Hearing the Call of the Great Flood
“Ate, tubig! Dali, may tubig!” I was upstairs trying to finish writing a long-delayed book when I heard this shout from my sister down below. I rushed downstairs and saw water seeping through the door. ‘Where is all this water coming from?’ I asked, fearing that the Marikina River, about a kilometer from the back of the house, has overflowed. ‘From out front,” she said. True enough, the water that came rushing was mainly from the street outside. This means that the water was rushing down from some mountain higher up. The sight startled me.
But there was no time to lose. Within minutes, the water rose to knee-high. We grabbed some food from the fridge, carted up a precious charcoal portrait of my parents and other paintings, salvaged what we could of the electrical gadgets from the kitchen, and tried to lug the chinaware and other breakables starting to spill out of the cabinet. By this time the water was up to my chest. Then the fridge started to float, banging itself against the table and chairs whirling round the living room. We tried to get it up the winding stairs but couldn’t since we were only two tiny women. The one man in the house is my grandnephew, but he was out in school taking his exams. He himself got trapped and had to sleep on the third floor of his school building that fateful Saturday night.
In less than an hour the water hit the ceiling of the first floor and started to seep through the second floor. I realized I could do nothing from hereon and got on my knees to pray. Then a man knocked on the glass of the bay window in my study and asked if they could get in. There were two women with him standing on the roof of my dirty kitchen, one holding a baby. They swam through the flood from the house at the back of mine. I fumbled with the lock of the emergency exit in the bay window but the key has gotten stuck. We got the baby through an opening in the window of my bedroom instead and the three swam to the terrace on the side of the house and got inside. It turns out that their grand lola was still in their house, waiting frightened on the second floor. He went back to fetch her but she wouldn’t hazard swimming through the floodwaters. We figured it was best that she stay put. If the water rose and we all had to evacuate and rescue comes I gave my word we shall not leave without her.
From the study I watched agonizingly as the river swelled, the flood rising inch by inch, up the wall fence. Frantic calls for help were made. I managed to reach the head of the Office of Civil Defense, Anthony Golez, and asked for a boat, a helicopter, whatever. He said sorry, it was not possible for them to help. We tried whoever else we could reach with the remaining batteries of our cell phones. All too soon the cell phones went dead. We have done what we could.
I sat down behind my desk and swept the room longingly with my eyes. Maybe it was my way of saying goodbye to the things I love, — the books that have meant much to me and those I have yet to read, picked up from my various travels; the pictures and paintings, and especially the portrait of my parents done so lovingly by an artist friend. In the event the water finally engulfs us I figured I could manage to take my computer. All the rest will have to go. I put the most important books on the topmost shelves and thought of how everyone could get evacuated, — baby, lola and all.
Inside, in that place where the battle between hope and despair is waged, my faith in the Lord of wind and rain was being tried. I knew that this was nature striking back against all our environmental sins. God does not suspend natural laws he himself has built into creation. We violate these laws at our own peril. Still, I also knew he could stop the rain if he wanted to. I confess the shadow of a half-doubt began to creep when I felt the firewall slightly move with the swirling force of the waters. I prayed that the concrete wall at the back, which served as buffer against the raging current from the river, would not give way. I do not think I have ever implored the Almighty as earnestly and anxiously and tearfully as I did at that moment.
Mercifully, the rain stopped. The water crawling up the roof of my dirty kitchen halted to a standstill. Rescuers came on board a makeshift raft. We did not relish staying the night at the clubhouse as a temporary evacuation shelter. We decided to stay put in the house and trust that the worst is over. We cooked some rice and broiled fish over a stove made out of an old tin can of biscuits, with newspapers as fuel. We chuckled over the ingenious improvisation, glad and thankful just to be alive.
Darkness covered the waters of the deep. Somehow I felt I was being invited to enter the depths of ‘somewhere I have never traveled’, — the immense and fearful mystery of life and death, but also the forlorn helplessness of the poor in our land who always get buffeted by the wild winds of both nature and misfortune. I went to bed thinking of the castaways swept from the river banks, clinging for dear life on some tree or an old tire, or washed away by the floodtide along with the rubbish and rusted tin roofs of what used to pass for their houses. But tiredness and aching arms numbed and stupefied the mind for any more such thoughts. I went to sleep like a log.
Morning was eerily calm. It was also strangely beautiful. Along the river drifted a solitary man on a ragtag raft of banana trunks tied together. From a distance it all looked so picturesque, with the treetops visible on the surface of the now placid waters that have begun to subside. I learned later that many dead bodies were found floating on that river, some swept from as far away as Tanay.
It is now the ninth day since the Great Flood. Mud four inches thick had been cleared from the house. The yard is still full of mud, with mounds of things and furniture piled up in the muck waiting to be cleaned and sorted out. Life is moving on, and I am trying to make sense of what has happened to us.
For the first time, I was a flood victim. I thought this sort of thing happened only to those without means to live in decent places. I was, suddenly, on the receiving end of a thousand kindnesses from friends, kindly neighbors from Couples for Christ, and my own evangelical church who sent food and water, helped clear the mud and debris, checked the electrical wirings and in many other ways reminded me of God’s tender mercies in a time of great testing and vulnerability.
The poor have no access to such help. Even now, thousands are in evacuation shelters, with no homes, no families to go home to, no friends and relatives with resources to tide them over. In short, no social capital like those of us who are middle class and able to pull ourselves by our own bootstraps without waiting for government to dole out help that is too little and too late.
I asked God what all this means for me. So far, the one thing clear is that I am being asked to share in the ‘fellowship of his suffering’, in that great mystery of solidarity where the sorrow and degradation of one human being is the sorrow and degradation of all. Whether we are aware of it or not, we live in the presence of one another. The presence of the vast poor among us says as much about the rest of us as the kind of government we live under.
In a small way, I now know what it must be like for those who are swept to the margins, forced to live precariously in cities with no thought nor place for them, squatting dangerously along esteros, river banks and other waterways. Comfortable people tend to see them as obstructions, clogging our life systems. The truth is that it is a horrendous scandal that so many have nowhere else to go.
There is something very wrong with a society where almost everyone ‘turns away leisurely from the disaster’ as the poet W. H. Auden put it. In our vast carelessness and indifference no one anticipates the coming catastrophe until calamity crashes upon us. It is estimated that about 20 to 25 typhoons batter the country every year. But those whose business it is to prepare for such eventualities, like the National Disaster Coordinating Council, have no plan in place. In its stead is mere technical reflex, like releasing water, uncoordinated, from all four major dams all at once, without thought for the hapless people along the waterways.
It is worth investigating why, after weeks of rain even before Ondoy, no one in Napocor or the National Irrigation Administration who have charge of these dams ever thought of releasing water before it reached critical level. Why did they have to wait until another typhoon came? My own experience gives me the impression that besides environmental degradation, the one decisive factor that made this flooding so devastating is the uncalibrated release of dam water, coinciding with the heaviest rainfall we have seen in forty years. I have lived where I am for nearly 20 years. All through that time typhoons stronger than Ondoy have come and gone. But the Marikina River had not overflowed the way it had in this recent deluge. This disaster is man-made.
To me, the biggest disaster of all is when we once again miss our historical cue, failing to hear the call of what this means to us as a people. One call is that we must change our timeline as a culture; transcend our present-orientedness and anticipate the floodtide of the future. For all who do care that this country should have a future and a hope, we must see to it that all our do-gooding is such that it finally puts an end to the unconscionable helplessness and uprootedness of our people. As a German poet puts it,
“Make it so the poor are no longer
despised and thrown away,
Look at them standing about, —
like wild flowers, which have
nowhere else to grow….”
Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D. President , Institute for Studies in Asian Church And Culture
(Published with Permission)