The high ground

published Manila Standard Today, Sept. 26, 2009

am supposed to publish the second and last installment of my piece about stem cells today. The article quotes from an online interview with an expert on adult stem cells.
But Ondoy came. The storm battered Metro Manila and surrounding provinces last Saturday. Everybody is still reeling, feeling washed away. Lives and property were lost or damaged. How can anything be more compelling than this?

I live in Valenzuela. It’s that northernmost tip of the metro that has become notorious for flooding. Fortunately, my apartment stands on relatively higher ground. Thus, my Ondoy stories are decidedly lamer than those of many. Other people’s experiences are worth telling a thousand times over.

As they have been told already, no doubt. Pictures, videos, interviews all say this latest howler took everybody by surprise and caused a carnage besides. On my way to the newsroom Sunday afternoon, I saw the extent of the devastation. I did not pass through flooded areas. I passed through roads previously flooded but had been cleared. Entire fast food outlets and convenience stores were closed, turned upside down. There was mud everywhere. On some walls, there were marks of how high the water came up.

All these dawned on me too late. Early Saturday, self-absorbed me relished the coziness the rains provided. I bonded with the children, caught up with housework and indulged on sleep. It was my day-off, after all. I was even humming as I prepared lomi for dinner. Only later did I realize that my family could have had it worse. If that’s not good fortune, and a random one at that, I don’t know what is.

One cannot help being amazed at the extent of the damage Ondoy has caused in the metro. None of this has happened before. Most disturbing were the accounts of how quickly the water rose and engulfed streets, seeped into the ground floors of homes —and never stopped rising until the rain stopped.

In a disaster like this, not only lives and properties are put to risk. There is also much disruption of operations, business and otherwise. For example, telecommunication lines are bogged down. Internet connection becomes a rare and precious commodity. We lose the security in other electronic transactions that we otherwise take for granted.

It may take a while before science tells us exactly why this happened now when it never did before. For today and the next few days, the focus would be accounting for the dead and the missing, getting rid of the flood waters, providing relief to those displaced and restoring everything to its pre-Ondoy state.

In the meantime, we see the same old stories on television—government officials giving us updates, giant networks conducting fund-raisers and round-the-clock coverages of rescue and relief operations.

Presidential aspirant Gilbert Teodoro, who happens to be Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, has a golden opportunity to endear himself to the public. Remember his advocacy campaigns on disaster preparedness, which aired during a Manny Pacquiao fight? This is the perfect time to know whether anybody ever took those pieces of advice to heart—or whether they were mere propaganda material.

Then again, Teodoro’s good—or ill—fortune, depending on the perceived efficacy of his campaign, should be the least of our concerns. Who cares about politics when goods you have toiled for over the years have been washed away? Who cares which character is being interviewed on television when loved ones are missing, injured or even dead?

Sadly, however, the national knee-jerk reaction is to act like pitiful victims and then curse the government for being slow, ill-equipped and inadequate. There is such disconnect between the people on the one hand and their political leaders on the other. If anything goes wrong—as everything does in the face of disasters, natural or otherwise—the impulse is to slam the government for not doing enough. And why not? These politicians promise the moon and the stars to their gullible constituents during campaigns.

If we are to breed a new generation of enlightened Filipinos, we should remind the masses that recovery and development do not rest on one person alone—however brilliant or charismatic he or she is, however rich the parentage. Government must be eventually seen as an enabler, not just a rescuer.

People should be enabled enough so that they would know how to anticipate disasters and devise a plan on how to deal with these events. They must be informed that climate change has upped the ante of the occurrence and the ferocity of these disasters. They must be equipped to help themselves and help others instead of expecting—demanding—to be helped all the time. Of course, getting this message across may take many years, even a generation. But now is always a good time to start.

The rains would stop, the waters would subside and the world as we know it, altered by our loss, would go on. May these lessons stay, though, so we won’t act so surprised and lost anymore when disaster strikes next time around.