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Elephant in the room

opinion / Columnists
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There’s the Rub

Elephant in the room

/ 12:50 AM September 23, 2014

The silver lining is that “Mario” wasn’t as bad as “Ondoy.” Unnerving as the sight of Metro Manila turned into “Waterworld” was—you could see that in stark relief in aerial photos—Mario dumped only half as much rainwater as Ondoy. Although tell that to the residents of Marikina and Cainta, many of whom were driven out of their homes when the floodwaters rose. Marikina River in particular rose to 20 meters high and overflowed its banks, forcing residents to flee to higher ground.

One long-suffering resident sought shelter in the second floor of a neighbor who lived in a higher part of the street. Her dog swam in the knee-high flood while she waded through it. Alas, she sighed, that had become her lot in life every time it rained hard. At the first sign of it, she would bundle her clothes and trek to her neighbor’s place. She wondered when it would end, short of giving up a long-held family abode and relocating elsewhere.

The silver lining as well is that the casualties were minimal. There were initially only four reported deaths, though that number appeared to have risen to six last Saturday. The deaths included two children, one of whom, a two-year-old, drowned; the other, an infant, was crushed by a fallen tree. The rest were adults who died by drowning or electrocution.

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The drastic fall in casualties appears to be the result in part of swifter government response, particularly in relocating residents of affected areas to relief centers, and the residents’ own cooperativeness in the sudden exodus. The wanton toll of past disasters has taught Filipinos a bitter lesson in the folly of stubbornness and intractability. With disasters growing in frequency and ferocity, even the poor have realized that gambling with their lives is a losing proposition, the odds have become murderously higher.

And of course there’s the specter of “Yolanda.” I saw the effects of it only a few months ago when the residents of coastal Albay abandoned their homes with alacrity at the first warnings of a tempest coming their way.

The tempest proved truly tempestuous—the winds howled all over Legazpi, enough to make you wonder if they weren’t going to tear off buildings from their sockets—and left a twisted wreckage afterward. But with the wondrous result that not a single soul was separated from its body. Mario did not leave without claiming its due, but at least Metro Manila was niggardly in paying its price.

There were dark clouds as well.

The first thing the deluge drove home to me, as I saw from the images on TV last Friday night, was how poor we are. Never mind the subdivisions adrift in water with the occasional family trapped on roofs waiting to be rescued by rubber dinghies which bobbed plentifully about. Mind only the slums surrounded by water that rose to the chest, their teeming denizens wading, or swimming, through it, trying to retrieve what precious few possessions lay tucked in the obscure corners of their cardboard hovels.

They’ve always been there, of course, the slums, but it takes Nature’s fury of the kind that struck last Friday, however it was of the relatively milder kind compared to Ondoy, to push their stark reality to the surface of consciousness. You realize that a great many of Metro Manila are slums, and a great many of Metro Manila’s residents, if not the majority of them by their sheer plenitude, live in them.

It’s not this government’s fault, of course. The slums have been there for as long as we can remember, though they have been growing over the years, almost imperceptibly until something like this stuns us to their roaring presence. Poverty has been there for as long as we can remember, though it hasn’t greatly waned and now exists side by side with record growth. The second has barely dented the first. It’s a reality check, a reminder that we may not pat ourselves on the back for a qualified achievement. Or, worse, imagine ourselves to have gone over the hump, let alone way past it. Poverty remains teeming. Poverty remains grinding.

A thing driven home by the fact that it’s the poor who take the brunt of storms, deluge and other ravaging. Not all victims are the kind who have lost their homes, their kin or their mind and can avail of disaster relief. Most are ordinary folk, electricians, mechanics, truck drivers, jeepney drivers, factory hands, office clerks, call-center employees, messengers, who earn their daily bread daily and whose loss of one day, not to speak of several days, from a cataclysm produces cataclysmic results. Not everyone is a student who will revel at the forced vacation and flee to the higher ground of malls. Most are hand-to-mouths who will deeply mind not having anything in hand to shove to the mouth, or mouths, of family, from not having found work that day.

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There’s much to be thankful for in Mario having produced only a handful of casualties. But there’s much to fear in future downpours and torrential rains and great floods coming this way, not all of which will be as sedate as Mario, some of which will be as biblical as Yolanda. Which will devastate the poor most of all. Which will wreak havoc on those who can afford the least havoc in their lives. Which will leave bereft those who are already mind-bogglingly bereft. Mahirap ang mahirap.

If a seemingly minor deluge like Mario, at least so in comparison to apocalyptic ones, has anything to say to us, it is to sound a note of urgency not just about the horrendous reality of climate change but about the even more horrendous reality of the plight of the poor. I do hope, with no small help from Pope Francis’ visit next January, that that becomes the overriding issue in the next elections.

It’s the elephant in the room, the monstrosity we keep not seeing.

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TAGS: column, Conrado de Quiros, disasters, Ondoy, Poverty, tropical storm Mario
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