• Perfect storm batters defenseless land

    Ma. Isabel Ongpin

    Ma. Isabel Ongpin

    Storm surge is not a tsunami technically but it certainly acts like one. Typhoons of which we have been used to all our lives are traditionally characterized by wind and rain. The sea in a typhoon is affected with angry waves that cause havoc to fishing boats and passenger boats or whatever sea craft in them. In the worst typhoons, waves may splash on land nearest to them but people who keep away from the shore and are in strong shelters are usually safe.

    This is the status of common understanding about typhoons from which followed the usual measures to be taken—do not go to sea, beware of wind and rain, avoid flood-prone, landslide-prone and other hazardous areas like rivers. Keep indoors in sturdy shelters to avoid flying debris.

    But now has come the phenomenon of climate change which we must understand changes the equation of defense against typhoons radically.

    Fiercer typhoons
    Climate change means warmer temperatures that have raised ocean temperatures as well as their water levels. When a storm forms, these factors influence it as never before—warm temperatures mean more precipitation as well as stronger winds becoming part of the forming storms.

    Then we get fiercer typhoons with high wind velocity, heavy rainfall and the storm surges—waves on waves towering over the ocean and racing towards landfall packing unimaginable power.

    Storm surges are very strong, not to be challenged and responsible for unprecedented destruction. A small example was the storm surge that destroyed the Roxas Boulevard sea wall in Manila in 2011.

    Yolanda was the above, the perfect storm meeting a defenseless land and a virtually helpless population in terms of geography, poverty incidence, ignorance about the new typhoon phenomenon and the vulnerability of the communication system. Plus the extent of the area that it affected.

    Devastated landscape
    We all know what happened. We have seen the heartrending accounts, the devastated landscape, the consequences of hunger, thirst, desperation which turn into a law and order nightmare, a humanitarian disaster. Everyone has been affected in the most apocalyptic ways.

    And this includes the First Responders who suffered equally with the victims, in fact, became victims themselves. Note the case of a number of designated rescuers, an officer with his men ripped out to sea by the storm from a concrete building. All lost except for the officer who floated for six hours in the ocean before being returned to land by waves he could not control or overcome.

    Note that no funeral parlor is operational in Tacloban. Hear the reports from Samar with Guian blown to bits, from Northern Cebu where everything standing is now on the ground, Iloilo, Antique, Capiz. It is overwhelming. I doubt if the most efficient, the wealthiest or the most caring government or nation could cope with a situation like this in the ideal manner.

    They are only human
    There are no passable roads in general as of four days after the storm. Dead bodies are still where they lay. Barangay officials traumatized by their own personal losses, police forces preoccupied with their personal storm-related problems if not tragedies, cannot be depended on at this time. They are only human, under great stress, numb with shock.

    I have no solution to put forward. But I do have a surreal wish list. First, designate a graveyard detail to pick up the bodies, identify them individually by taking DNA before burial, have decent burials. Mobilize the social workers from everywhere, the ones on the ground at the storm area are probably in a state of shock and in need of taking care of their families. The social workers should debrief the survivors, with material and psychological help. All along bring in the food and water, distribute fast even if mistakes will be made. Chalk those to experience and continue. Open the roads, put electricity or alternatives to it back. Telecoms must help by getting back on line and allowing free phone calls. Volunteer private sector doctors and nurses, preferably as institutions go to the affected areas. Send task forces to far-flung interior and mountain towns with sufficient help and supplies.

    Be prepared to put up refugee tent camps like in Zamboanga until housing is restored. In the rehabilitation phase, improve urban design, put housing away from hazardous areas, take the opportunity of starting from scratch by building human-scale housing that will meet the needs of their inhabitants. Rationalize streets, neighborhoods, establish zoning rules. It will be necessary to add more open spaces, build more parks, keep residential areas away from the sea, attend to infrastructure that can deal with wind, rain and storm surges.

    Having said all of that, I have no words for the extent of human suffering, loss and bereavement that now exists where the typhoon destroyed lives, hopes, futures. Indeed, life is defined by loss. Nevertheless, it is something one does not get habituated to. It is to be strongly wished that in time resilience, courage and hope will emerge from the pain and the absence.

    Meanwhile all of us should mourn the dead, help the living and face the future with new knowledge and experience. And with every ounce of courage and love for fellow citizens.



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