Baguio: My dying hometown (2)
They lost their sense of reality, the notion of time, the rhythm of daily habits,” wrote Gabriel García Márquez in his magnum opus “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” a multigenerational account of the fictional Buendía family.
Sometimes, disasters are so overwhelmingly destructive that only Márquez’s magical realism can provide us a hint of their shocking intrusion into cloistered human lives. In many ways, the 1990 earthquake, which brought untold ruin and misery to Baguio and surrounding provinces, had a similar effect on its residents, though of a far deadlier and more frightening magnitude.
They say the human brain isn’t fully formed until the age of 4, thus one won’t have clear memories from earlier years, unless something extremely traumatic took place. I was barely 3 years old back then, but I can still remember how the temblor felt like the end of the world, in the true biblical sense of it.
I remember my dad, young and vigorous back then, holding my sister and me in his arms and hurriedly escorting us out once he saw our little house shaking, cracking and squealing under the punishing force of one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the Philippines ever.
I still can’t recall who was crying, whether it was I or my sister or both of us, But I knew, even as a toddler, that I wrestled with a pulsating sense of worry about the rest of our family, including our mom, who was working in the town back then, as well as the rest of the Forondas spread across the city. The horror of it is beyond language.
For nights, we slept outside under the soothing embrace of moonlight, but terrorized by the powerful aftershocks that battered an already devastated city. For days, we were cut off from the rest of the world, as the smell of death and destruction mixed with cries for help and reprieve, a haunting chorus of misery that drowned a once beautiful city under a cloud of sorrowful darkness.
After the earthquake, Baguio was never the same again. None of us were ever the same again. My dad, trained as a medical technologist, lost much of his business. Poverty and trauma began to take over the lives of many thriving families.
The Hyatt Terraces Hotel was reduced to rubble, taking the lives of close to 80 guests and employees. For weeks, the whole city smelled of death. It would take decades before Baguio could recover its lost sense of self and arrive at a semblance of internal coherence.
Natural disasters can have two opposite effects on communities. The first group could go the Friedrich Nietzsche way: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” They can recover and rebuild, become better and stronger than before to honor the lives of their lost loved ones, and by leading better and more robust lives of their own.
Or they can just muddle through the postdisaster period, hoping against hope to forget and overcome the traumatic past without a fundamental rethink. In the case of Baguio, the earthquake introduced what economists like Daron Acemoglu call an “institutional drift,” a change in the overall dynamics of governance and societal organization.
While Baguio managed to recover somehow, it was soon taken over by traditional politicians and extractive institutions, which oversaw an unsustainable, unaesthetic and, above all, irresponsible process of reconstruction.
Over the next two decades, Baguio, a positively modern middle-class city built on the American ethos of egalitarianism, saw the emergence of once-unheard-of shanty houses, widespread deforestation, unrestrained mining, and poor and perilous urban planning that placed the lives of thousands of people in jeopardy.
When Typhoon “Ompong” hit northern Philippines more than a week ago, the first reported casualty was in Baguio, due to a landslide. Over the succeeding days, it became clear that the vast majority of casualties were in Benguet province and the Cordillera mountains. Flooding and rain shouldn’t have taken the lives of so many people, if only the authorities got the post-earthquake reconstruction right.
Perhaps it’s time we stopped talking about resilience, which puts the burden of rehabilitation on victims, and focused instead on responsible governance, which emphasizes the obligation of our leaders to protect citizens against avoidable tragedies.
Inquirer calls for support for the victims of typhoon Ompong
Responding to appeals for help, the Philippine Daily Inquirer is extending its relief to victims of the recent typhoon Ompong.
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