On Sendong and Other Tragedies

Shakira Sison

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Whenever I hear of avoidable tragedies, natural disasters, repeated political upheavals and foiled hostage crisis rescues, I can't help but feel like it's the same news on a different day.

NEW YORK – I dislike Monday morning quarterbacks. So I’ve often refrained from commenting on national issues for fear of being accused of offering insight after the fact, or worse, as an outsider.

Even if I spent my childhood and early adult life in the Philippines, I’ve lived in New York for the past decade. I’ve laughed at what is considered a storm in these parts because where I’m from, that would just be called “rain.”

Surely I’m too far away to know what I’m talking about.

But then I see coverage of typhoon damage like that of Sendong and wonder if anything has changed at all since the mid-nineties when I lived in a college town in Laguna.

While the typhoons seem to have gotten stronger in recent years, disaster management has not changed. Even with modern technology, typhoons and their accompanying rainfall always appear to be huge surprises to affected areas.

Flood victims never see it coming, or if they did, they didn’t know it would get “that high.”

Government assistance, if it comes, appears only after the storm when streets and fields are already submerged, homes are already afloat, and family members have perished or are injured in ill-equipped evacuation centers.

I know this is easy for me to say from where I am. My last memorable experience with a typhoon was in 1995. Rosing, the sixth most destructive typhoon in Philippine history, slammed my college town, submerged my street waist-deep and cut water, phones and electricity for about a month. Yawn, right?

Even if it was the only storm where I genuinely feared for my life, I didn’t get injured and didn’t know anyone who did. My one scary experience is definitely a far cry from what people face year after year.

My now retired childhood yaya (nanny) tells the same story every year of how the river in her barrio overflows and puts her house underwater. When the typhoon winds are strong, she ties herself and her grandchildren to the roof and they hope for the best, but she never thinks to move away from the cause of perennial danger.

“It’s just another storm,” she rationalizes the way most do, until it’s too late. “A stronger one has passed before.”

The repetitive nature of weather disturbances makes the tragic ordinary. A house washed away is built again. A wiped out village will thrive again. 7,000 died in the Ormoc flashfloods in 1991. Does anyone even remember? Does Leyte show any trace?

Filipinos are masters of getting up and starting over. We are the ambassadors of forgiving and forgetting. Look at Marikina post-Ondoy. Look at Payatas. Look at our shamed politicians who are back in office. Look at Jinkee Pacquiao!

It’s so different from the paranoia I’m used to in New York. Fifty years ago, a storm flooded the Battery Park Tunnel and killed a handful of people. In August of this year, in preparation for a direct hit by Hurricane Irene, the entire city was mapped and categorized into three zones, and the ones closest to the water were mandatorily evacuated using strong police presence.

“Worst case if we evacuate people and they don’t go? They die.” Mayor Bloomberg said in no uncertain terms. He made the possibility of casualties very clear.

The subway system that served 9 million people was shut down for the first time in history as a flooding precaution. Evacuation centers were staffed and prepared for 70,000 would-be displaced people, most of whom never arrived as the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm after landfall.

Were the precautions a waste of time and resources? Experts say that just an inch more of water would have validated all fears.

It is clear that Philippine local governments do not have the resources to prepare for national disasters using the same measures employed by the Mayor of New York. There is no funding for emergency management in most areas.

Most people simply will not leave their homes. They’ve seen floods before and it’s a bigger risk to relocate than to ride out what could be just another “ordinary” storm. Until it turns out like Ormoc. Unless it’s as bad as Sendong.

Whenever I hear of avoidable tragedies, natural disasters, repeated political upheavals and foiled hostage crisis rescues, I can’t help but feel like it’s the same news on a different day. A thousand people died and we’re able to believe nothing else could have been done to prevent their misfortune. It’s just another event that shows that shrugging must really be our national pastime.

Hindi ko alam kung anong nangyari (I don’t know what happened)” reports always say. “All of a sudden the <insert tragedy here> hit and I lost everything.”

It reminds of Doña Paz , the Ozone Disco fire, the Payatas landslide, MV Princess of the Stars, Sendong, Ondoy and the hundreds of typhoons that have come and gone through the years.

I think of their casualties, their damages, and the layers of bypassed precautions that contributed to the unthinkable loss of human life. No matter how deafening the lessons are shortly after these events, do they all go by unlearned?

More importantly, will we ever be ready for the next one?

It calls to mind a line from a young Filipino poet I read when I was a teenager. To this day I can’t seem to find his name, but I always remember his truth about my battered homeland that sadly rings true tragedy after tragedy, year after year:

We are a great people with a very poor memory.
– Rappler.com


NOTE: First posted on the author’s blog, “Still talking,” via http://shakirasison.blogspot.com

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