In the Lianga area, the period covering the Christmas week until the first week of January has always been historically characterized by cloudy and rainy weather. As far as I can remember during my childhood days in this town and even to this very day, wet and cold weather has always accompanied the local Yuletide and New Year celebrations.
Not that the people here ever felt unduly oppressed or gravely inconvenienced by the frequent showers and the often bitterly cold mornings that seem to always herald the dying of the old year and the birth of the new. Instead, the local folk, as a consequence perhaps of the town's deep rural and agricultural roots, have always looked upon the year-ender rains as perennial proof of Mother Nature's benevolence, a watery benediction or blessing of sorts which, as part of the regular and cyclical passing of the seasons, ushers in the start of the coming year and, more importantly, the next rice planting season.
Occasionally however, the rains can get out of hand as they did more than a week ago. New Year's Day had been only a little damp and mildly wet but on the day after the celebrations ended, the rain started pouring down in torrents for hours on end. The heavy downpour continued throughout the night and much of next day. When January 3 dawned, many areas of Lianga were already threatened by rising water levels.
News that portions of the national highway linking Lianga to the other towns have been rendered impassable by flooding and landslides came filtering in. Anxious to see what the real situation was, I braved the driving rain and gusty winds and took out the family car for a brief circuit around the town's main streets. What greeted me were the sobering and frightening sights of what I feared then could possibly be an emerging catastrophe.
The national highway, most of it anyway, that cut through the heart of the town was already a virtual river of swiftly flowing, muddy brown water as the overflow from swollen creeks and rivers overwhelmed drainage canals and rushed out and over into the streets and entered houses. The inundation was still only knee deep at its worst and the highway and town streets were all still mostly passable by both vehicular and pedestrian traffic (if you chose to risk going out on foot) but as the downpour persisted it became alarmingly clear that unless the rains stopped soon, the town and its surrounding communities were in imminent danger of suffering a grave environmental disaster similar to that already being experienced by other areas in the country particularly in the Bicol region up north.
Already many town residents in houses located in the low-lying areas were watching helplessly as the flood waters continued to rise as the hours passed. In the central business district, one rice merchant could only wring his hands in despair as a large portion of his stored rice stocks was quickly inundated and ruined.
Luckily the relentless rain broke and faltered the next day. As the dark clouds thinned and allowed the sun to occasionally and hesitantly peek out, the people of Lianga heaved a huge sigh of relief even as they surveyed the debris and damage left by the retreating waters. It was clear that they had been spared from the horrors of what could have been a more widespread natural disaster.
It is, of course, the angry consensus here that the blame for what is clearly this region's growing vulnerability to excessive flooding and landslides during periods of constant and intense precipitation can be laid upon the rapid denudation and destruction of what used to be heavily forested mountains and watershed areas. Almost all point out to uncontrolled large-scale logging and mineral mining operations as the proximate cause. This is clearly, in my view, belaboring what is clearly and glaring the obvious.
As proof, locals point out to the sudden, flash flood-like nature of the raging waters and the reddish hued mud and silt-like deposits the waters had left behind. They also lament the fact that a day or so of constant and heavy rain a decade or so ago would not have been enough to cause the recent flooding. It would have taken, they say, at least a week of so of heavy, torrential downpour in the past to trigger such a phenomenon. The speed, therefore, at which the flood waters had risen after just a day or so of heavy rain is, for many of them, a worrisome sign, a clear warning of how close last week they were to a real calamitous situation had the wet weather not changed for the better.
A day or so after the sun hesitantly came out, the streets had been quickly cleared and life in Lianga regained some semblance of normality. I took the time once again to go around and check how things were.
Surprisingly, the town had managed to recover more or less quickly from what could have been a potential environmental tragedy. The streets had been cleared of most of the debris and much of the visible water damage to the streets and houses have been quickly patched up and repaired.
But in the midst of the frenetic activity and the sense of general relief it cannot be denied that the people of this town have been shaken by what happened in those first few days of 2011. Now, of course, secure in the comfort of their homes, they all can safely watch on the screens of their television sets the new reports about the harrowing tales of misery and loss in the Southern Leyte and the Bicol provinces where many of their fellow Filipinos were not as lucky as them. They can also see video footage of the rampaging waters sweeping away houses and people in Australia, Brazil and Sri Lanka and elsewhere around the world and then congratulate themselves on their good fortune.
But many of them cannot seen to shake off the feeling of dread tinged with a sense of foreboding resulting from the sudden insight that, for all extent and purposes, where it not for the luck of the dice and the vagrancies of climate and the weather, they could have also suffered a similar if not a more grievous fate. Then they are ultimately faced with the sudden and chilling realization that, if that had been the case, the faces of the unfortunate victims they were seeing on TV could have been very well their very own.