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Wind and high water

Publication Date : 08-08-2012

 

The rain fell with a cruel persistence. You felt that the heavens must at last be empty of water, but still it poured down, straight and heavy, with a maddening iteration…Everything was damp and clammy. There was mildew on the wall and on the boots that stood on the floor….”

That’s W. Somerset Maugham in his long short story “Rain”, set in an island north of Samoa, although he might as well have been writing about sections of another Pacific island named Luzon.

At this writing, Metro Manila and parts of nine surrounding provinces have been brought to a standstill by floods—a grim foretelling of future scenarios of paralysis. There is neither swirling typhoon nor tropical depression, mind, only the southwest monsoon. Yet the rains are astoundingly un-relenting, almost like a battering ram—a steady precipitation that started last week on the heels of Typhoon “Gener” (Saola) and has been going on and on, dropping from a constantly sodden sky, soaking earth and asphalt, highways and fields, engorging rivers, creeks and other waterways, filling dams beyond their capacity, and making of town and city streets veritable basins.

And the tired cycle repeats itself: The rains pour, the waters rise, thousands of families flee their shanties lining the riverbanks and crowd into schools, basketball courts, gymnasiums and other makeshift evacuation centres—large slices of humanity flung helter-skelter into pocket ghettos ill-equipped to provide the barest necessities such as food, drink and latrines. It’s nothing new, we’ve been through this before, it’s like we’re watching Bill Murray plod through yet another fresh hell in “Groundhog Day”.

But for the varying casualty figures, the news reports could have been recycled, the TV images (rushing waters, lakes that were once streets, people huddled on their roofs, shouting to be rescued) could have been taken from the same loop. And government agencies could be doling out survival packs to the same communities once more displaced by wind and high water from the riverbanks, creeksides and estero that they had claimed for their own.

It’s said, of course, that this is nothing like the great disasters “Ondoy” (Ketsana) in September 2009 and “Sendong” (Washi) in December 2011, both tropical storms that within hours killed 464 and 1,257, respectively, and laid waste to swathes of Metro Manila and outlying provinces and the cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro.

The death toll since last week, when Gener pounded Manila and the north, climbed to “only” 51 as of yesterday, but the effects of the monsoon rains have been so hard-edged as to immobilise schools, government and private offices, the financial district including the stock exchange, even the mighty US Embassy in Manila that was also forced to close a week ago by a storm surge from the bay. What more when the real storms and typhoons hit? (The weather bureau expects 13 more this year.)

The fact is that public and private resources are being severely strained this early in the storm season, even if President Benigno Aquino pronounces the government as being better prepared now than in the past.

Preparedness may indeed have been raised several notches, if only by dint of the administration’s avowed purpose of proving itself better than its predecessor, but there are just too many things crying out to be done and undone that the earnest observer is hard put to marshal reserves of hope.

In Pampanga alone, where the river systems remain clogged by lahar from Mount Pinatubo’s explosions, the residents of certain towns have had to rebuild their lives around the perennial floods: They make do with the second floor of their homes, having consigned the first floor to the moss-green waters of oblivion. Heavily silted Laguna de Bay, for another example, remains at risk of overflowing.

Where is all this rain coming from? Environmental groups have long warned that the effects of climate change and global warming, including bigger volumes of rainfall and great flooding, are now upon us, promising direr conclusions. It must be later than we think.

And as though to illustrate the adage that one reaps what one sows, the rest of the garbage disgorged last week by Manila Bay—itself a sea of discarded plastics and styrofoam, broken toys, old shoes and slippers, decomposing matter, the detritus of misery—is now trapped and reeking in the marina of the Manila Yacht Club. As many as 200 trucks of the stuff has already been collected and taken away.

 

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