The Philippines almost a year after Ondoy: Not. Ready.

Ever since that first storm that hit the Philippines in the middle of May 2011, I’ve been meaning to write about this. I suppose I can’t help it, since I’m actually suffering from a form of PTSD from Ondoy. I find it hard to sleep when there’s a downpour, especially if it happens on a Friday evening onwards to an early Saturday morning.

See, the last time I pooh-poohed such an occurrence as I went to sleep on the couch at around 2 or 3 in the morning, in that unforgettable September in 2009, I woke up at around 10 a.m. with water lapping my feet when I sat up.

And now, my fears have been realized: Metro Manila is nowhere near ready for a major storm.

Currently, Tropical Storm Meari, with the local name of Falcon, is battering the Philippines. The local weather bureau, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) did not put the National Capital Region (NCR), which composes Metro Manila and its suburbs, under a Storm Signal because, as the model will show, it won’t make landfall. In fact, the highest Storm Signal up for the Philippines’ western side is at 1.

But as the satellite picture of Meari will imply, even to one without any scientific knowhow about weather systems whatsoever, that thing is huge. And for those like me who have some background in these things, those colors, and where they’ll pass over, is a very distressing development.

“Falcon” would make it the fifth or sixth storm to hit the Philippines this year, of an expected average of twenty. So far, none of them have made a “direct hit” on the National Capital Region. But then, this is just the actual start of the Storm Season for us in these 7,100 islands. It gets worse once we enter the “Ber” months, with September usually the month for some of the worst weather systems. Ondoy, after all, struck us in the middle of September. Milenyo, an earlier typhoon that caused very little flooding but did horrible wind damage, said hi to the Philippines around later October and early November.

I live in the City of Manila itself, in Pandacan, around ten or so minutes away from the Pasig River. When Ondoy hit, the water was up to my waist at its deepest inside our house (I’m 5 feet and an inch). Since then, I’ve noticed that any heavy downpour for an appreciable amount of time makes the waters rise. There were two instances around September and November last year that it rained so hard the water entered our other house. That’s not good, because that house is higher than the one where I was submerged to my waist during Ondoy.

Since then, I’ve been wondering: is Manila ready for the storm season? The causes of climate change can be debated, sure (since I’m still a bit skeptical that even most of it can be blamed on anthropogenic sources; I’ve worked with the World Bank’s Carbon Fund, you see. I’ve seen how Climate Change can be used politically and economically. But that’s a story for another time), but it can’t be denied that the storms we’re getting are bigger, wetter and more powerful than anything in living memory.

And TS Meari has shown that just a couple of hours of moderately heavy rainfall, with some really heavy moments, for something like half a day is enough to submerge parts of Metro Manila in chest-deep water. There were at least two rescue operations happening all over the Metro and the Tumana River in Marikina has been sounding its sirens since the late afternoon. For those who don’t know, Marikina was the hardest hit location of Metro Manila during Ondoy.

So, I’m wondering: what has the various levels of government done? It doesn’t take a weather scientist to tell you storms hit the Philippines once June – and this time, the first one appeared in the middle of May – comes, and doesn’t stop until as late as February, or even March. If you live here, nevermind growing up here, you know the storms are going to hit.

So what are our wonderful civil servants doing to prepare for the apparently vastly-enhanced storm systems that are now hitting the Philippines since Ondoy? If today’s chest-deep floods and stranded commuters are any indication, not much, if any.

I know running a country, or even a city or municipality is hard work, but I bet the Japanese also have the same problems Filipino local and national officials have in running their respective levels of government, but you see that they’re prepared, right? No, that earthquake and tsunami that hit them was an “Act of God,” so that doesn’t really count but at least their preparations limited the casualty figures.

It’s so frustrating. This is a country that is in the path of storms. But it seems our local and national officials prefer to engage in other activities except those that actually they’re supposed to be doing. Like, oh, making sure at least that drainage systems aren’t clogged, perhaps?

Are we going to wait until another Ondoy, or much worse, hits us? Hell, Ondoy happened and look what’s been done. Has anything been done? Noynoy Aquino can castigate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo all he wants but he’s been at the helm for almost a year now. Surely, since they’ve done nothing but castigate the former President since backstabbing her in 2005, they can do a better job, right? I mean, how much effort or planning does it take to ask the relevant government agencies to look into making Metro Manila, the financial and political capital of the Philippines, a little bit more capable of dealing with floods? Will Noynoy fire another PAGASA employee over this botched weather prediction, the way he did the other guy before, early in his term? What will that accomplish?

Seriously, the Philippine government, local and national, should get its act together. How can we take on China over the Spratlys if we can’t even keep our capital from getting flooded by a non-storm?

A few days ago, PAGASA said, that, yes, TS Meari won’t make landfall. As the models from Weather Underground showed, that was true. But they never told the public, at least from the announcements and presscon coverage I’ve read, the fact that Meari is so big and so energetic – its core is an angry pink – that it’s bound to affect the Philippines, regardless. Or if they did, it was just the usual, “this thing will bring rain.”

Even more irritating for the residents of a now-flooding Metro Manila, PAGASA Tweeted that what was hitting us with some of the heaviest rainfall since Ondoy is not the storm, but the Southwest Monsoon (“Hanging Habagat”, in Filipino), enhanced by Meari.

So this wasn’t a storm doing chest-deep flooding in some parts. You just have to love officials of the gooberment of the Republic of the Philippines. And the Tweet even contained so much indignation at the public’s accusation that, yet again, PAGASA failed us.

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