Ondoy and other tragic tales

Ondoy and the Vagaries of Official Succor—Or Why Typhoons and Floods Ought to be Banished in the Philippines Together with Incompetent Leaders

By Aurelio S. Agcaoili

This latest of the tragedy in Metropolitan Manila, the center of politics and culture and commerce in the Philippines, is one of the many litanies of force majeure that we recite each year.

But this force of nature is made worse by the incompetence of those who are tasked to give succor and relief during emergencies such as this one.

For days beginning Saturday, Manila Time, I was glued to anything I can hold onto in order to keep on communicating with my family in Marikina City, some miles from the famed Marikina River that is known for its sale of Marikina shoes in the summer and the festive bustle of commerce during Christmas.

Some hours prior to the great onrush of waters from the mountains—or from some others sources if one were to believe in the conjectures of the angry victims—I had my young daughter on the phone, telling me, among others, that an actress of a friend had asked her to accompany that actress of a friend for a relief operation in one part of our city.

There had been days of rain prior to that deluge and some communities near tributaries and rivulets had needed relief goods. The television station the actress was working for had deployed her to do the relief operations.

“I am going to accompany her,” she told me, and the line went off.

That was Saturday, Manila Time. It was our Friday in Honolulu.

After a few hours, I got a call from Los Angeles telling me that something awfully wrong was going on in the country’s big city.

Frantically, I dialed the numbers my fingers knew too well. The line was dead.

I searched for other numbers: cell phones of children, the cell phone of the missus, the phones of neighbors, the phones of relatives in my directory.

No luck.

Friday night in Honolulu came and the distance between Honolulu and Manila could not be bridged.

From Friday until Monday, the line was an eternity of silence, except for one short line from a text the missus sent on the morning of Sunday, Honolulu Time, telling me that I needed not worry because all of them were fine, just fine.

I texted back many times over after that but no luck: there was only the eerie silence and the assaulting images on YouTube and anything on video I could hold onto.

Worried, I called up the emergency numbers of Marikina City. Tough luck.

That text, a short note of faith and hope and grace that I received at 2 AM on a Sunday morning, Honolulu Time, was a lifeline to a blessing I kept deep in my heart.

In that text was the news that some rice was still left in the bin and some canned goods were still in the cupboard perhaps just enough to last them until the rains stopped and the sun came back streaking through the mountains again.

The missus, with an appointment for an examination in her graduate class, said she was stranded somewhere in Cainta and was able to come back only the morning of Sunday, Manila time, after almost twenty hours of evacuation time, first at a store, and then at a public elementary school where all others congregated to watch the storm lose steam and the murky waters lose those hydraulic energies that could have otherwise been tapped to produce electricity that is sufficient to give an electric shock to callous politicians.

The details of her one-text update were wanting.

They were sketches one gets from a hurried response even as you run to your YouTube, search for anything on Marikina and Metro Manila and that horrible deluge that affected 26 of the populated places in this metropolis of wealth and misery, of power and helplessness, of faith and facetious display of devotion and religiousness.

Then again, there was the capacity to get by somewhere in that scant news of home and one can only give thanks to that power that gives grace to all.

It is withstanding the tragic that matters; it is standing up again and facing the challenges of the days ahead.

It is dusting off the mulct—and shaking the filth from your body.

It is picking up the pieces and run to where the sun shines through and there, in that extraordinary glow after the storm, bathe in the warm light of morning.

It is Marikina on my mind that I see, the city I have grown to love, the city of my children, the city of my youngest, and the city of my hope.

It is the city where I remember what the Cory Aquino People Power I was all about and the numerous coup d’états that came after to challenge the legitimacy of her reign.

It is the city where I remember EDSA People Power II and the countless marches and rallies one logically joins to express your creative rage against those gangsters of government, against the abusers of power, and against the excesses of presidential mischief.

It is also the city of my fears even as I try to live in hopefulness some seven thousand miles away, on this other side of the same ocean.

It is the city of my modest memory of how to raise a family despite the challenges of doing so in between two EDSA People Power revolutions and the smaller ones that assumed the name of revolution but soon to be usurped by those who are capable of the usurping for the political symbol they offered.

Shall I send my message to the waves, tell them to tell those who did not have the same tough luck to stay put, live in grace, live in hope, live in the love of the Maker despite the destruction, despite the havoc, despite the pain of remembering what happened that could have been avoided if those who were tasked to help people in difficult and challenging circumstances like this one fat chance of an Ondoy were more careful, more caring, more conscientious?

From the YouTube are the assaulting images of shock even as people, in the spectacle of the tragic, run to others for help, some of them throwing that rope into a bunch of people on a makeshift raft of flotsam and flimsy hope for a rescue at the end of the murky waters that rushed wildly through the deep and then leapt through the waves and met up with the great dirty waters of Pasig and then to Manila Bay by the Rizal Park where there, the heroes of revolutions, Jose Rizal, Ninoy Aquino, and the rest of them, stand stiffly to watch at the horror called Ondoy, a horror true, but one made more terrible by the incompetence of those who should be ready to help.

I call up home—I have been doing that for the last three days.

No connection, no answer. It is silence welcoming each touch of finger on the number keys.

It is that hollow toot-toot I hear whether I use the landline or the entire cell phones of family members.

No luck.

On Sunday, 1:30 PM Honolulu Time, I call up again, frantic as frantic can be.

The YouTube suggests the truth of the devastation but does not offer much hope for the morrow.

There is nothing but the absence of distances—this was all I was getting in the news and my family was right at the place where the devastation was, with a first-born that worked the night shift and a daughter that travelled distances in order to get to her school.

I Google the all emergency numbers of Marikina City only to end up with the same result: the hollow toot-toot of technology rendered inutile.

I dial the number after moments of hesitation, knowing that I would not be able to get through.

No luck.

The whole Sunday consumed me so, trying every now and then all the numbers I have come to memorize, my fingers knowing which number came after another.

No luck.

I go home after a Sunday of work at the university. It is night—and darkness becomes a good cover for fear of the unknown, for some doubts we register for some divine goodness.

The pile of papers to be checked, the work for the upcoming Nakem conference, the poems of exiles to be translated, some books to be read—all these forced me to sit down and gather the good thoughts I could bank on while the coffee maker stood guard to watch and memorize the contours of an anguished heart which was my heart.

If this gathering and re-gathering of my thoughts was a form of a prayer, let it be that way.

On a Monday morning, at 3 AM Honolulu Time, I forced myself to rise from bed, unable to sleep the whole night through.

The National Public Radio was on a standby and occasionally, a soothing music would waft through in the dark night, get past the window screens, get past the backyard towards the hills on the west, reach Kapolei where the waves await the lyrics of a tortured mind trying to sing that song about the abiding love of God.

Days of not hearing anything from family are centuries of anger and sorrow, pain and self-doubt, rage and more rage. You cannot bottle these feelings up—there is no way you can.

I stand to watch the outlines of mountains in the dark, the lights of streets and homes yonder flickering but reminding me of a home smacked right in the middle of a storm but remaining intact, filled with laughter still.

I grab the phone, dial the already memorized numbers the fingers now know too well even in the dark lights of the early morning hours.

The landline is dead, still.

I dial a cell phone number.

It rings, its ringing full and promising, breaking the silence of the Waipahu morning hours where I reside to dream of God’s love despite the storms of life, despite Ondoy and its aftermath.

The older daughter picks it up, the same daughter scheduled to help out in the relief operations of an actress of a friend.

“So?” I asked. “I could not get hold of anyone of you.”

“We are ok. But not everyone is A-ok. Many of my friends lost everything. And mom had to wade in the floodwaters rushing through, at a level by her shoulders, to get home to us after an overnight of vigil in the evacuation centers without food or dry clothing or blanket or newspaper to dry her wet body with. All of them were like that.”

I hear her, her voice crackling seven thousand miles away.

“Others were less lucky, father,” she says. “Some children were simply washed away by the waters—what have they done?”

I hear the existentialist philosophers here, their questioning of the tragic and its contradictions, their disappointments of the unevenness of life, with the corrupt politicians not affected by it all, this deluge of this magnitude that finds its reference in the story of Noah.

The storm, on this Monday, has officially subsided and the wrath of the wild winds has gone away, banished to some other places, other lands, and other communities.

One can only hope that the incompetent leaders went with these wild winds of Ondoy.

Manoa, Hawaii, September 28, 2009

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