A somber Christmas

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| DFID Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0 BY CC

Nothing is more dangerous than an off-season typhoon. Seventy years ago, in December of 1951, Typhoon Amy battered the Visayas and left after killing more than 500 Filipinos. It reached the equivalent of a category 4 cyclone, about the same strength as Typhoon Odette. It was as though Typhoon Odette was a continuation of Typhoon Amy, 70 years later. Typhoon Amy left the Philippines around December 17, and Typhoon Odette hit around December 17.

Is that a coincidence? Of course not. That is only a coincidence to the lazy, unthinking, anti-science, and unplanning mind. Because if anyone wishes to simply Google the history of typhoons in the Philippines, it did not begin and end with Typhoon Yolanda. The history dates back centuries that can still be documented today and promises to be worse in the future, which means most Filipinos, including the generations before us.

When Typhoon Amy hit the Visayas and Bacolod City precisely, it blew the entire roof over our house and forced two families living there to scramble for new residences after. Thank goodness, it was only a rented house, and more, fortunately, it harmed none of the family. I was a very young boy then, and the experience taught me a lesson that I can never forget – those off-season typhoons are the worst.

Considering the destruction of off-season typhoons and the regularity of the usual typhoons in the June to September period, I am saddened by the abject lack of preparation that we as a people, and the national government, are quite guilty of. A slight but crucial amendment because I must exempt most Filipinos from that guilt. Poor Filipino families have little or no say, not in the period when we already began experiencing national governance from Spain to the present moment.

I understand that the Philippines has never reached the status of a developed country. The population has always been deemed poor by international economic standards, except for maybe the top 1% and those who serve them directly in their businesses, perhaps another 9% to make Classes A, B, C the top 10%. I will have to pin the responsibility of unpreparedness on that 10% and local and national government.

“Considering the destruction of off-season typhoons and the regularity of the usual typhoons in the June to September period, I am saddened by the abject lack of preparation that we as a people, and the national government, are quite guilty of.”

It is not as though it had done nothing all this time. The present NDRRMC is the latest form of one agency that began in the Commonwealth period. Officials heading other agencies like the military and social services had always governed it from the beginning. It continues that way but in an expanded manner, the National Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Council, with almost all major departments represented. There are even moves in Congress to create a separate Department for it.

So, yes, there have been efforts to rationalize a coordinated effort for preparation and actual rescue and relief protocol. Still, considering its vital role, considering the tens of thousands of lives lost and millions of families affected over the last 70 years, what they did is a drop in the bucket, almost reactionary still in nature. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive development plan focused on the most vulnerable provinces and municipalities, not just training sessions on where to run and take shelter when a typhoon hits. We must ensure adequate evacuation centers that are typhoon-proof themselves and not just school buildings that are quite vulnerable.

Shelter. We cannot build our infrastructure and scrimp on the quality because that means making below typhoon strength – which is a waste of money and can cause even more deaths and destruction. Let us imagine that we are in a war zone. Every typhoon-prone barangay should have the equivalent of an air-raid shelter or more extensive, more substantial buildings to serve clusters of barangays.

Water. Whether physically present or in reports I read, every disaster area I have seen demands drinking water. Why? Without water, people die. With only a little water available, people will quickly get sick. Deep wells and filter systems should now be universal in barangays visited by typhoons, floods, and landslides. We do not prepare by stocking bottled water; we prepare by developing small water sources filtered for safe consumption.

“Whether one has the heart or the ill to break this chain of suffering once and for all is a challenge of leadership. The funding and the programs follow where the heart and leadership’s will are. The primary beneficiaries are the poor, as they are the ones who get killed and suffer the most. Who honestly cares for them?”

Food. It emphasizes the need for community food banks, which means both food and secure storage. We can use these food banks when there are no typhoons as active centers for local produce like vegetables and where it can also trade rice and fish. Typhoons and other disaster-causing events should be forcing us to build productive capacity in strategic areas. When we depend on them for our lives, we elevate the value of small farmers and fisherfolks.

It is already 70 years I carry under my belt just in my lifetime. Retrievable history will show us disastrous events that have afflicted us for centuries, from volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and typhoons bringing floods and landslides. It does not seem to take geniuses in both the public and private sector to understand the critical nature of being sensitive to nature and considerate to our own lives. Yet, when the storm passes, we go on almost oblivious to the disaster recently experienced.

Building capacity to withstand typhoons is not a financial challenge, not an engineering challenge. Whether one has the heart or the ill to break this chain of suffering once and for all is a challenge of leadership. The funding and the programs follow where the heart and leadership’s will are. The primary beneficiaries are the poor, as they are the ones who get killed and suffer the most. Who honestly cares for them?

Our hearts are sensitive at this moment because it is Christmas with tears and pain around us. Indeed, it is time to be Christian in spirit and understanding – beyond caroling and the Christmas tree.

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