Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Essay: Philippine Typhoons

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Over the weekend, the Philippines was flooded as typhoon Ondoy (a.k.a. Ketsana--you can find a list of local names for typhoons here), exactly three years after typhoon Milenyo (Xangsane) ravaged Metro Manila. No one was really prepared for it and here are some of the reasons why:

The Philippines has two seasons: wet and dry. Suffice to say, we get lots of typhoons during the wet season, year after year. News that a storm is coming is about as alarming as a fire drill (and that's pretty much the reaction of the government). If immediate evacuations and emergency precautions were actually implemented, we'd be doing it a dozen times every season. And unfortunately, while there are expected casualties and damage during a typhoon, no one predicted it would be this horrible. That's also the case with Milenyo. We've had super typhoons before; we just didn't expect one to lift boulders, uproot trees, and knock down houses. And in the cases of Ondoy, it was a deceptive storm. Unlike Milenyo which caused a lot of property damage due to powerful wind speeds, the destruction wreaked by this typhoon was through the sheer amount of rainfall. No one was afraid they'll be blown away by the wind and early in the day, people shrugged as the rains fell. It was only hours after the initial downpour that it suddenly occurred to everyone: the rains weren't stopping, and the streets and villages were flooding.

The second part of the problem is city planning itself. It's not that we don't have drains, but they're often clogged up by trash (and the government alone isn't to blame; why are we citizens throwing our trash there?). A lot of our streets are made from inferior materials, so holes and depressions are common. And quite frankly, because Manila is congested, some homes and buildings are prone to flooding during a typhoon or high tide. That's also not taking into account the thousands upon thousands of squatters (another common facet of the country) living near rivers in makeshift homes.

It also couldn't have come at a worse time, when the president is being pressured by the media for misuse of emergency funds for foreign trips. Where is the budget for relief and rescue missions? And mind you, we're a third-world country, so while we have vehicles like helicopters, they're seldom used outside of commercial enterprises (let's not even get into the predicament of what would happen if we go to war...).

And the sad thing is, this will happen again. Everyone will be on high alert with the next few typhoons but after that, pffft, it's back to complacency. Our drains won't be cleaned (or rather, it will be and it'll quickly fill up), people can't afford to change addresses, city planning won't suddenly get better, and there's only so much precautions both citizens and government alike will take when it's reported that a typhoon is coming. (There's also the logging of trees, pollution, and global warming in general.)

Some people have wondered why our local meteorologists can't accurately predict the weather (we've had forecasts where classes are suspended and there's not a drop of rain to be found). I've heard various reasons, from lack of sufficient equipment, to imprecise forecasting by virtue of living in a tropical country. One must wonder though, if we could accurately predict the weather, would life in the Philippines really change? At this point, technologies like Google Spreadsheets, Twitter, and the blogging community is science fictional with their ability to rally and direct people to calamity sites (and for the record, most of us don't have/can't afford GPS so Google is the poor man's navigation system). And that's one of the more positive efforts that's cropping up after such a devastation: citizens and the blogosphere (both local and international) rallying to help support the victims.

Anyway, here's how people can help:


Jason Erik Lundberg said...

It's a horrible thing to have happened, but I'm glad to hear that you're okay.

Kaz Augustin said...

My sympathies and best wishes for the future go to all who were affected by this disaster. And I have to wonder how Cuba, which faces ravaging tropical storms every single year, manages to put together a coherent disaster mitigation strategy that saves people, important goods, food and domestic pets, and yet we, here in Asia, seem more than a little clueless, season after season.

You may be talking about the Philippines specifically this time, Charles, but it equally applies to every south-east Asian country when hit with disaster of this magnitude. Where is the political will to do anything and where is our own self-respect when it comes to mindlessly clogging the very infrastructure that can help save us? You've hit a button with this one and I've been scratching my head over what can even be suggested to make things better. Unfortunately, part of the entire culture of the region will need to change and I don't hold out much hope, tbh.

EXAMPLE: My children are taught, in "Moral Education" to save energy and not litter. As parents, we strictly enforce such strategies at home. Yet, in supermarket car-parks, I see children equally guilty of just tossing wrappers and bags on the ground as much as the adults. Why? They've been taught. They've been told the consequences on the environment and future generations. Yet it doesn't seem to make a blind bit of difference. Combine that with the endemic political corruption throughout the region and it appears we're well and truly stuck. No answers from me, merely semi-coherent rants.

moonrat said...

I hope you and your family are all well--I was thinking about you when I saw the news.

Charles said...


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