What made it shocking was not that it shocked people but that it did not. That is Tropical Depression “Agaton,” the first weather disturbance to hit the country this year, which has caused floods and landslides in various parts of Mindanao and which has now killed 41 people. It has also ravaged 580,000 people, 161,000 of whom have been rendered homeless and now huddle in evacuation centers. Barely have we recovered from “Yolanda” than Agaton barged in to add to what we need to recover from. It got reported in the international media in that light.
It’s part of the new normal that we’ve gotten inured to death and dying from natural disasters we’re no longer shocked by there being only a “handful” of victims. Which 41 is, compared to the hundreds and even thousands of dead we’ve had in recent years from floods, landslides, and folk being swallowed up or dragged away by waves of water. Or Cagayan de Oro, Compostela Valley and Leyte, respectively. Yet in absolute terms, 41 deaths remain staggering.
What’s really scary is not just the scale and frequency of disasters but also the ease with which we are able to factor these into our lives and, well, move on. Over the past several months, I’ve been reading assessments of how Yolanda will affect the economic growth this year, with some analysts saying it will do so marginally and others significantly. And I’ve always had the uneasy feeling that the implicit assumption in most of this is that Yolanda was a freak accident that won’t be repeated in a long while. What if it’s not? What if, as Agaton suggests, it’s just a prelude to a litany of woes up ahead?
Look how things stand today. Shortly before Agaton visited, and a month after Yolanda struck, Arctic winds blew across the United States, freezing Niagara Falls into solid ice. As usual Fox showed the extent of its ignorance with some of its commentators questioning the whole notion of global warming because obviously, they said, America wasn’t warming, it was freezing! When it was the best proof yet about the reality of global warming, the polar ice caps melting and sending arctic winds down to the United States. It wasn’t just Arctic-like weather America was experiencing, one scientist pointed out, it was Arctic weather.
At about the same time Agaton was unleashing floodwaters and raining mud down various parts of Mindanao, a series of storms was pounding the United Kingdom. Enough for a UK Independence Party councilor to blame David Cameron for it, saying the prime minister had brought it upon the land by passing the gay-marriage law. God was punishing Sodom and Gomorrah. Who says we have a monopoly of rabid anti-RH-type, fire-and-brimstone, lunatics?
At about the same time this was happening as well, floodwaters stormed into southern France. You have to wonder how long it will take before the lines between tropical and temperate blur. One resident said it was “staggering,” after seeing the water swallow her car and spit it away. Thankfully, only one died, some 155 people being promptly airlifted from the worst-hit parts.
Which brings us to an all-important question: How well are we prepared to meet, or confront, the looming long-term furious weather? I don’t mind the explosion of prayer in thanksgiving and/or supplication we’ve seen of late—in the Feast of the Black Nazarene in Metro Manila as well as the Sinulog and Ati-Atihan festivals in Cebu and Aklan. At the very least it brings comfort to the desolate, and at most, as some people swear, it lifts spirits enough to hasten reconstruction. But God having been known to help only those who help themselves, we’ll need more than prayer to see us through.
Short of arresting global warming, which requires global effort—although we can do as well to vituperate against those countries that hinder it, notably America and China, the way our environment representative to the United Nations, Yeb Saño, did immediately after Yolanda—we can do with more strenuous homegrown measures. Chief of them is vastly improving disaster preparedness.
We have a reconstruction czar, Ping Lacson—though he hasn’t been heard from much, it’s Mar Roxas, the everything czar, who continues to speak for the reconstruction of Leyte. Why can’t we have a disaster-preparedness czar? One who will make preparedness an ongoing concern and not just a concern right before a predicted storm or volcano eruption? Earthquakes, of course, are more unpredictable, though even there we can require regular drills in schools and offices to minimize casualties.
As we saw in Yolanda, we are not prepared for disasters of this scale. Hell, our own officials are not prepared for disasters of this scale. The mayor of Tacloban himself was traipsing along the shore when the superstorm struck, complaining afterward that government was wrong to have used “storm surges” instead of “tsunami.” Maybe yes, maybe no. We’ve seen in the past how it’s all the government could do to put the fear of Improvidence in everyone’s hearts despite the simplest and shrillest warnings. Poverty and desperation have given us a mentality of wanting to play Russian roulette with vengeful Nature; we figure it will spare us while harming only others.
Disaster preparedness begins with changing that mentality, not least by a massive information campaign that beams only one message: Better paranoid than sorry, better poor than dead. An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure, an ounce of preparedness is still worth a pound of reconstruction. It’s a lot less expensive, not just in terms of money but also in terms of lives. Otherwise, we’ll just go through a yearly ritual of being awed at the devastation, resorting to prayer in thanksgiving and supplication, and getting more and more used to the sight of bodies, 41 is nothing, let’s move on.
Well, you can’t move on when you’re dead.
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