It was déjà vu all over again. “Nearly a month’s worth of rain fell . . . over Metro Manila yesterday, triggering the worst floods in nearly 40 years, stranding people on rooftops, causing widespread blackouts and killing at least 40 people, officials said.” This would have been a more or less accurate description of the epic rains that inundated the National Capital Region and at least nine provinces in Luzon late on Monday and all of Tuesday. But the passage, in fact, is the lead paragraph of the headline story on the front page of the Sept. 27, 2009, issue of the Inquirer, reporting the initial assessment of the impact caused by Tropical Storm “Ondoy.”
The Ondoy phenomenon was described by a Filipino scientist at a poststorm forum as a once-in-a-hundred-years “rainfall event.” That it seems to have come back to haunt us a mere three years after should therefore send alarm bells ringing off their hooks. While it is true that rainfall at the height of Ondoy was more intense than this week’s rains (an accumulated amount of 341 mm fell in just six hours—an unprecedented surge), more rain was recorded in the 22-hour period between late afternoon of Aug. 6 and mid-afternoon of Aug. 7 than during a roughly similar 24-hour period for Ondoy (472 mm vs 455 mm).
Maybe the climate is changing. Regardless of what climate change skeptics think, it would be only prudent for both the government and the private sector to assume that, perhaps in the next few years, perhaps even as soon as later this year, yet another rainfall event of Ondoy proportions will befall us—and plan accordingly.
Let us agree, for the sake of argument, that some important lessons from the Ondoy nightmare have been taken to heart. The weather bureau has become much more responsive, providing more frequent updates. While still a work in progress, the government’s Project Noah (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) has become accessible to the ordinary citizen. Alert levels for vulnerable communities have been codified in simple, easy-to-follow indicators.
Online social networks have truly come into their own, helping spread information (some of it culled from the tireless radio stations and TV networks covering the calamity) and raise citizen awareness. Residential communities, such as that of Provident Village, a gated community in Marikina City that was particularly hard-hit during Ondoy, had contingency measures already in place. The volunteer networks that sprang up after Ondoy began to gear up for work even during the height of the rains on Tuesday.
Various local governments had been preparing for the coming deluge as early as Monday afternoon: warning residents at risk, canceling classes early enough, pinpointing evacuation centers, and so on. And the national government’s lead agency for disasters seemed to be truly on top of the situation.
To be sure, there were many measures that should have been anticipated but were not put in place early enough, such as the contingency plan to deploy military trucks to help ferry passengers stranded on Edsa on Monday night, or the backup plan to request private-company trucks to help enter flooded areas throughout Tuesday, or the emergency plan to disperse advance command posts in various parts of the National Capital Region to oversee the deployment of rescue teams.
It is the most crucial lessons from Ondoy, however, that remain unheeded, or at least unacted upon.
The continuing cleanup of Metro Manila’s drainage systems seems to have fallen into the ningas cogon trap. The expensive initiative to dredge the Pasig and other rivers seems to have fallen short of target, or of funds.
The politically contentious enterprise to relocate vulnerable communities, such as informal settlers who reside on riverbanks, seems to have stalled. Not least, the necessary work of drastically reimagining the National Capital Region in the wake of Ondoy seems to have been carelessly swept into the dustbin.
The unfortunate truth is, Metro Manila has become so congested, and at the same time so sprawling, that it is difficult to manage even at the best of times. But during a crisis, such as two days of nonstop rain, the many bad decisions that have led to the mess we are in, such as the continued flouting of zoning laws, appear for all to see, like floating trash.
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