Illustration by Carla T. Gamanlinda

First, the deluge. The wet wrath of Ondoy has exposed once again the Philippines’ lack of disaster preparedness. All right, Ondoy was unusual: it unleashed a historically unusual amount of rainfall – the worst flooding in the Philippines in 40 years. And yes, the tremendous rainfall was just a symptom of the aberration of global weather patterns as a result of climate change. But it is quite galling that for all of the Philippines’ history of disasters, for all of its status as the most storm-beaten country in the world, our disaster preparedness remains a hopeless mess. It’s a disaster. It appears that our civil defense and the rest of the Philippine state have only one perennial response to disasters, potential and real: let the populace sit as ducks, wet and wasted.

The Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) and the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) are hopeless in predicting typhoons and coping with disasters. Pagasa failed to forecast the amount of tremendous precipitation Ondoy would bring with him because the purchase of new machines to track down weather disturbances and their rainfall remains mired in red tape and perhaps, political horse-trading.

To Pagasa’s credit, however, its September 24 bulletin as Ondoy was approaching Catanduanes had warned that “Southern Luzon and Visayas and Mindanao will experience cloudy skies with scattered rainshowers and thunderstorms becoming frequent rains over the Western section which may trigger flashfloods and landslides.” Now, that’s a fine piece of clairvoyance. But were civil defense authorities and local officials alerted? Apparently not. Because after the devastation Saturday morning, civil defense authorities were running around like headless chicken as towns and people were drowned by rampaging waters and buried deep in mud.

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A student's nightmare

Even UST, so used to floods, was caught flat-footed by Ondoy. Some 3,000 people were trapped on campus. The sight could have been avoided had UST officials been more prompt and decisive. Its decision to suspend classes came too late, and even then, some colleges stubbornly chose to hold classes up to noon. Of course, quick decision-making would have been aided by more up-to-date and reliable forecasts from Pagasa and alerts from civil defense and local officials. But as we have said, there were no proper and credible alerts from government.

The unusual precipitation and the incredible floods it caused should also prompt UST authorities to fine-tune its disaster preparedness. To its credit, UST has pursued a policy of opening its buildings to stranded students, faculty and employees during terrible floods. But last September 26, some of its contingency plans fell short. The decision to transfer students from certain flooded and blacked-out buildings to the Tan Yan Kee Student Center Building came too late. Food also became scarce as the traditional outlet where UST sourced the food to give the stranded—Jollibee—run out of supplies. UST ordered noodle cups, but the groceries and supermarkets also ran out of supplies.

Having the proper communications network would have somehow given school officials a better scope of the situation and enable them to make quick sound decisions. But the nature of floods and other disasters is that it disrupts if not destroys communication systems. Because of the flood, there was little or no means of effectively getting around the campus. But campus authorities should have long anticipated this. The crisis was aggravated by mobile phone networks that didn’t deliver. The communication problem was particularly evident in the evident confusion as to what guidelines to follow in the face of the crisis. All of this should compel a rethinking of on-campus disaster preparedness.

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Mga Asyanong obispo bumisita sa UST

Nationally, the crisis was aggravated by poor relief and rescue operations by the government. Rescue and relief missions did not have enough supplies. Considering the floods the country experiences year in and year out, there was a shocking lack of rubber boats and water craft. Relief goods piled up, undelivered to the disaster areas because of lack of vehicles to transport them. In the Cabinet meeting that was held at the NDCC, Public Works Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane pointed out that his department was for public works, not for relief operations. “But how are we going to get the relief goods to those who need them when we don’t have the trucks that you have?” asked Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral.

How our government is blasé about floods and disasters that visit the country every year is evident in the pitifully low budget for calamities and disasters — a mere P2 billion. And apparently the money is not for getting modern weather forecasting equipment and for tugboats to rescue the deluged. It is for burying the casualties of poor disaster preparedness.

But now the rainbow. The disaster last September 26 has resulted in an outpouring of solidarity among Filipinos – by those who were inundated by the floods and those who survived them relatively unscathed or unwet.

It has yielded a remarkable show of charity even by those who nearly drowned in the floods or saw their homes go underneath the waters—who survived but who just the same felt compelled to come in the aid of those who had suffered worse.

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Kakaibang aklat ng kuwentong Hiligaynon

In UST, at the height of the floods, seminarians, brothers and priests were kept busy at the kitchen of the UST Ecclesiastical Faculties, cooking for the thousands stranded on campus. Now that the emergency has eased, students and everyone are pitching in to help in the relief efforts for the tens of thousands of people who lost their homes and livelihood. At Santo Domingo Church, the Dominican community of priests and brothers has collected relief goods to send to the victims.

Scores of Thomasians themselves are victims of Ondoy. But their sufferings have been alleviated by the comfort and assistance extended to them by fellow Thomasians.

And even Thomasians victimized by the floods have dug deep into the wellsprings of their Catholic education and upbringing so as to bring consolation to others.

Despite their privation, they don’t wallow in self-pity or curse God; instead, they find God in others and praise God for the opportunity to practice more fully the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity – the TRIA HAEC—whose statues stand proudly and centrally atop the UST Main Building.

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