Monday, October 02, 2006

Froth, inaction and callousness

The following is my column today at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

I know you’ve had enough of people talking about where they were and what they were doing at the height of Milenyo’s fury, so I will not go there. I think that our collective resilience and fortitude as a people need no further testimony.

It is Sunday afternoon, I am sweltering and stuck inside a house that hardly has any water. I am desperately trying to hammer out a column on a laptop with the battery threatening to go kaput any moment. Thanks to Meralco’s impotence, the whole of Paco and Singalong is still without electricity as I write. Write and rant about how utterly unprepared our government institutions and utility companies are to deal with a crisis and its aftermath.

One would think that since we are on first name basis with crisis—for crying out loud, we have typhoons practically every month, landslides every now and then, flash floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other forces of nature battering us on a regular basis—we would have grown a little wiser. But no sir, we are definitely not there yet.

In a country where almost everyone has a cellphone, you would expect telecom companies to take it upon themselves to employ technology for some public service. After all, at the height of the typhoon, these telecom companies were making a killing as people forwarded text messages about this and that unofficial weather update. I personally received an SMS supposedly from “the US navy weather station” warning that the “typhoon would hit Manila at 2pm with center winds at 214 kph and gusts of 260 kph.” I received this message at least six times! It turned out that the worst of the typhoon’s beatings was over by 2 p.m.—due to this warning, however, we were still bracing for yet worse.

Globe and Smart send all kinds of unwanted messages promoting this and that on ordinary days, but could not use that technology in a crisis? The last three days could have been a perfect time to finally put that technology to a truly great use. And why am I not surprised that these telecom companies’ public relations machines churn out some perfectly-crafted yarn about how the law prohibits that kind of public service? My message to them is simple: it is easy to make excuses and wash hands.

I have ranted in this column and in my blog about the dangers billboards pose, but I guess no one was listening. Then. Now, all of a sudden, because someone got killed and properties were destroyed as close to 40 of those eyesores toppled over, we have a preponderance of bleeding hearts. Local officials are suddenly on the side of MMDA Chairman Bayani Fernando who has long been trying to regulate the use of those billboards.

The debris has not yet been cleared and here we are debating about whether those billboards constitute freedom of expression and all that intellectualizing. Oh please, let’s stop frothing in the mouth and just regulate those darn monstrosities on the road. At the very least, they insult our collective sense of aesthetics.

Meralco can crow all it wants about the heroism of its people and the valiant efforts they have put into restoring electricity in record time. Yet all these do not mean anything to thousands of other consumers —myself included—who are still wringing our hands and pining for some relief from the misery of a powerless existence three days after the typhoon hit. It doesn’t help that our next-door neighbors have had their electricity restored Saturday. There is no excuse for our tragedy because the lines are perfectly okay, electricity was actually restored in our area early morning Friday for a few hours before something went wrong somewhere. I was told that the priority is fixing power lines and since the power lines in our area are okay and that the problem is something else, we’ll just have to wait. Gee, that’s truly brilliant logic.

I drove aimlessly around Metro Manila yesterday just so the kids can enjoy air-conditioning for a few hours and, all right, so we can charge cellphones in the car. Traffic lights in a number of critical intersections were still off. The perfect formula for mayhem was present: traffic lights that weren’t working, people who all needed to get ahead of others, obstructions on the road, and the absolute clincher—no traffic aide in sight. At the intersection of Aurora and Edsa at Cubao, there were traffic aides all right, but it seemed they were more interested in apprehending traffic violators (mostly drivers who insisted on turning left on a no left turn sign) than in sorting out the mess. Two days of bad weather must have made a major dent on their financial quotas.

In the meantime, garbage on secondary roads (and particularly on side streets) is piling up.
All these and more reflect just how inutile our institutions are in dealing with the aftermath of a crisis. The hours and days after a crisis are exactly the time when public institutions and their efforts must be visible and palpable. This is precisely the time when information must be easily accessible, when officials of government and public utility companies must be all over television and radio, when traffic aides must be on the road, when garbage collectors must work triple time, when public works people must be on the road with their power saws and heavy equipment.

This is the time when the people need to be assured that their taxes are working, that their leaders are there for them. This is the time when people need to be comforted, when efforts to show sincerity and some empathy would be greatly appreciated. A crisis makes people emotionally spent and vulnerable. In times like these, we look up to our leaders —whether in government or in business —to provide comfort and relief. We do not need lectures and angry denunciations and finger pointing.

The President’s reported impatience may send a chilling message to Meralco, but we would rather see some warmth, empathy—and real action. The public posturing of some mayors may get them some media time, but quite frankly, we know that the objects of their ire are also the people who will finance their campaign in the elections this May so we know that nothing will come out of it. Meralco can try empathizing and apologizing and showing some heart.

1 comment:

vic said...

I'd like to rant and swear too, but by nature I don't, cause my very own (family) vacation home in Brookside hill, just about few inches of becoming an indoor swimming pool. but that is nothing comparaes to the destructions and damages caused by 'milenyo' which human neglect and indifference had contributed greatly. I can symphatize with you with the lack of civic concern of the Broadcast media and all modern means of communication. Had that of emergency is upon us, the T.V. station will either have scroll all over theie screen and all will break their regular programming for public announcement service. make sure everyone is ready for an emergency. And to call all emergency workers to be on the post. And believe me the cops has no scrupples of making people obey the advisory, especially during a violent snowstorm. Ours is always picking up the pieces after every one of them and conveniently blame it back on nature's. now i can rant...