IT’S either I never made it to Noah’s ark and perished through the Great Flood during one of my past lives, or I’m just plain lucky. It seems every time a headline-grabbing deluge hits Metro Manila, I’m either out of the country or have wisely chosen to cool my, ahem, Gucci-shod heels at home or in the office.
I arrived in Manila from the United States a day or so after the entire metro was again snarled in three- to four-hour rain-induced traffic. And the weird part was there was no typhoon of “Ondoy” proportions involved. It was just the usual monsoon rains that a tropical country like the Philippines gets—and should be prepared for by now— with clockwork regularity this time of the year.
Suddenly, Dan Brown is beginning to sound prescient when he wrote in “Inferno” that teeming Metro Manila is a land wherein mountains of filth, cheap and unmitigated illicit sex, and six-hour traffic jams are par for the course. At least on a bad day, he got the last part right.
When super typhoon “Milenyo” blew into town, downing
several huge and ugly billboards along Edsa in its wake, several years ago, I was also out of the country on assignment. If I remember right, huge swaths of Metro Manila and nearby provinces went without water, electricity and communication for days.
But I’ve also paid and will continue to pay my dues. Perhaps nobody among my inner circle of UP-, Ateneo- and La Salle-educated friends knows the clear and present danger a typhoon brings better than me. Batang Uste ’ata ito!
To put things into context, I spent a good part of my youth studying at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), an oasis of beauty and breathing space along busy and flood-prone España Street in Sampaloc, Manila.
I was also old enough to remember faint images of roofless houses, uprooted trees and overturned ships splashed in the front pages of pre-martial law Manila Times soon after super typhoon Yoling slammed Metro Manila way back in 1970. Milenyo seemed tame by comparison.
Gaas as gas
We went without electricity for almost a month. Since candles were in short supply (horded, no doubt, by “forward-thinking” panic buyers and opportunistic retailers), we made do with several homemade gaas-fired lamps that left our nostrils nearly clogged in layers of charcoal-like soot come morning.
Two years later, in 1972, huge sections of Luzon, including Metro Manila, were covered for days on end with ominous dark clouds. It was a prelude to what could be called rains of biblical proportions as large tracts of rice fields in Central Luzon morphed into mini versions of Laguna de Bay after weeks of continuous wet weather.
The superstitious attributed it as punishment from God after thieves barged into the Sto. Niño shrine in Tondo and stole the image of the Child Jesus, including its precious gold and gem-studded crown, scepter and globe.
Then First Lady Imelda Marcos didn’t waste an opportunity to politicize the event by having a series of masses said to implore the heavens to spare the country from further rains. I can’t recall now if the Sto. Niño image and its precious accessories were found, or if Imelda shelled out taxpayers’ money to replace them.
But after the series of highly publicized masses attended by the first couple and their coterie of friends, the rains soon let up allowing an absentee sun to peek through the clouds.
Of course, God works in mysterious ways. The rains may have stopped, but the storms continued, as then President Marcos surprised an already battered nation by declaring martial law a couple of months later.
Although, as a student of UST from the mid ’70s to the mid ’80s, I’ve had my share of wading through thigh-high floods (it would have been waist-deep, I swear, if not for my long legs) and braving traffic jams that ate up precious time that could have otherwise been spent flying from Manila to Tokyo, Beijing or New Delhi, I can’t, for the life me, recall anything as worse as what we’re experiencing lately.
As Metro Manila’s population continues to balloon, its infrastructure hasn’t kept up, and, in fact, now edges on the brink of collapse. Whereas before, it took at least an entire day of continuous rains to cause floodwaters to rise and sow chaos, now, it only takes a short and steady downpour to paralyze certain chokepoints in the mega city.
As the effects of these submerged areas radiate further, it doesn’t take long before you find yourself helplessly trapped inside a vehicle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re driving your own car, riding a taxi or sharing a tiny space with dozens of equally weary strangers in a jeepney. All is fair in love and rain-induced traffic.
And, as one Swiss guy, a long-time resident of Manila, put it, he couldn’t see any flooding as his car braved the wet, rush-hour traffic. It may sound funny in hindsight, but the poor fellow had to spend nearly two hours stewing in traffic as he inched his way from Legaspi Village to nearby Magallanes Village in Makati Monday night.
“On a bad day or during rush hour, it usually takes me 45 minutes to an hour to get to Magallanes,” he said. “Although it was raining and the streets were drenched, I didn’t come across any flooded areas.”
While other countries are bracing themselves for the inevitable effects of global warming by “flood-proofing” their cities (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has earmarked no less than $20 billion to prepare and bolster the Big Apple’s defenses) and discouraging citizens from building communities in precarious and flood-prone zones, the Philippines continues to react to and roll with the punches from almost every disaster that has come its way of late.
Preview of things to come
What many of our leaders, including our bishops, fail to understand or accept is the fact that this series of weird weather disturbances are mere previews of bigger and more catastrophic weather-related events to come.
Hell, while other countries are managing its population by outlawing settlements in riverbanks, canals and watersheds, this small country of 7,100 islands, one of the most vulnerable places on earth in an age of global warming, is still stalled debating the merits and demerits of an already passed reproductive health bill that had already been debated to death in almost every forum during the last 15 years.
Well, if humans wouldn’t lift a finger when they should be mending their ways and preparing for the future, God or fate or the universe or whatever you call it would gladly fill in the void by doing it for them. And such a scenario, if history is to be our guide, is anything but pretty.