Monday, January 02, 2012

Portents

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

I woke up at dawn on Tuesday last week to frantic text messages from my hometown of Abuyog, deep in the heart of Leyte.

The messages were from various kith and kin—each one of them expressing increasing levels of alarm over the rising floodwaters in my hometown.

My younger sister’s text messages were particularly distressing. She said our parents were stranded in our ancestral home—a split-level house in the middle of ricefields and they didn’t have a way to rescue them. My mother was able to send just one text message, riddled with typographical errors, which made it obvious she was on panic mode. Floodwaters were steadily rising, she texted; or at least that is what I thought she meant. Tatay, who is in a wheelchair and my hypertensive diabetic Nanay, had no way of escaping. And there was nothing anyone of us could do except pray—and worry.

The flooding phenomenon has hit home and has become intensely personal to me - so personal I felt like I wanted to hit someone with anything. I wanted to hunt down each and every logger in our hometown, tie them down to a log, and feed them to those menacing giant saws that swing in the air like killer pendulums.

Mercifully, the heavens stopped pouring buckets and by mid-afternoon, the floodwaters started receding. My sister was finally able to cross a highway that had been transformed into a rampaging river and was able to check on my parents. She reported that the floodwaters were barely two inches short of reaching the elevated part of the house. I dread the thought of what could have happened if the rains continued for another hour or two.

The flooding in my hometown was banner material for the evening telecasts. Up until the weekend, the flood in certain parts of Leyte had not yet receded but the images and footages that the networks show continue to be those taken from my hometown. I know because our church is recognizable as well as other landmarks in the town.

How truly sad it is to see footages of one’s hometown being featured in the news because of a tragedy although grief is often difficult to read from the behaviors of many people who seem to think that being seen on television regardless of the circumstance is a reason to act like chimpanzees watching themselves in a mirror for the first time. This scene is all too familiar: Every time a newscaster does a live report from a remote site, a crowd gathers at the back of the reporter and starts waving at the camera, or worse, start behaving irrationally. I’ve always wondered what makes people do crazy things in the presence of a television camera, but I digress.

As I was saying, seeing one’s hometown being featured as site of a tragedy is heartbreaking. Sadder still is the fact that everyone in the town all knew why the flooding happened. In fact, everyone foresaw it happening at some point.

Here’s why. Abuyog is at the base of mountains that have become bald from deforestation. When I was a child, venison and the meat of wild boar caught from the mountains around the town could still be bought from the public market. We feasted on rattan fruits, honey from wild bees, and other exotic stuff that could only be harvested from lush forests. Unfortunately, lumber was also the main business of the local politicians so for many years the town’s mountains were mercilessly pillaged. The town’s oligarchs got richer and richer while the mountains became balder and balder. And now we are paying dearly for years of environmental abuse.

Overpopulation is also to blame for the flooding. Those who oppose the reproductive health bill can romanticize population growth all they want, but pictures speak far more eloquently. The flash floods in this country were exacerbated by the fact that informal settlers have blocked rivers and waterways and aggravated silting and pollution. Yes, in an ideal world, we can theoretically manage Earth’s resources better so that there is enough for everyone. But we don’t live in an ideal world and the quest to get there will not happen overnight if at all. In the meantime, the calamities and the tragedies will continue to happen and with increasing severity.

What was annoying though was that while my townmates tried to cope with the tragedy, the news story about the President was mainly about the 2013 elections. And yes, I also heard the President’s eldest sister’s lecture on how we should all move on from tragedies but I am sure she wasn’t expecting people to be able to do that within 24 hours from the time the tragedy struck.

The big to do was about who would end up in the administration’s slate in 2013 and whether there will be room for Vice President Jejomar Binay’s partymates in the slate. Oh for crying out loud, I know we cannot and should not expect the President and this administration to focus 100 percent of its energies on the flood victims, but a little sensitivity wouldn’t hurt either. The elections are 18 months away and we choose to talk about it at a time when the immediate concern of thousands of Filipinos is where their next meal is coming from and where they would be able to sleep for the night? Talk about misplaced priorities!

Even more dismaying was the fact that the President actually publicly announced that he supports the inclusion of Senator Antonio Trillanes in the administration’s senatorial lineup. But I forgot; the standards of morality has been changed in this country. Anyone who is against the former President and supports the current administration is automatically deemed to have better morals.

***

Most of us woke up yesterday with a cold, a cough, irritated eyes, snoot on our noses, or worse, a severe case of allergies - thanks to the people who, once again, felt the compelling need to patronize the local fireworks industry. Most of us were luckier, of course. After all, many lost an appendage, or a limb or two. I know quite a number of people who woke up late on New Year’s Day, staggering from a bloated stomach and groaning from a killer hangover.

This is how we greet the New Year each year and yet most of us expect things to be different or better; pretty much the kind of attitude we keep as far as this administration is concerned.

Okay. I apologize if I am spoiling your New Year buzz. It’s just that it’s difficult to be upbeat at a time when many of our leaders are behaving like children and most everyone else is content marching along the straight narrow path led by a Pied Piper.

But hope still springs eternal. I may have lost faith in many of our leaders, but I haven’t lost faith in the Filipino.

Here’s to a more empowering and enabling 2012!

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