Snapshots of the storm
It’s Sunday morning and winds are howling outside. On our barangay’s Facebook page, neighbors share photos of roads closed off because of debris or felled electrical posts.
Friends send donations to people online who are asking for money to house their families in hostels and rooms for rent, to shelter during the worst of the storm. Even K-pop centric social media is filled with posts asking for donations, prayers, awareness. Mark Ruffalo mentions on his Twitter timeline: “Pray for our brothers and sisters in the Philippines,” he writes, “then get ready to send donations.” There’s no question that donations are needed, and that local aid will either be insufficient or nonexistent. This is embarrassing and sad, but then we are used to embarrassment and resigned to disappointment, as a Third World nation perpetually ailing for something. Friends send video clips. In Camarines Sur: Gates flapping uselessly in the wind. A roof being blown off a shanty. In Isabela, farmers working frantically to harvest and protect crops before the storm. In Albay, wind howling threateningly through a mall, with debris lying on wet floors. In Pasig: Food packs lined up in rows, for distribution to residents. In Sorsogon: The interior of a church being prepared for displaced families and the homeless. Everywhere on social media: Health care workers fret about leptospirosis from wading in flood water, on top of the threat of COVID-19.
In Malacañang: Silence from the President’s seat. He is absent for the first high-level briefing about the expected supertyphoon, which takes place hours after landfall has already occurred in some areas. On social media, half in jest and half in rage, users circulate a photo of the President asleep in white sheets and kulambo with the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo. Sen. Bong Go assures the public that the President is “monitoring” the situation from Davao. We do not know if the President joined the briefing through teleconferencing. People can’t seem to decide if we would have been better off with empty platitudes or with this silence. Regardless, the impression is of a lack of urgency and of concern, an expectation that Filipinos will survive this as they have survived the disasters of 2020. After all, as his supporters say on social media, what are we expecting—for the President to stop the storm? How impossible.
My worst story of storms and flash floods was walking from Padre Faura Street along Taft Avenue to the De La Salle University area to get home to my dorm, in thigh-high flood water, watching cockroaches collect on lampposts and gates along the way, white medical school uniform irrevocably brown and gray. Otherwise I’ve always been lucky to have a roof over my head and sufficient food during the worst of Philippine tropical storms. This is nothing compared to other stories, like my friend’s house becoming entirely submerged in water, or my partner and his family losing all of their possessions, keepsakes, documents, appliances. This in turn is nothing compared to the experiences of those whose stories don’t even get told anymore. Nameless, probably homeless, they’re lost among the casualties, unspoken in the dozens of articles about Filipino resilience and bayanihan in the face of natural disaster. We’re all suffering under the same storm, but so many are unable to take cover.
It doesn’t even seem to matter anymore which storm or typhoon is in our stories, because the disasters and the responses to them are all beginning to look the same, whether it’s “Yolanda” or “Ondoy” or “Rolly.” Aid is promised; aid comes in, occasionally in a timely and appropriate way, more commonly delayed, and never quite enough. Private groups and individuals fill the gaps in food, clothing, money donations. Pundits wonder where disaster relief money goes; whispers of corruption abound; no one is ever punished; politicians line their pockets while bodies line watery graves. There is always talk of preparing for the next natural catastrophe. Agencies, new commissions are mentioned. There is little effort to improve sewage, infrastructure, or housing. The furor dies down. And we repeat until the next disaster.
More snapshots: We wait for the resilience porn to start rolling in. A colleague jokingly proposes a drinking game, a shot for every time that a public figure will say the word “resilience,” with bonus points if we also hear “the Filipino people.” This week, I am expecting more snapshots to store into the impressions of the endless disaster that is 2020. I am expecting more feel-good photos of smiling survivors and Facebook essays on the need to pull together in times of disaster, essays on blessings and perseverance. It’s bound to happen, the way it’s happened after every other punch to the gut in 2020—a pandemic, flash floods, earthquakes, an economic crash, a volcanic eruption. Filipinos being expected to survive, to smile, to laugh, to tolerate their lives getting wrecked on the regular, while so-called leaders, drifting in and out of public view, sleep comfortably. The winds are howling outside, but the silence is deafening.
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