as possible. Do not stop. Do not go back.” Iwai reported: “I was in the center of the city the very moment the earthquake struck. I immediately jumped into the car and started running away towards the mountains. I’m still hiding inside the car. I’m planning to stay here for the next couple of hours.”
Death toll: zero.
Three, previous to the two, Frankenstorm “Sandy” tore through the US East Coast a month ago, leaving a swath of destruction that had not been seen in the lifetimes of most of its residents. Homes were blown away or ripped off their sockets by the bursting waters, the roller coaster in Jersey shore was swept to the sea, the subway in some parts fell under eight feet of water.
Of course the advisories were there: This was going to be a freakish storm, this was going to be a nightmarish storm. But who could have believed it was going to be this freakish? Who could have believed it would be this nightmarish? This was New York, after all, the city that never slept, the city that almost had the God-given right to be spared the inconveniences of hurricane-visited tropical countries. Fortunately for East Coast residents, they heeded the warnings and braced for the worst, however their anticipation of worst fell several leagues behind reality. The total damage? A mind-boggling $62 billion. The death toll? A more mind-manageable 125 souls.
Not all of this is to say that we could do with more preparedness, with better responses. Though there’s that, too. P-Noy himself agreed when he visited Compostela Valley in the aftermath of the storm that government has still much to do to improve this country’s response to disaster. The deaths were unacceptable, he said, and vowed to exert himself to make sure they fell drastically, if not disappeared entirely, the next time around.
In this case in particular, it was neither government’s nor the residents’ fault that the disaster led to this number of deaths. Government issued the warnings and the folk heeded them, they moved to higher ground. It was simply that the higher ground proved to be not high enough, the evacuation centers themselves being swept away by a mountainous flood. Truly, much remains to be done.
But more than this, if this series of disasters tumbling one after another in barely two months drives home the point with the force of a battering ram, it is that the violently abnormal has become the new normal and that it’s time we learned, if we haven’t already, to expect the unexpected. As it is, only the Japanese seem to have been able to learn that, the lesson having been hot-wired into their brains by an earthquake cum tsunami that removed 10,000 of them from this earth. The notion that New York cannot be reduced into a typhoon belt or that the Sahara will remain forever dry is no longer incontrovertible. You attack Nature, Nature will attack back.
But far better than expecting the unexpected, far better than learning to live with the disease, is curing the disease, making the unexpected truly unexpected all over again. Which means adding our voices to a now strident, desperate, urgent call to stop global warming, even if that means curbing growth rates around the world. The alternative is unacceptable. If the disasters coming with more alarming rapidity, with more terrifying intensity, cannot rouse us to the horror of a planet in peril, nothing will. In which case you don’t need the Mayans to predict the end of things next week, or next month, or next year.
Some prophesies tend to be self-fulfilling.