Monday, October 05, 2009

Things I learned from Ondoy and Pepeng

This is my column today.

It has been said that experience is the best teacher. If we are to go by the way most people reacted swiftly to the impending arrival of Typhoon Pepeng last Friday, it seemed many have indeed learned some lessons in survival—some quite more painfully than others.

Traffic in the Metro was hopelessly gridlocked in many areas late afternoon and early evening of Friday as most scrambled to get home as fast as they could presumably to prepare for the onslaught of the super typhoon. Lines at the supermarket at lunchtime were long, very, very long, as most stocked up on food and survival kits. My friends and I picked up the last remaining rechargeable lamps and batteries at a hardware store at the Mall of Asia and I personally am at a loss as to what to do now with the lamps I bought on a whim. I am sure there are many people out there with a surfeit of canned goods and instant noodles.

Many among us grew wiser—and older—in the last ten days. For sure there are lots of people out there who have learned not to take storm warnings for granted again. Here, to my mind, are some of the lessons many of us learned from typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng although this list is not by any means comprehensive.

1.It takes a major calamity to shake people out of complacency. This is true for government and for everyone. Up until the great flood wrought by Ondoy, nobody really took disaster programs seriously. But Ondoy showed us the extent of our unpreparedness. Suddenly, people were taking note of various tips and tricks on basic survival and when dire warnings about Pepeng’s fury started to get around—many of them alarmist and based on hearsay— people started to take heed.

2.Catastrophes are not really just acts of God but a result of our collective failure as a people to do the necessary. Up until now, the state of urban planning in this country was something that did not merit any attention at all. We’re now painfully aware of just how we’ve turned Metro Manila into a massive dam that locks floodwaters in. Floodwaters in many areas of Metro Manila have not subsided yet and the flood in certain areas around Laguna is not expected to recede until Christmas on account of the massive overflow from Laguna de Bay. Urban planning experts tell us that we need to think strategically and begin building vertically from this point on. There will be more flooding in the near future unless we begin to put in place strategic plans designed to make people co-exist with nature.

3.Disasters and catastrophes are great equalizers; they affect everyone equally regardless of economic or social stature. Nature treats everyone equally but people don’t necessarily do so. Those who are in positions of power and influence can justify their actions all they want but there is no escaping the fact that there has been inequity in the way rescue and relief efforts were and are being made. The over-the-top media attention on celebrity-victims and supposed heroes are proof of just how differently we treat the haves and the have-nots in this country even during disasters.

4.Despite the wanton materialism and consumerism that have enslaved many of us, the spirit of good old bayanihan is alive and well in this country. I continue to be touched by the way Filipinos in general have responded to the pleas for help from those who were severely affected by Ondoy. There are many stories out there of how people have pitched in efforts to help victims. Relief centers have not been wanting of volunteers; in fact, in many of these centers, walk-in volunteers are turned away and scheduled for a later date. We went to a relief center in Makati last week and were surprised to have been asked to render only four hours of volunteer work to give way to others who also wanted to do their share.

5.The phrase “what matters most” is highly relative but some people still don’t seem to get it. It is easy for many to preach from their high perch in society and pontificate that people should not attach that much value to material possessions. I personally find it in bad taste when people shamelessly declare on public television that “kikitain ko pa naman yun” (roughly, I’ll still be able to earn enough to buy the same stuff again) forgetting that those in the margins of society spend their whole lifetime just to be able to afford living in the shanty that they call home and to be able to buy those television sets and electric fans that many easily dismiss as just “material things.”

6.Technology is truly a double-edged sword. Technology enables us quick access to critical information but it also fuels unnecessary paranoia and panic. There was just too much information —many of them second- or third-hand interpretations of facts—that was going around last Friday about Typhoon Pepeng. Satellite images of Typhoon Pepeng showing a great swathe of clouds the size of the Philippine map was helpful for those who knew how to interpret those images but only served to heighten panic among those who saw those images literally. Those dire predictions relayed through text messages about how 9 p.m. of Friday night was supposed to be the critical hour was interpreted and re-interpreted many different ways and many saw it as the exact time when the typhoon would hit Metro Manila.

7.Prayers do work wonders, perhaps not necessarily in changing the path of an impending typhoon but on the psychological state of people. For many, prayer was the one thing that kept them sane and functioning.

8.Some politicians just can’t help themselves—it’s like they have a compulsion to be politicians all the time. I was aghast to see some relief bags carrying the names of certain politicians although to be fair, the bags did not expressly asked people to vote for them. But there was no escaping the subliminal message. We are seeing lots of politicians being very, very visible in relief efforts and the funny thing is that they are the ones verbalizing that there is nothing political about what they are doing. I was hoping for a respite from those political ads on television but it seems Senator Manny Villar is oblivious to public criticism. He has released a brand-new television ad showing him hugging people and providing relief to people

9. There really are bigoted people in this world who have a lot of growing up to do. It is possible that those who have been accused of making those incendiary comments in the Internet about how we— “sinners” and “monkeys”—deserve the calamities are innocent—it is possible they are victims of hackers. But someone still wrote those hate comments.

10. Truly, as the cliché goes, it will take more than major disasters, calamities and catastrophes to bring us down. Filipinos are a resilient people.

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