Source: Greenpeace –
Months into the pandemic, we realize, among other things, the importance of reflection. Though we’ve each had to deal with unique circumstances, I believe that at some point, all of us will (or have) come to terms with this new normal: what it means, what it changes, and what we’ll become.
Thinking about how an event can bring about a drastic change in milieu, Typhoon Ondoy (international name Ketsana) comes to mind. I remember how it paralyzed society at the time, and the people around me. And I notice that I haven’t had a chance to write down my Ondoy experience, much less process it. The closest thing to an anecdote I can find is this nonchalant (and embarrassing) tweet:
I remember posting this that Saturday afternoon, half-jokingly, seeing the floodwater a block away from our house. I had no idea I would stay up all night, standing guard as the water inched its way up our staircase. Or that I would be crying to my father, not knowing whether my mom and siblings were safe (all forms of communication were down) while devising a plan just in case the water reaches the second floor. I remember it was this: break through the ceiling into the roof, use the furniture as rafts.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to do that. I wish it was the same for everyone else.
Maybe being immersed in the climate movement the past few years has made me forget I had an Ondoy experience of my own. Having spoken with typhoon survivors, hearing testimonies of community witnesses in the Climate Change & Human Rights inquiry hearings, and telling their stories the best way I could, drew my attention to the plight of others. Moreover, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the regular visits of strong typhoons has become a part of my life almost every year; I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t had a desensitizing effect on me, as with, I presume, many Filipinos.
Still, there must be an insight here, especially in retrospect, 11 years after. I thought, perhaps if I talked to even a few people about it, I could unlock that. And doing so shouldn’t be a challenge; ask anyone in Metro Manila, and they would have an Ondoy story.
Even Filipinos who weren’t physically in Manila when it happened–like actress and climate advocate Antoinette “Toni” Taus–recalls it vividly. “I remember watching everything on the news. It was a big shock. Never ko pa nakita yung ganung level ng devastation and flooding. Dati nang binabaha yung Manila, pero hindi ganung level,” she said.
“It made us feel helpless. Pero mula noon hanggang ngayon, kitang-kita ko yung bayanihan. Even though we were in the US, there were so many fundraising initiatives and donations from overseas Filipinos in the form of cash and balikbayan boxes.”
She would still hear stories of Ondoy over the years that followed, working with communities through her own environmental organization, Planet CORA. She shares, “Dati, pag naiisip natin yung ulan, natutuwa tayo. But when Ondoy happened, dun nagsimula na hindi na ako natutuwa. Today, when I hear the rain, I think, ‘oh no, the rainy season is here. Kawawa na naman yung mga kababayan natin.’”
I can only imagine what strong rains evoke for those who witnessed the horror first-hand. My colleague Joel Catapang was part of a small team of Greenpeace staff and volunteers who conducted rescue operations together with the Red Cross, and in coordination with a few local government units.
Two small, inflatable boats and a pick-up truck were all they had as they scoured Metro Manila. They were confronted with streets submerged in flood reaching as high as power lines, with nothing but the poor vision of their flashlights to steer them off large debris lurking in the water.
“Hinding-hindi ko makakalimutan noong nasa isang subdivision kami sa may Ever Commonwealth, at may kumakaway na parang ilaw mula sa kabilang pampang ng San Mateo River. Hanggang sa nawala na lang nang tuluyan.”
According to Mark Dia, former Greenpeace Country Representative and also part of the rescue team, “One of the things I observed, weeks after the tragedy, was that there seemed to be more people living in the streets.”
“A lot of the people we interviewed had lost everything–titles to land, property…most of them were farmers who were in debt, coming to Manila to beg or take temporary jobs as construction workers. I realized more than half of the people on the streets then were climate refugees.”
But, even in hindsight, there was a glimmer of hope. The communities of San Mateo, Rizal, quickly rallied to help those affected, and Buklod Tao, a community-led calamity awareness and preparedness nonprofit organization set up as early as 1993, has doubled–if not tripled–its efforts since Ondoy.