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Disasters and remembering

/ 12:18 AM September 27, 2016

WE WERE barely aware of it here in Metro Manila, but the other week a typhoon of almost “Yolanda” proportions hit Batanes and nearby provinces and islands. Though there were no casualties or fatalities, authorities said, the damage and losses were pretty major. So powerful was “Ferdie,” in fact, that typhoon signal No. 4 was raised over Batanes and the Babuyan group of islands.

Worse, because of the distance and the remoteness of the islands, it took some days before essential relief goods, including drinking water, could be airlifted to Basco, the capital, and to Itbayat where the heaviest damage was inflicted. Residents were also left without electricity or means of communication for days.

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Though the urgent needs for relief and aid had been eased by timely delivery of essential goods, Batanes remains in a state of calamity. More than 1,000 houses were damaged, if not completely destroyed, by Ferdie’s howling winds. Rehabilitation will take months, if not years, as the local government seeks to restore the public infrastructure and private housing devastated by the typhoon.

Even as the raging emergency in Batanes eases, the country marked the seventh anniversary of another weather disturbance, Tropical Storm “Ondoy.” People in Marikina, one of the locales hardest hit by Ondoy’s rains and floods, so reporter Jovic Yee said in a report yesterday, still remember it as “the end of the world.”

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In my own household within the boundaries of lower Antipolo but very near Marikina, Ondoy is still remembered vividly. There may barely be traces of the damage left by the floodwaters, but the memories and the trauma remain.

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ONDOY retains such a firm grip on the popular psyche in these parts because Metro Manila could be said to have been at the epicenter of the storm, although provinces in nearby areas and Northern Luzon likewise suffered flooding in the aftermath, especially since Typhoon “Pepeng” followed close on its heels.

What gave this weather disturbance such a powerful and lasting impact on people and communities was that it was entirely unexpected. “Heavy rains” was all the warning given, but little did ordinary folk realize that Ondoy would dump, in just six hours, the equivalent of a month’s volume of rainfall. The Marikina River, made shallow by decades of silting, easily overflowed its banks, inundating streets and preventing the exit of the  floodwaters, which backed up and flowed into homes by way of their drainage systems.

Eventually, the government would declare under a state of calamity 23 provinces and Metro Manila. Almost a million families, or nearly five million individuals, were affected by the disaster, with 464 killed, 529 injured, and 37 declared missing. Some 15,000 families were forced to seek shelter in evacuation centers and other structures, such as churches and houses of neighbors.

I remember expecting, as the whole day’s rains gave way to a nighttime of relatively peaceful calm despite the floods around us, that when we woke up the next morning, the nightmare would have dissipated along with the floodwaters. But the floods remained for one or two days afterward, taxing every household’s meager store of drinking water, food and power. We were cut off from virtually all forms of communication, as power had been cut and there was no way of knowing what the situation was like in other areas of the Metro or of the country.

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AND yet, when the record of natural disasters is examined, Ondoy doesn’t figure in the Top Ten, save for the number of people affected. (Then again, this may be explained by the fact that it hit mainly the congested National Capital Region.)

A listing of the “worst” disasters in Philippine history in the news website Rappler gives the “honor” of the worst in all categories to Typhoon Yolanda, in which 6,300 people were killed, followed closely by the 1976 Mindanao earthquake (and resultant tsunami) where 6,000 perished. Yolanda also tops the list in terms of cost of damage, placed at over $2 million, followed by the 2012 Typhoon “Pablo” which hit Northern Mindanao and caused $1.6 million in damage.

Yolanda likewise affected the biggest number of people, more than 16 million people, although Ondoy ranks No. 4, with almost five million.

Indeed, Yolanda was a record-breaking typhoon, but it was also a rude shock, setting new levels for what we now glibly term the “new normal.” To say that weather disturbances on the scale of Yolanda will be considered normal from now on is saddening and frightening. And indeed, the comparison to Yolanda of Typhoon Ferdie says a lot about how routinely horrifying disasters have become for us. The people of Batanes, inured for generations to the worst of weather disturbances visiting our shores, may have faced Ferdie stoically and sturdily. But I guess their lessons and coping mechanisms will have to be shared with all of us other Pinoys.

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IN the wake of Ondoy and even of Yolanda, officials and ordinary folk alike could not help remarking how “surprised” or taken aback they were by the extent of the disaster and the impact these would have on their lives and future.

This may explain why, after Ondoy, the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act was passed, and in many ways and subsequent disasters, the coordinated disaster-management mechanism created by the law has proven effective.

This just goes to show that we are able to respond when the times call for it. But it really shouldn’t take another disaster or series of disasters to let us get our act together.

Click here for more weather related news.

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TAGS: Batanes, Disaster, Ferdie, Ondoy, opinion, Typhoon, Yolanda
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