TROPICAL Storm Ondoy (International name: Ketsana) brought heavy rains and floods to Manila on Sept. 26, 2009, a Saturday. It dumped 347.5 millimeters of rainfall in a six-hour period and 455 mm over a 24-hour period. The amount of rainfall in those six hours was almost equal to the average monthly rainfall in Metro Manila, which Nathaniel Cruz, the weather services bureau head of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) at the time, pegged at 392 millimeters.
In the aftermath of the storm, Filipinos turned to the internet. On microblogging and social networking sites, such as Twitter, Plurk, Multiply and Facebook, netizens passed on news, data, information, opinions and even rumors on who needed help, who helped, who tried to help and who wasn’t seen to offer help. For the first time, netizens used social media for disaster relief, but it also earned the ire of some of them. Angry plurkers and tweeters posted that they had called the hotline of the disaster management council and “no one answered.” One plurker said she had gotten through to an “irate operator” who told her “walang office ngayon ma’m, eh! (there is no office today, ma’am!).” I recall these social media posts because I curated responses to Ondoy for the Philippine Online Chronicles.
On a personal note, I never imagined the wrath of Ondoy as it lashed Manila. I arrived in Singapore that Saturday noon and saw a tweet from my daughter: “Oh no, the flood is entering the house. And mom is not here.”
My daughter described her ordeal in her now defunct blog:
“I spent my Saturday afternoon and most of Sunday trapped [on] the second floor of our house with my dad, sister, helpers, and pets as the streets turned into rivers at the height of tropical storm Ondoy. To cope with it all, I tried to think of the whole ordeal as a cool survival game where I become more awesome the hungrier I get.…
“Looking at the photos makes me feel tremendously sad, which in turn makes me feel silly and bourgeois. I mean, we were perfectly safe; it’s not like we had to climb up to the roof and wait for help there. Besides, the only things we lost were furniture. But I still can’t shake off this weird sense of loss and survival’s guilt.”
I turned to Twitter, asking if rescue was on its way to our village, but there were other worse areas hit by the flood waters. People waited on the roof of their homes or got trapped inside their vehicles. My family turned off their cellphones to save on power. Fortunately, my sister’s home in Quezon City was not flooded and their power was restored shortly after the heavy rainfall. I could still contact her using Skype mobile to save on international roaming costs. Two days later, my brother-in-law waded toward our house to pick up my two daughters and brought food for my husband and two helpers.
No one can blame Mother Nature for a storm like Ondoy. Some netizens blamed the Philippine government for the catastrophe that resulted in the deaths of over 200 people and an estimated P5 billion in damages. Urban planner Felino “Jun” Palafox Jr. says the deadly floods were not an act of God, but a sin of omission by the government and private real estate developers. According to him, the floods came because the government ignored available data on the dangers of flooding in certain low-lying areas.
Ten years later, I believe you and I have learned something from this major disaster. Lessons from Ondoy have resulted in better coordination between the national government, local government units (LGUs) and civil society. Some actions within our control is disaster preparedness. We can continue to use social media for good and not for disinformation. Social media can provide us with emergency updates before a natural disaster hits our country and when power interruption cuts us off from monitoring. I have discussed this before in a previous column, but I want to reiterate it.
1. Monitor Pagasa and the color-coded warnings
Follow Pagasa’s official Facebook account (www.facebook.com/PAGASA.DOST.GOV.PH) and Twitter account (@dost_pagasa).
2. Enable your phone to receive “extreme alerts”
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council can issue emergency alerts and warnings to the public with the help of the National Telecommunication Commission.
3. Monitor the Twitter or Facebook accounts of your LGU
4. Monitor calamity-specific hashtags
In the initial hours of a disaster, we should not expect disaster agencies, rescue teams and law enforcers to be our first responders. Disasters will affect many people, including rescue workers. A family needs to have a disaster preparedness plan during emergencies and a survival kit, which can just be a huge backpack or a large plastic pail with the basics, like food, water and medicines, plus a transistor radio, power bank, flashlights, extra batteries, some clothes and blankets. Nobody can claim we are ready when another disaster strikes, because we will never know its magnitude. We will never know if another devastating storm like Ondoy will hit us again. Preparedness begins at home and we must plan to help ourselves minimize a storm’s impact on our household.