Monday, September 28, 2009

The great flood

This is my column today, September 28, 2009.

Like millions of other Metro Manila and Central Luzon residents, I woke up Saturday morning to very, very heavy rains.  I’ve never seen such a heavy downpour in my whole life.  Geologists would later report that what we witnessed was the equivalent of almost a month’s worth of rain being poured on to Metro Manila all within a total of less than six hours. It was like nature unleashing a century’s worth of pent-up fury.  Some people did report that the heavy flooding last Saturday was the worst ever in a century. 

I live in San Andres in Manila where the streets easily get transformed into instant lakes and rivers.  But we live in a street that’s elevated and the structure of the house was precisely built to withstand floods.  Not once has floodwaters entered the house.  But last Saturday was not like any ordinary day.  By 10:00 am, dark murky waters started to seep into the garage and in barely an hour’s time, the ground floor was knee-deep in floodwaters.  We all scrambled to save whatever we could. 

At noontime, many years of disaster preparedness training kicked in; something I wished happened sooner or that more people had. I asked everyone to stop and instead mapped out a contingency plan in case floodwaters continued to rise all the way to the second floor.  I asked everyone to each pack an emergency bag containing valuables, change of clothes, some food provisions and started devising a plan on how to get to the four-storey building three houses away from ours.  Our plan was to bridge rooftops using some planks of wood and ropes I happened to have around the house as training materials.  I talked to some neighbors and got them to agree to the plan in case the floodwaters did continue to rise.

We started to pray while monitoring the extent of the devastation through television and text messages.

My two kids were stranded at school and at work, both tired and yearning to get home, but were at least in safe and dry places.  A number of my students were stranded at school, but were at least fed by the La Salle brothers.  Too bad not all corporations were as generous.  We heard unconfirmed reports that the biggest retail company in the country refused to host their employees for the night and chose to close their stores instead leaving their employees to fend for themselves.  By midnight, we heard government ordered all malls to open their parking spaces for free to the thousands of motorists stranded along major thoroughfares but we didn’t know if the malls complied.

A friend sent out requests for prayers for floodwaters to recede because there were barely six inches left before it reached the second floor of his house.  Like many others, he was tragically unprepared and therefore lost all possessions in the ground floor of his house including precious antiques and paintings.  He lost so much but in the larger scheme of things, was still luckier compare to many who lost everything.

My heart went out to the thousands of people stranded on rooftops waiting for rescue efforts that didn’t seem forthcoming.  Roads were blocked by submerged vehicles, the current was too strong in many areas, and we painfully realized just how utterly unprepared everyone is in this country including government and private citizen volunteer groups to deal with unexpected disasters. 

The Internet buzzed with horror stories of people trapped inside houses.  Shocking images of houses, major thoroughfares, even malls submerged in floodwaters got posted and reposted in various sites further triggering panic buttons.  Even Ayala Avenue was flooded and the underground passageways were submerged. Two images seemed to be heavy favorites for their human-interest appeal.  One was that of a tearful celebrity Christine Reyes shivering under the rain while huddled at the rooftop of her house waiting to be rescued.  The other one was that of a video of a group of people begging for help while clutching on to debris and haplessly being swept away by strong currents.  Onlookers gaped at them helplessly.  I wonder what happened to those poor people.  I pray that they were rescued.

Facebook became an instant communications hub as people from all over the world posted inquiries on the whereabouts of kith and kin.  A former student who is based in the United States kept posting status updates asking for information about his family which he had not been able to contact – it turned out their house was totally submerged in floodwaters.  A group of friends tried to coordinate a rescue plan – in Facebook, with the whole world in on it – for a sick friend who was trapped at the second floor of her house with no means of escape.   

As can be expected, there were people who chose to politicize the tragedy.  Some people picked at the supposed ineptness and the alleged failure of the National Disaster Coordinating Council to get its act together.  There were those who thought that Administration candidate Gibo Teodoro (who is chair of the NDCC and whose political ads were precisely on disaster preparedness) squandered the rare opportunity to rack up pogi points. Teodoro could have made himself more visible and could have fashioned himself as some hero, but that would have required playing for the cameras and engaging in antics such as wading in chest-deep floods and personally plucking people from houses.   It seems Teodoro chose a more strategic role for himself coordinating mostly from control rooms – something that makes perfect sense from the point of view crisis management but is unfortunately incomprehensible to the common tao.

The tragedy brought to the fore our utter inability to deal with major tragedies and disasters.  One lone voice of reason was that of Senator Richard Gordon, chairperson of the Red Cross, who kept admonishing people to help them selves and each other instead of simply wishing for divine providence and help from government.  And indeed, in many parts of Metro Manila, it was common sense and good old bayanihan that saved the day for thousands of people.  The online community eventually shifted to discussing how people can help and I must commend bloggers like Manolo Quezon who had the foresight to coordinate and mobilize global efforts towards more productive ways.  Rather than simply wringing hands in frustration, various practical suggestions such as where to go to help in relief efforts and how to donate money were soon being posted in various sites and blogs.

There will be lots of discussions – including the usual search for someone to blame – in the aftermath of the great flood.  This couldn’t be helped given our penchant for blaming everyone except ourselves for our woes.  But in the end, the following vignette pretty much sums up our collective psyche in dealing with major disasters.

When relatives heard that floodwaters have started to inundate our house, we were besieged by text messages and calls from well-meaning relatives in the provinces.  One of my grandaunts insisted on what she said was the best course of action; something I would have found hilarious in another time.  She insisted that we get the antique image of the Santo Nino de Cebu down from its lofty perch at the second floor of the house and position it at the foot of the stairs leading to the second floor. The miraculous image, she was confident, would command the floodwaters to recede.  

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