The poor and weak still took the brunt of it. But so unexpected and uncontainable was the fury of “Yolanda” that it put even the rich and powerful through a day, or night, of absolute terror.
Tacloban Councilor Cristina Gonzalez and her husband, Mayor Alfred Romualdez, were chief among them. As Cristina told CNN, as soon as the “angry wind” rose, she and her two daughters and maid fled their house which faced the ocean and sought refuge in their Toyota Innova. Within minutes the van started filling up with water. Realizing they were going to drown if they stayed there, they decided to swim back to the house. Fortunately, all of them were good swimmers—life beside the sea had made them so—and they made it to the upper floor. By that time the lower floor had filled with water, too.
At the height of the storm, their roof flew off, and the push and pull of the water—this was what a storm surge meant!—carrying debris threatened to sweep their house to the sea. They held on to whatever they could for dear life as wind and water swirled around them. And they prayed and prayed.
Cristina and Alfred came out of it with only the clothes on their backs.
I can imagine how anyone who just went through this would greatly mind hearing, even if from the President himself, that the reason one went through this was that one did not prepare. Which indeed was what the President suggested last Monday: that Leyte’s, specifically Tacloban’s, officials had been remiss in their duties, which caused their province and city undue grief.
Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez, Alfred’s cousin, gave the President the benefit of the doubt, saying he probably had not yet been apprised of the situation when he said that—though that is surprising, given that the President himself had flown there and seen the extent of the devastation with his own eyes. He himself, said Martin, would only say everything humanly possible was done to prepare for the supertyphoon. The same thing would have happened to Metro Manila had it lain squarely in Yolanda’s path. “No one here or abroad could have prepared for a catastrophe of these proportions.”
Indeed, how on earth, or on these shores, does one prepare for something like this? The Metropolitan Cathedral in Palo, Leyte, had its roof wrenched off and its ceiling gutted by the storm. The occupants of Tacloban’s hotels saw their windows shatter, scattering glass on their floors, and wind and rain howl in their rooms. Where do you go to hide when these fortifications offer no sanctuary? And when, like most Filipinos, you are poor and helpless and have no means to rush off, children in tow, to them?
James Reynolds, a cameraman and veteran of 35 typhoons, testifies to the apocalyptic proportions of Nature’s ravaging. “I’ve chased nothing like this before. This was just totally off the scale both in terms of the violence of the storm and then the human tragedy, the consequences of such a powerful natural event hitting a city of 200,000 people. Scientists are saying it’s a candidate for one of the strongest storms to ever hit land. From a personal point of view, this was the most calamitous event I’ve witnessed.”
The only way you can really prepare for something like this is to believe the unbelievable and expect the unexpected. Or understand that things aren’t going to get better, they are going to get worse. The worst is not behind us, it is in front of us. And prayer, or prayer alone, won’t see us through. I’m not knocking faith and prayer, I’m just plugging for that saying “Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.” There are practicalities to consider, too.
It helps to know the science. That science tells us that disasters are our new way of life, or death, and the unexpected is the new norm. “We already knew,” said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “that on a global scale, Earth is warmer today than it was over much of the past 2,000 years. Now we know that it is warmer than most of the past 11,300 years—the entire period of human civilization.” By rights, we should just be hitting the tail end of Earth’s cooling period, “but obviously we are not.” Global temperatures have risen by 0.8 Celsius, and the planet has broken records in heat in the past 10 years alone. Many experts blame Hurricane “Sandy” on climate change.
We can pretty much do the same for Yolanda. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, who was tapped by US President Barack Obama to study climate change, warns that rising sea levels (global warming is melting the polar ice caps, which has accounted for a fifth in the rise of sea levels since 1992) “could inundate coastal areas with the most vulnerable cities found in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Mozambique, the Philippines, Venezuela and Vietnam.” He said 97 percent of scientists agreed that it was human activity that was causing climate change. “As someone who has lived in the world of science for a long time, 97 percent is unheard-of consensus.”
The inundation is happening even as we speak. If the nightmare in Leyte doesn’t convince us that the new normal is a state of fragility, of precariousness, nothing will. I do hope the President raises the point when he speaks before the world, an opportunity that the current cataclysm has afforded him (we have become the cynosure of the world’s eyes for such a God-awful reason). Being told we have a strong spirit, an indomitable will, a spectacular resilience, is fine, but we can do better with America doing its part in stopping the killing of the planet. It has been remiss on this strongly, indomitably, spectacularly. With the most horrendous effects on the world’s coastline—and we are nothing if not one gigantic coastline.
Otherwise, we’ll just be preparing for the “unpreparable.”
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