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10:45 PM August 22nd, 2013

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August 22nd, 2013 10:45 PM

First, the (relatively) good news. The inclement weather that paralyzed a good part of Luzon between Sunday and Wednesday dumped a total of 671.6 mm of rainwater—much more than the 455 mm recorded in 2009 (Tropical Storm “Ondoy”) or the 472 mm in 2012 (during last year’s  habagat  or southwest monsoon). And yet the worst weather disturbance in four years claimed the lives of “only” 18 persons.

We place that in quotes because every single human life is important, and because unlike earthquakes which cannot be predicted, storms once tracked can be anticipated; the goal of ensuring that no life is lost during a storm’s passage through the Philippines is difficult but not unattainable. Each life lost is simply one life too many.

But in 2009, Ondoy claimed more than 460 lives; in 2012, about 110 victims died in the floods caused by torrential monsoon rains. It is possible that the death toll from this week’s extreme weather may still rise, but the final tally will be nowhere near Ondoy or even “Habagat 2012” levels.

Credit must be given to the weather forecasters, who helped prepare the country with up-to-date and accurate reports; to local governments, which effected the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people almost without incident; to agencies such as the Armed Forces of the Philippines which helped provide transportation assistance, and the Department of Social Welfare and Development which helped prepare and pre-deploy relief goods; to the Philippine Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations, which sprang into action even before the first rain fell; and to the journalists, soaked and battered, who provided vital information from the field.

The matter of the suspension of classes in affected areas is a good example of what went right. Suspensions were announced ahead of time, sometimes even the day before. Indeed, on Sunday, when the first announcements were made, some wags cracked jokes online, saying the early notice all but guaranteed that the sun would come out on Monday. But it was a good call, repeated over the next few days.

The evacuation of residents from vulnerable areas also proceeded according to plan; when the Marikina River rose to an alarming level, for instance, residents of at-risk residential villages in Marikina dutifully complied with the evacuation order—even though their streets were not even flooded.

According to the latest estimates of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, some 1.73 million people from 119 municipalities and 31 cities in Luzon were affected by the rains. Central Luzon bore the brunt, with some 1.02 million residents included in the tally.

Over half a million people were displaced. According to the NDRRMC count, over 217,000 persons had to seek shelter in a total of 709 evacuation centers, while over 345,000 persons retreated to the homes of families and friends. This is an extraordinary movement of people, conducted under less than ideal conditions.

Now, the (continuing) bad news. Laguna de Bay remains heavily silted; dredging of the lake does not seem to be a top priority, and the infrastructure to drain it of excess water (say, a spillway through admittedly densely populated Parañaque) is not in place.

Floods continue to be a serious problem in the sprawling mega-city that is Metro Manila, because some of the old problems remain. In the first place, there are just too many people: some 12 million are squeezed into an area the size of Singapore. The national government’s plan to relocate a total of 60,000 informal settlers who live on and near major waterways just got underway; this week’s rains render the three-year timetable insufficiently ambitious.

The volume of trash is another, familiar factor; the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority estimates that some 3,000 cubic meters of garbage find their way to the capital region’s rivers and waterways.

Illegal logging in the mountains north of Metro Manila, also worsens the floods; without enough trees, the mountains cannot retain as much rainwater as they used to.

Not least, sheer human stubbornness can get in the way of the no-life-lost policy. As caught on TV time and again, many residents were shown refusing to leave their homes, even when the entire first floor was already underwater. Unfortunately, there is often a steep price to pay.

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