Evacuating The Sheep

by Jose Ma. Montelibano
I am awed by the continuing blindness of people, both by the victims and those who perpetuate the victimization. But I must remain alert to historical and psychological patterns, not only as a buffer to frustration, but to retain as much objectivity as possible.
We just had another typhoon visit us, which at one time threatened to be a super typhoon. It sent government into a frenzy of preparations. The spectre of another Yolanda loomed large in the minds and fears of officials as well as many coastal residents. Listening to BBC, I learned that over a million Filipinos were evacuated from their homes, presumably near the sea. I assume they were poor whose homes could have been easily swept away by even the least powerful of storm surges.
National government must be commended for its efforts – which means it used its muscle to push local government units to evacuate their vulnerable communities. The LGUs themselves did not need much prodding by the national government, not after the experience of Yolanda. I don’t think any mayor or governor relished having hundreds or thousands of their constituents become subject of a death and casualty count.

Typhoon Ruby (or Hagupit) could have been disastrous if it retained its strength, at one point in its slow movement towards the Philippines had reached Yolanda proportions. If it did, because of the determined preparations of everybody concerned, the death toll could not have come close to what happened with Yolanda. But luck, or prayers, scaled down the power of the typhoon by about a third from its peak. Before it could reach most of Luzon after Bicol, it was not even a typhoon anymore, just a mere storm that did not cause any flood in Metro Manila.
There was drama, nonetheless, and good that there was. Any reason that makes Filipinos become concerned about the well-being and safety of other Filipinos is welcome, even if it is in the genre of disaster. After all, with or without climate change, disaster has been a life pattern of the poor. They have always been victims of typhoons, of storm surges, of raging floods, of deadly landslides, of fires in colonies of informal settlers. Only earthquakes are more evenhanded in the choice of its victims as far as economic status is concerned.
All the more when national and local governments are drawn into the drama. When government moves, and moves with firmness, things happen. And only government has the operational capacity and resources to mitigate large scale disasters, only government can effectively address the plight of the poor in an emergency situation. Great calamities, or threats thereof, provoke government to act with haste and urgency. Contingency funds can be tapped, and evacuations can be supported with food and temporary shelter.
In other words, when there is a threat of multitudes dying, the priorities of government change. The poor who always languish at the bottom of the totem pole in the society’s pie of values suddenly jump up several notches higher. Situational, temporary, but nevertheless beneficial to the most needy at the worst of times. If there will be one clear value added by the reality or scare of climate change, it is because the huge numbers of Filipinos situated along coastal areas of the Philippines are all going to be the first victims of natural calamities. Climate change proponents claim that natural calamities will increase both in volume and intensity.
After watching both BBC and CNN with all their good words on how great harm was avoided because of the evacuation of seaside dwellers, I also listened to interviews on local television stations. It was more of the same, the gratitude that little damage was inflicted because of more preparedness this time. I even saw the country head of one foreign NGO in a cable channel give his two cents worth. Everyone really was talking about evacuations, how to do them, and how to do them even better in the future.
How come evacuations are taken for granted? They seem to be the main thing that government can and must do when typhoon signals are up. How come nobody talks about why people have to be in places that need to be evacuated every time a storm comes our way? Typhoons do visit more than twenty times a year with about four of them able to cause much damage. Do we simply keep evacuating people every time, every year, forever? Why are Filipinos in harm’s way, like beside seashores living in shanties? Are they being punished for failing, or are they being punished because they are born poor?
Why is it with all the geniuses in our country and all the geniuses from international agencies, even foreign nations who get involved with the Philippines when disaster strikes, never take up what is staring all of us in the face? Can no one see the millions of Filipinos bunched up along coastal areas of the Philippines? Why don’t the geniuses question why our people are forced by circumstance to take undue risks just to be able to survive?
We and everyone else cannot keep talking about evacuations without getting tired of it. Yet, that is just all talk. The people who are being evacuated cannot keep being evacuated endlessly like animals being herded in barns every time a storm comes. But there were truly decades, even centuries, that they were not being herded, not being minded at all. After all, they are the poor.
We cannot talk about climate change, we cannot talk about storm surges and floods and landslides, unless we talk of our people as though they truly are. They are people, and they are Filipinos. They are all natives to our land, their land. Landlessness kills. Landlessness drives people to the sea, to the slopes, to the riverbanks, canals and drainages. Why can’t we talk about that? For all the talk about poverty, about corruption, we remain afraid to confront the truth. People who yak and yak do not have the courage to take the bull by the horns, rescue our people once and for all, and return the dignity that is their birthright.

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