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pop goes the world: learning lessons

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  5 January 2012, Thursday

Learning Lessons

How was your new year celebration? I hope none of you lost any fingers/were burned or injured/choked on firecracker smoke last New Year’s Eve. Despite all the warnings by the Department of Health on firecracker safety, there were still 739 revelry-related injuries listed as of Tuesday, with at least two deaths- a 9-year-old boy in Cabanatuan City and a months-old infant.

Not to mention the diverted/cancelled airplane flights because of the “smog” over the city that reduced visibility. Great, we’re about the only country that can create air pollution from excessive firecracker use. I bet they could see the smog cloud from space. Astronauts: “Hey, I can’t see the Philippines. They must be having a party!”

Firecracker smog over Manila on New Year’s Day 2012. Image here

While I see how letting off fireworks and lighting sparklers and Roman candles can be fun – it’s a tradition that goes back decades, and there’s that satisfaction obtained by the pyromaniac in all of us – it’s still a risky activity and expensive as well. Exploding fireworks is like burning money. Might as well have made a bonfire of all those peso bills.

Here’s one deterrent, or at least a warning to play safe – a story my former brother-in-law, a physician, used to tell us every holiday season. Back when he was a medical student at the University of the Philippines and pulled New Year’s Eve duty at the Philippine General Hospital, they never used anesthesia when stitching up wounds and debriding burns. “Para madala sila,” he said. Did it work? He shrugged. “We’d still have a lot of patients each year. No one really learns their lesson.”

Here’s another lesson we haven’t learned – how to take care of the environment. The flash flood in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan was a freak accident caused, in part, by the lack of watersheds. How had their forest cover, which used to spread over 35,000 hectares two decades ago, shrunk to 2,000? Illegal logging played a nasty part in that, among other things.

One of the last significant things I did in 2011 was tag along on a December 28 trip to Iligan and Cagayan de Oro with a team from a government aid agency. There we visited government hospitals and evacuation centers, and saw for ourselves just how much misery and devastation the incident wrought.

A wake for a perished Sendong victim is held at an evacuation center in Macasandig, Cagayan de Oro City. 28 Dec 2011

Despite the rebuilding going on, mud still covered the streets of many residential areas, especially the hardest hit barangays. Entire subdivisions looked like ghost towns – mud had mounded as high as the bottom sills of windows, with what look like seaweed improbably twined around metal window panes. The glass in the panes had, of course, shattered during the height of the storm.

Weeds strangle windows; mud covers floors to knee-height. 28 Dec 2011, Iligan City.

Stories abound. A woman clung to a post for a total of seven hours before the floods subsided. A child drifted by, borne on the water, and grabbed her, a safe harbor. Two hours into their ordeal, continuously buffeted by the elements, the child said, in a voice of infinite weariness, “Pagod na ako. Bibitaw nalang ako.”Huwag, mamamatay ka!” screamed the woman, and clung tighter to the child. (They both lived.)

Humor is a feature of some stories, a typical coping mechanism of a people often battered by tragedy. People sat on their roofs, “kinakabayo”, a survivor said, clinging on to the V of the roof triangle for their lives. Occasionally other people would drift by and grasp whatever solid structure they could. One such man asked for permission from the homeowners perched on the roof. “Pare, pasensiya na. Pwedeng dito muna ako?” The homeowners laughed through their tears and hauled him up to the safer perch beside them. Another man who owned no cars saw a vehicle washed up in his garage the day after Sendong. “Pare!” he told a neighbor in high excitement. “May kotse na ako!”

An element of the supernatural tinges other narratives. One woman in a home relatively undamaged by the storm was unnerved when, the day after, around twenty children dressed in white pounded on her window begging to be let in. She turned to ask her husband what to do. When she turned back a few seconds later, all the children were gone.

Cagayan de Oro and Iligan will never forget Sendong and the horror and heartache it dealt. Now the residents of those areas are asking, what brought this about? Apart from the illegal logging, there’s also climate change; the typhoon belt is said to have moved from its regular path, affecting Northern Mindanao, a location that used to be untouched by monsoons.

Outside Gregorio Lluch Memorial Hospital in Iligan, a man studies lists of admitted flood victims and posters of missing persons. Most of the missing are children. Posters often list several children, all from one family. 28 Dec 2011.

Other residents claim that Cagayan de Oro’s mayor, a man called “the laziest mayor” by another paper for his frequent absence from city board meetings, is also culpable, his neglect having led to a lack of preparation for emergencies and subsequent poor response.

There are other whispers, of how a thousand or more Maranaws were brought to the area to vote for that politico, and being allowed to reside on the riverbank. Their ramshackle homes resting on an unstable foundation, these were among the first to be swept away when the river flooded its banks.

Youths dig into mud in Iligan, salvaging scrap metal after Sendong. 28 Dec 2011

Someone obviously didn’t learn the lesson about putting personal agenda aside in order to industriously and honorably fulfill duties as an elected public servant. And who are those somebodies who operate as illegal loggers? Those who don’t understand how climate change is already affecting our country in the most drastic ways? Those who still do not believe it is important to care for the environment?

Ten days after Sendong, a residential street in Cagayan is still almost impassable. 28 Dec 2011 

My New Year’s wish is simple – for people to learn their lessons and apply them to their daily lives, at home and work. When we stop living in ignorance and willful disregard of others and the world we live in, only then can we develop our potential.

But while selfishness, intellectual blindness, and sheer hard-headedness prevail in our culture, we’ll remain mired in the mud that Sendong brought down from the hills. And we’ll still have hundreds of people crammed into hospital emergency rooms on January 1.

Happy New Year, by the way.  ***

Phtos 2-6 were taken with an iPhone 4S. In addition, photos 3, 5, and 6 were taken from the window of a moving vehicle.

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