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calamities, floods, nation, News

Shock and awe

/ 10:23 PM September 26, 2013

We’ve heard something like this before. Of hard rain never before experienced. Of flooding so severe it strains the memory to recall a precedent. Of the extent of devastation so wide it is both awesome and awful.

It is reported that the people of Olongapo in Zambales were not so much surprised as shocked at the floodwaters that inundated their city on Monday. “It’s worse than any storm I can remember,” said resident Arman Milagrosa, 42, who grew up there. About 90 percent of Olongapo (pop.: more than 220,000) was submerged, in the estimation of City Administrator Mamerto Malabute. The current was so strong that, he said, it swept up cars and other vehicles.

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The recollections had a common theme: The flood came in the night, rising and rushing into homes at an alarming speed. Many woke to find the ground floor of their homes knee-deep in waters that continued to rise steadily, forcing them to retreat to the second floor. Some residents had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Those living by the river could only watch their homes crumble and get carried away, along with their belongings, by the current.

And the refrain: It had never happened before.

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Shock, as well as grief, also blanketed certain areas in the towns of Subic, San Marcelino and Castillejos, where landslides occurred. Whole families, three of them, were wiped out in Subic. On television, the footage was heartrending: A father, soaking wet under a shaky umbrella, dazedly watching rescuers scrape at the mud and stones with nothing more than bare hands and pieces of tin, to find his child. The camera eye focuses on an adult’s rubber shoe, and then on a poignant detail: a stuffed toy, bereft of its owner.

It is difficult to come to terms with the primitive manner of rescue, the lack—no, the absence—of equipment. The footage, constantly looping, brought the message squarely home.

Landslides are rare in Subic, said Zambales Rep. Jeffrey Khonghun, a former mayor of the town. But the rains brought by the habagat (southwest monsoon) were “so heavy” on Sunday and Monday. “There was too much water and the soil became soft,” he said.

Eighteen people were killed in landslides in Barangays Wawandue, Cawag and San Isidro in Subic; four in Barangay Aglao in San Marcelino; and five in Barangay Balaybay in Castillejos. They are among the death toll of 28 in Zambales, including flood victims. Beyond the numbers, routinely collated by bureaucrats and newspaper people, it is important to take note of those who perished.

The provinces of Zambales and Bataan were the hardest hit by the habagat on Sunday and Monday. From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Monday, the amount of rainfall in Subic reached 77 millimeters—“more than torrential, already a deluge,” according to senior weather forecaster Jori Loiz. But the effects of the extreme weather patterns that have become the new normal in these times are compounded by other problems: heavily silted waterways, for example, like the river that runs through the city, the dredging of which had apparently been deep-sixed by politics.

As it happened, residents trapped in their homes by the floodwaters complained of being ignored by Olongapo City Hall despite their repeated calls. “Nobody came. We were so fearful,” said Lita Santos of Mabayuan. Other residents blamed it on the lack of proper rescue equipment. Think of what could have been purchased through the pork barrel funds of lawmakers who, because they are “on the ground,” supposedly know the needs of their constituents.

But this has never happened before! Administrator Malabute, suddenly thrust in the position of main man because of the city mayor’s absence, lamented.

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Indeed, Subic Mayor Jefferson Khonghun—who apparently “inherited” the post from his father, as is the norm in this neck of the woods—reportedly seemed in shock as he supervised the rescue of trapped residents in Barangay Santa Monica. “This is too much,” he was quoted as saying by correspondent Robert Gonzaga. “We’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Once upon a time, Tropical Storm “Ondoy” brought Metro Manila and neighboring provinces to their knees. People could not remember anything like it (although subsequently, in 2011, the fury of Tropical Storm “Sendong” in the South was comparable). The devastation in September 2009 was so terrible, so traumatic, that the term “na-Ondoy” found a firm place in the local lexicon. Thus do we measure high-water marks in our lives.

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