Sunday, January 11, 2015

Surprised

One can suppose with the benefit of hindsight that there must be more than a bit of irony in the progression of events. When Typhoon Ruby (international name, Hagupit) entered the Philippine area of responsibility in early December of last year, the locals in Lianga and its surrounding communities rushed out in a frenzy of activity all of which was supposed to be in preparation for what was forecasted to be a major storm. The memories of the devastation left by 2013's Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) and 2012's Pablo (Bopha), after all, remains painfully fresh in the minds of all Filipinos here.

When Ruby did not quite live up to its hype (although it did cause extensive damage and did claim at least 18 lives) and PAGASA, the national weather service, announced that a tropical depression was following on Ruby's wake and will make landfall in Surigao del Sur on Dec. 28, the response to what would later develop into Tropical Storm Seniang (international name, Jangmi) was understandably tepid to say the least. Everyone thought it was just going to another one of those run-of-the-mill weather hiccups common this time of the year in this part of the world.

It turned out that Seniang struck hard where Ruby veered away and this part of the country as well as many other areas in the Visayas and Mindanao got clobbered hard. Hundreds of thousands of people ended up paying dearly for their complacency. "We all prepared for Ruby," one survivor in Cebu province in the Visayas tearfully lamented, "but no one warned us about Seniang."


Lianga was luckier than most other affected communities. It did not suffer extensive damage from high winds or flooding but storm winds toppled down major power lines and the continuous heavy rainfall clogged the local water distribution systems. For almost three full days, the majority of Surigao del Sur province, Lianga included, was shrouded in darkness. No electricity and for the most part without water.

In San Agustin town, the critical bridge link across the Hubo River that connects Lianga and the other southern and middle towns of the province to the capital city of Tandag was swept away. With landslides also cutting off portions of the national highway to the south and west of the town particularly the road section near Sibagat town in Agusan del Sur which joins Lianga to the regional center in Butuan City in Agusan del Sur, the town and its adjacent sister municipalities were practically isolated as transportation by land became almost impossible.

Butuan itself suffered a citywide power outage that lasted days and many areas were still without electricity when the new year came in. People queued up at water refilling stations and supermarkets to stock up on drinking water as the city's water supply system shut down. The humming and growling of power generators owned by those who could afford them could be heard all over as businesses struggled to stay open but the majority of ordinary people for whom that option was unavailable had to survive the best way they could.

Yes, no doubt, about it. We here were caught with our pants down by Seniang. But that statement raises the question as to whether we should have been so innocently caught unawares.

In the first week of December, the national government had made a big show on the news media about its preparations for Ruby. Provincial and local officials in the areas projected to be hit by it including those of the province of Surigao del Sur were also quick to announce their readiness to meet any contingencies. I saw President Noynoy Aquino himself on national TV chairing meetings of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) and pronouncing himself ultimately satisfied with the action plans being made by cabinet officials and the heads of government agencies who would be at the forefront of the disaster response efforts.

Yet barely weeks later, Seniang waded in right smack into Surigao del Sur as predicted by PAGASA days before and then wrecked havoc despite all the much touted preparation efforts. One wonders how much warning and how much readiness time do we really need to anticipate the negative effects of weather events we all know, as a matter of fact, are quite common in this country this time of the year?

Anyone who has lived here and who was not born yesterday knows that the last months of every year are always the time for strong storms and rainy weather. You don't have to ask the local farmers and fishermen for advice about when to plug the leaking holes in your roof or buttress the rickety walls of your hut against gusty winds. The locals know their weather lore instinctively. They can literally feel the storm months coming in their aching bones.

Beyond that, this is after all the Philippines, an active front line in battle against climate change, where what were once hesitant predictions about the rise in the frequency and severity of tropical storms and typhoons are fast becoming hard fact and cold reality and where even the President has acknowledged that every coming new year may continue to bring a never ending "cycle of disaster and rehabilitation." How can we all be so really surprised and be caught unawares by Seniang?

By this time, after so many years of first hand experience, we should have committed and prioritized time, money and resources to "hardening" or redesigning our critical infrastructure systems against the damaging effects of violent weather. We should have put in place, at the very least, the rudiments of a comprehensive disaster mitigation and management plan especially on the provincial, municipal and even barangay levels. We should have demanded more concrete action rather than media blitzes and political posturing on behalf of our leaders and more civic concern and consistent support and cooperation from all ordinary citizens,

Surprised by Seniang? Yeah right. The hard truth is we all knew that somehow and from somewhere the bad weather was coming and that it was coming sooner or later. Yet despite the warnings and the clear advantage of experience, we chose to do little except hope and pray that if the storms do come, they will somehow miraculously vaporize into nothingness or like the much feared Ruby skip daintily away from us.

And want to know what was the greatest irony of all? It was when Seniang came and decided to remind us of our folly and teach us a lesson we all so richly deserve and then we had the gall to act so surprised.

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