Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tropical Depression

For Americans, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a national disaster whose reverberations one can still detect in some of the unlikeliest places across the country. The scale of the physical destruction was daunting enough, with shoddy levees failing in New Orleans, putting the Ninth Ward of the city under so much water that the few residents who wouldn't, or couldn't, evacuate had to clamber onto their rooftops to escape it. The natural disaster was accompanied by human blunders, like the plodding response of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), which exacerbated the damage and the suffering, and called into question the philosophy of a federal government that refused to accept responsibility when nobody else would.


On the morning of June 20, 2008, the passenger ferry Princess of the Stars sailed out of Manila bound for Cebu on what was expected to be just another routine trip. Such ferries sail back and forth between the Philippine islands carrying passengers who cannot reach Manila by bus. On the ferry there is leisure to walk the decks, take in the scenery of passing islands and islets and the placid tropical sea. Except that on the morning of June 20, Typhoon Frank was bearing down on eastern Samar on a course that would place the Princess of the Stars directly in its path. The ship capsized in relatively shallow waters just off the island of Romblon.



Tropical cyclones (called typhoons rather than hurricanes here in Asia) the size of Katrina are rare, but the effects of much smaller cyclones wreak havoc in the Philippines on such a routine basis that it makes one wonder why governments aren't toppled and radical reforms implemented as a result. That fact that nothing happens is just another sad commentary on the fatalism of the Filipino and his failure to understand what government is supposed to do for him, not to mention the cynicism and indifference of those in power.


I was living in the Philippine central Visayas region a year ago when typhoon Frank struck. The power failed in the entire region at about 10 AM on June 20, and it wasn't restored to my remote barangay until the afternoon of the 29th. I didn't hear about the ferry disaster until I managed to go online and check my email, when I learned how worried my sister was that I may have been one of the passengers aboard the Princess of the Stars.

Some of the worst maritime disasters in history have occurred in the Philippines. If you look at the latest list of the top ten for the last twenty years (1), the Dona Paz disaster heads the list, with 4,375 casualties. The Princess of the Stars would rank 6th on the list, with 694 casualties.(2) Whomever it was who decided that it should sail (the captain, who was one of the casualties, was held liable by the official inquiry), there was clearly no oversight authority to stop her. To have been so utterly oblivious of such an enormous storm, or to have accepted the risk of sailing straight into its maw with 862 people aboard shows, if nothing else, a total disregard for the rules of seafaring. Of course, it emerged upon inspection that the wreck was carrying an undisclosed cargo: ten metric tons of the pesticide endosulfan. It suggested a possible reason for the ship's sailing in such haste.

For a race of islanders, Filipinos have a strange, suspicious and mistrustful relationship with the sea. Only a minority, apparently, can swim. There are frequent "accidental" downings reported in the news, such as when poor children scale the walls around a private pool and are discovered floating face down the next morning. Growing up so close to an ocean as warm as bathwater would've been a dream for me as a boy, but I never see Filipino children swimming, except when they are involved in some capacity with fishing. Watching children play where I live, within a few hundred yards of the Pacific Ocean, they might just as well be in Kansas.


How I managed to maintain my sanity during those nine days without power and no contact with the world beyond my occluded horizon would, now that a year has passed, require an act of imagination. I spent the daylight hours reading and writing, and the dark nights defending my house against invading vermin while here was no light to scare them away. The darkness also emboldened some of my more desperate neighbors to try and get their hands on the stacks of cash that they were all told we foreigners have lying around the house. And there were nights when, my doors barricaded with furniture, I slept uneasily. Then there was the night, with a piece of my bathroom (called a CR or "comfort room" here) roof missing - the piece right over the toilet - and rain coming down, when I had to open an umbrella to stay dry while I did my business.

But I will never forget the elation I felt when I saw the light bulb over my sala first flicker with life and then shine brightly at about 4:30 PM on the ninth day. It was like emerging from a long escape tunnel beyond the wire, with the unmistakable smell of freedom in the air. But then the first thing the neighbors decided to do was crank up their karaoke microphones and engage in the socialized screaming that has become such a ubiquitous tradition here. I wonder, if they had the chance, how many of the lost on the Princess of the Stars would be doing the same?


(1) See http://jaggerkieth.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/the-world̢۪s-10-worst-maritime-disasters-in-the-last-20-years/
(2) The official numbers are : 751 passengers, 111 crew, with 57 survivors.

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