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Choose your calamity

12:08 AM June 16, 2015

We get a healthy dose of tropical cyclones each year: Yoling, Sening, Reming, you name them. They show up like our wives—or girlfriends, if you like—to put the sizzle back into our otherwise dreary lives.

Their names, however, have evolved through the years, from American-sounding Jeans, Trixes and Harriets to Sisangs, Salings and Rosings. Even as our mothers “westernized” our names from Juan to Johnny, weather forecasters named typhoons after our wives, our spinster aunts, our yaya, and the sari-sari store owner, Aling Senyang.

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To really mess things up, name-givers at the local weather bureau not too long ago decided that putting Pablo, Ondoy, Milenyo and Pedring along with the Salings and Rosings ensured gender equality.

According to the Typhoon2000 website, the five deadliest typhoons to hit us from 1945 to 2009 were all female-named: Nitang, Trix, Amy, Sisang and Uring (a mere tropical storm accounting for 8,000 or more dead and missing). Rosing, Undang, Sening, Reming and Frank (the only male) round up the top 10. When you add Supertyphoon Yolanda to the group, there’s no longer any doubt that the female is truly deadlier than the male.

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But male cyclones make up for it by causing more damage to the economy. Of the five costliest during the period, notes the website, four are male—Pepeng, Frank, Ondoy and Ruping. Together, they laid waste a total of P62-billion (not yet adjusted to today’s inflation rate) worth of property and resources.

Whatever name they go by, typhoons and their retinues of flashfloods, landslides and monsoon rains come to us with unerring regularity, some 20 or so yearly.

When a typhoon is spotted, we harvest our crops, reinforce our homes, go to the supermarket for candles, flashlights, dry cell batteries, corned beef, and charge our cell phone

batteries like mad. Nails, canvas, corrugated aluminum, plywood, lumber, rice, noodles and sardines are also bestsellers before a storm.

My earliest memory of a vicious killer storm was Trix, a supertyphoon with 215 kph winds. Trix killed by drowning an entire village of fisherfolk. So did Reming, Ondoy, Uring and Yolanda. Supervillains of their kind kill by drowning or by bringing along rains, landslides, floodwaters and tidal surges.

As destructive as they are, typhoons are rather predictable. Like approaching royalty, they announce themselves with pompous gusts of wind, flashy rains and thunderstorms, and even with spectacular satellite images, before they arrive at a predetermined time whenever Pagasa gets it right. But these howlers have shown that they’re not beyond taking occasional detours, thus sending weather forecasters, coast guard officials and some multimillionaire ship owners to a Senate investigation or a Board of Marine inquiry every so often.

We prepare for a typhoon, but are quite ambivalent and utterly helpless with an earthquake.

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Unlike the showy cyclones, an earthquake gets by without a name. Not that it needs one, deadly as it is. It comes like a thief in the night, visiting when you least expect it—when you’re at your desk in a high rise, or inside the toilet (get me out of here!), or in bed for the night (it’s probably the best place to go, if you have to go).

Comparing earthquakes and typhoons is not too difficult. Simply determine the source of the destructive force: An earthquake comes from deep inside the earth; a typhoon only from the weatherman. (Of course we know where typhoons come from, silly.)

We rush indoors when a typhoon rages, we scamper outdoors when an earthquake hits. Without question, the crucial difference between a typhoon and an earthquake is this: One blows you away, the other sucks you in.

Geologists classify earthquakes into two main types: tectonic and volcanic, which, by the way, is what our elementary teacher taught us. But since earthquakes do not preannounce themselves as cyclones do, earthquake preparedness and survival fill our minds only when a major upheaval—like the Bohol and Nepal quakes—hits us.

The China earthquakes of 1556 (Shaanxi: 830,000 deaths) and 1976 (Tangshan: between 255,000 and 655,000 deaths), and more recently, the 2010 Haiti earthquake (222,570 deaths), and the earthquake-induced tsunamis of Sumatra (2004) and Japan (2011) top the list of casualties recorded.

But what’s there to do when an earthquake strikes? For one, get out of the way of anything that could fall from the heavens so that you don’t find yourself under a pile of rubble. Surviving that, propel yourself (drag the whole barangay, if you care) to higher ground and wait for the tsunamis that never come.

When the American poet Robert Frost had to choose between fire and ice to “waste” the world, he chose fire over ice because, as he put it “Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire…” (Well, Frost was that kind of a man.)

Like Frost, we could choose between fire and ice: fire for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; and ice (rain in our neck of the woods) for typhoons and floods.

But recent events have blurred the distinction between the two: The earthquake-generated tsunamis in Japan and other places in South Asia have killed and drowned us just like the rains and floodwaters of typhoons Reming, Ondoy, Sendong and Uring.

The fury and tidal surges of supervillain Yolanda and the devastation caused by the Bohol earthquake have left us wondering why we have to routinely contend with these two deadly forces of nature. If we can’t choose our calamities, why can’t they just go away?

Metro Manilans are especially vulnerable. That’s because we live along the typhoon belt, the Ring of Fire, the West Valley Fault and the Great U-turn Concrete Barriers that could kill us just as efficiently.

Whichever gets us in the end, they say, is really just a matter of luck.

Jing Montealegre is the author of “Coconut Republic,” a book of essays published by UST Publishing House.

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TAGS: Calamities, column, jig montealegre, tropical cyclones
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