There’s a difference between tragedies you never thought you would encounter, and tragedies that happen a lot that you almost come to accept as normal.
I’ve lived in Malabon all my life, and as most people from Metro Manila know, flooding is not uncommon in this city. It would be no surprise to experience it on any given day. One could encounter flooding here even on a hot summer day, during high tide. Every morning before going to school, I would check our calendar with tide charts to see if my way would be flooded by the time I passed by, the cue for me to take another route. In the same way, flooding is expected almost every time it rains, no matter how light or heavy the downpour is.
So, all this time we thought we had seen all the bad stuff floods could bring. We thought there was no way for such a common occurrence to get worse. Until we met “Ondoy.”
It was an early Saturday morning in September and I was at home, preparing to attend class. My mother and younger sister were busy with their own activities for the day. We noticed nothing unusual at first, until we realized that the rain had picked up and had become a massive downpour.
It all happened quite fast. One moment, my sister and I were carrying our shoes and slippers from the ground to the second floor of our house. Minutes later, we were moving up chairs, plates and other household stuff as the flood crept up above our knees.
My mother left us to help my aunt, her older sister, who lived a few houses away, then came back less than an hour later. By then, my sister and I had already carried everything we could upstairs. The rain showed no signs of slowing down. A kid who was playing in the street and enjoying the rain earlier could no longer stay outside as the flood was getting deeper and darker, threatening to drown him. We didn’t know him, but we asked him to come in and stay inside our house to wait for the rain to subside.
But it didn’t. When all I could see was floodwater on our first floor and all that was left were two flights of stairs up to the second floor, I felt absolute terror. We didn’t have a third floor to move up to; all we had above our heads was a tin roof. For the first time in my life, I felt threatened and unsafe inside my own home.
I urged my mother and sister to pack everything we could before we ran out of time. My mother went into what I thought was shock, as she just stood still without glancing away from the window, exclaiming that she’d never leave the house no matter what happened. I heard shouts from our back window while my sister and I began packing our clothes. My older sister, her husband and two cousins had come for us, to lead us out of the house. The vacant area at the back of our house was somehow elevated, so the flooding there wasn’t as high.
Towing our bags of clothes, we jumped out of the window and into the pounding rain. Before we left, my poor bayaw had to climb down the flooded stairs and dive toward our front door. My sister and I had forgotten to close it, and some of our belongings were now drifting out of house and into the big canal that was formerly our street. At the back of our house, I remember being soaked up to my chest in the flood, and got tangled up in barbed wire and fences that we couldn’t see under the sea of floodwater all around us as we waddled toward safety.
Our rescuers arrived in the nick of time. Any moment later and it would have been too late for us, as none of us could swim.
My father, who was at work all day, came home eventually and found us in my sister’s house. Perhaps making up for his absence in our ordeal, he manned a raft to help our neighbors, ferrying people, animals, household equipment and a myriad of other things from the submerged houses in our neighborhood.
We had to stay at my sister’s house for days after the typhoon, while our own home was still muddy and in disarray. The flood reached our second floor up to the waist level, which meant beds soaked for days in floodwater, upturned closets and grimy furniture. My sister spent her 18th birthday that week washing drenched curtains and scrubbing mud off the wall.
We took no chances. Shortly after Ondoy, we had our house elevated a few feet higher. Ten years hence, however, there is still that mini-heart attack whenever news reports confirm the presence of a typhoon hitting Metro Manila.
I guess being used to something doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the worst, especially when it comes to natural calamities. Just because our country is exposed to strong typhoons every year, and most of us survive anyway, doesn’t mean we should stay complacent. If Ondoy taught us anything, it’s that we must always be on our guard. Every typhoon should be an opportunity to make us stronger, not just in will and in spirit, but most importantly, in terms of physical preparations.
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Desiree Carawana, 29, is a cat lover and portfolio accounting analyst.
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