The falling sky

My father is standing outside our garage again. The bags have been packed, the cables unplugged, the grandchildren dressed and waiting to be plucked from their beds. The waters are at the gates.

The windows are frosted; the sky is going gray in the morning. There is three feet of water along Magallanes and Gilmore, Bangkal’s creek has overflowed. At 8 a.m., National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council head Benito Ramos reports that “so far, we have had no reported casualties.”

It is July 21, 2012, the date that will mark the graves of the two who have already died in the wake of a tropical depression’s short visit. The first is Jonathan Sagodaquiel, 31, a man who, Ramos claims, was drunk while he was crossing the Lumban River. He drowned in Wawa Village, Laguna, “swept by the strong current.” His body has been recovered. The second is a 35-year-old from San Isidro village in Naguilian in La Union. His name is Wilcor Rellera, and he drowned in the Pandanga Creek.

The NDRRMC reports six more missing. Junrel Tamario, 20 years old, a resident of Doña Calixta, San Andres, who was “accidentally swept away” while fishing in the river. Niel Calay, six years old, from Lon-oy, San Gabriel, La Union, who was “swept at Balballaya River.” Fishermen Teodorico Caampued, 60, Robinson Siso, 50, Rogelio Canayon, 35, and Levi Caballero, 23, all from Victory, Bolinao, Pangasinan, all of whom “went missing after being hit by extreme waves along the coastal shores of Bolinao.”

That these are events that would cause considerable panic in populations outside the country does not matter. In the land of fun and coconut suns, death by drowning is a natural phenomenon, along with underage prostitution, bumper-to-bumper traffic, sanctioned corruption and a risk reduction council run by men built for reaction, not prevention. Only two casualties, say the radio stations. Only two men dead, and one was crossing the river drunk.

Classes are suspended, the military goes on red alert, and the sky vomits water over cities whose people have nowhere to go. It is July three years after “Ondoy” and six months after “Sendong,” and the metropolis that is “ready for another Ondoy” has water crawling into living rooms and soaking gray sedan carpeting. It is a return to the drowning season. Three were killed last Saturday in South Cotabato flooding, all of them under the age of 25.

The NDRRMC called the amount of rainfall “intense to heavy.” Tropical Depression “Ferdie” dumped 10-15 millimeters of rainwater an hour within 400 kilometers of its center. Tropical Storm Ondoy, the force of nature that killed 400 and left Metro Manila in tatters, also produced intense to heavy rainfall, over 56 mm an hour, more than three times what Ferdie dropped over Manila. North Mindanao’s Sendong had over 50 mm of rainfall an hour, killed over a thousand, and had so many missing even Ramos could not give a proper accounting. And Ferdie, with its measly 10 mm, demanded red alerts, paralyzed the city, and killed at least two men with only a few hours of rainfall, flooding the drainage supposedly ready for heavy rains.

And still, says the NDRRMC, we are ready for Ondoy.

“No one or not one region is exempted or spared from typhoons, earthquake, or any type of disasters,” Ramos said in a speech in San Fernando, La Union, last month.

It is a monumental step for Ramos to concede the inevitability of disaster, a concept that appeared lost to the retired general when he announced in June last year that Typhoon “Falcon” was “a harsh reminder of the increasing challenges that erratic weather patterns will bring in their wake.” That Ramos needed a reminder that storms are dangerous and people can die underlines the reactiveness of a government agency mandated to prevent disaster. A typhoon is not a disaster. It does not have to be. The disaster is the damage, the loss in property, the death count, and the fact that one life lost is one too many. Right now there is a 6-year-old who may be dead or dying or lost, a family who is left waiting for the small child swept into the river.

No matter the quickness in reaction, the cities and provinces are not built for storms, every major highway is a catch basin for flooding, and the 15 mm of rainfall has the capacity to strip homes and families. Very little has been done to open up the concrete floodways. Creeks are still lined by plywood homes. There is nowhere for the water to go. Marikina remains a floodplain for the Sierra Madre, in spite of recommendations to completely stop building. The Pasig River has narrowed to a fraction of its original size. Increased urbanization has covered the city with concrete, the drainage is not built to support a mushrooming population.

“I am encouraging everybody,” says Benito Ramos, “particularly the NDRRMCs from the regions down to the barangay level to always put into practice the value of bayanihan or cooperation as this is a very effective way to counter the ill effects of any type of calamity.”

A study published by Dr. Doracie Zoleta-Nantes tracks the number of rivers that have been overtaken by the urban sprawl. A total of 21 kilometers of river are now missing from the maps of Metro Manila, which amounts to 21 kilometers of disappeared drainage capacity in the city. It was a study published in 2000, 13 years ago. The cities will drown because they are built to drown, and no amount of brotherhood and responsiveness will save a city on water. The retired general is correct: Cooperation and brotherhood are wonderful things. But survival is better.

My father tells me the water is slowly ebbing. He says he will keep watch.

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Posted on Jul 21, 2012 under General, Opinions and labeled ,,

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