The Real Tragedy

I looked up at the vast blue sky earlier this morning* and saw some clouds that looked like stretched cotton in it.  The sun hit my eyes and skin, and the wind blew playfully, inviting the plants and some trees in my street to a quick dance.  In short, the weather was perfect.  It was the kind of day that made me wish that I were at a beach, or in a field of flowers, or at a park.  The weather was such a stark contrast to how it was these past couple of days when a typhoon brought howling winds and torrential rains, leaving a trail of devastation to many areas of the Philippines; today made the last two days seem like just a bad dream.

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Photo: NASA

Typhoon Ulysses (International name: Vamco) was the 21st storm to hit the country.  It came just a few days after Typhoons Siony and Tonyo, and a little less than two weeks after Typhoon Rolly (International Name: Goni), the world’s strongest tropical cyclone for 2020.  Being a country located in the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines is certainly no stranger to storms.  Every year, an average of 20 enter the country: some of them dissipate and cause no damage; others destroy properties and lives.  Super Typhoon Rolly was of the latter kind: it packed 225kph winds with gustiness of 280kph.  It ripped mainly through the Bicol and Quezon areas, where houses had been flattened or washed away by raging floods.  The typhoon came close to Metro Manila, which was even initially placed under Signal 4, but it weakened and spared the capital region from wide-scale damage.  Until Ulysses arrived.

Ulysses visited the same provinces Rolly did, leaving the grounds of the said regions already saturated with rainfall much more dangerously vulnerable.  The typhoon also directly passed over Metro Manila and triggered extreme flooding due to overflowing rivers and dams especially in locations such as Rizal and Marikina.  People could not help comparing the typhoon’s strength and its aftermath to 2009’s Typhoon Ondoy, which also submerged these locations in deep floods even though Ulysses dumped significantly less rain than Ondoy did.

All news outlets showed the same scenes of destruction: flood ravaged villages, houses covered in mud, people either on top of their roofs or wading through chest-deep waters.  These images were truly heartbreaking.  But do you know what?  This has already happened over and over before.  The typhoons just went by different names and paths, but the consequences have always been the same.  Annually, there is—at the very least—one typhoon that would paint such images.  It’s a neverending cycle of destruction, disaster response, donation drives, and rebuilding.  It seems that despite being slammed by one typhoon after the other every single year, however, the country continues to struggle to be more proactive when it comes to disaster preparedness. 

In November 2013, one of the world’s strongest tropical cyclones recorded to make landfall hit the central region of the country.  Known locally as Super Typhoon Yolanda (International Name: Haiyan), it had intense maximum winds of 315kph.  It left thousands of people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.  It was nothing like the country had ever experienced before.  Countless volunteer organizations, NGOs, and private citizens (even those who didn’t have much) mobilized to help out. The international community, too, came to the aid of the country, pouring out millions for the rehabilitation of the region and its people.  But here we are only seven years later, pounded by another super typhoon and scrambling to extend assistance to those who had been immensely affected yet again.  

resilience_tarantadongkalbo

Artist: Tarantadong Kalbo/ Twitter

Yes, the Filipinos are a resilient bunch of people—able to stand up after calamities and continue to smile despite the pain—but surely, something must change in the way we deal with natural disasters!  Must we always merely pick up the pieces when preventive measures can be put in place to begin with?  I do not claim to be an expert in disaster preparedness; I’m merely someone who has grown tired of seeing the same scenes of despair and destruction almost every year, expressing some humble opinions.  If there are ways that can be done to lessen the damage, then why not try to implement them?

Strictly enforce laws against deforestation.
This should already be a no-brainer. Trees are extremely crucial in absorbing water and preventing soil erosion. Fewer trees mean more landslides and flooding. More action must be done in rehabilitating forests. Parts of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range, for example, which helps in weakening typhoons are getting flattened and denuded in the name of “progress.”

Make mining and quarrying more sustainable.
While these have economic benefits, they likewise have negative impacts on the environment and even on public health. Therefore, it is important that these be mitigated in order to strike a balance and avoid large-scale catastrophes.

Plant more mangroves near coastal areas.
A few years back, I had the opportunity to visit the Obo-ob Mangrove Eco Park on Bantayan Island in Cebu. It has different varieties of mangroves and bamboos that stretch all the way to the sea. Before my companions and I had a tour of the place, we attended a brief video-seminar where the speaker discussed how mangroves play as an effective barrier against storm surge. When Yolanda, for example, hit the area, the side of Bantayan Island that had a lot of mangroves was significantly protected from devastation compared to those areas that no longer had them.

Invest in disaster-resilient architecture.
After Yolanda, I came across some sketches of and suggestions to invest in disaster-resilient buildings from architect and urban planner Paulo Alcazaren. These, I thought, were brilliant especially his recommendations on building stadia. Evacuation centers shouldn’t be just schools or covered courts because sometimes they, too, get severely damaged. I thought that after Yolanda, proper permanent evacuations would be constructed since—again—typhoons are a fact of life here in the country. However, until now, the only big improvement I’ve seen when it comes to evacuation areas is the use of modular tents.

There are loads more that must be done to greatly improve the country’s disaster preparedness and management programs, and what I’ve just listed are a but a fraction of those.  For instance, better coordination between LGUs and the national government, quick information dissemination, relocation programs, more research (and actually putting that research into good use), bigger allocation of funds on disaster reduction programs, accountability of government leaders, even the simple acts of avoiding single use plastic and keeping the surroundings free of litter, etc. matter.

Unfortunately, typhoons are getting more and more intense as a result of climate change.  Moreover, tropical cyclones no longer weaken that much even after landfall, making them even much more dangerous.  What’s worse is that despite being one of the least carbon emission contributors in the world, the Philippines is among the most vulnerable to tropical cyclones!  In fact, it has experienced the top three strongest typhoons in the world since 2013 alone!  Three!  In seven years!  Unfair, right?

So, the country really does have to step up in order to face future typhoons because the people’s very survival depends on how prepared and responsive the government and the people are.  Because truthfully, the real tragedy in this predicament is not how many lives are lost or how many properties have been damaged; the real tragedy here would be allowing these kinds of horrific things to happen over and over without making people, government/s, and/or private corporations held accountable.  The real tragedy here would be not learning from the mistakes of the past.

* I started writing this on Nov 13 and while in the process of doing so, the Cagayan region, another part of the Philippines also experienced massive flooding because of Typhoon Ulysses.  To donate to the typhoon victims of Cagayan and other areas, you can visit The Philippine Red Cross, Kaya Natin, UNICEF Philippines, and other relevant agencies.  Salamat nang marami!

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