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Insights and Analysis

Ondoy’s Onslaught: Philippines Battered By Typhoon

September 30, 2009

By Steven Rood

The international media tracked Tropical Storm Ketsana as it moved westward through the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and then into Laos where it was finally degraded to a tropical depression. The impact of Tropical Storm Ondoy (as it is known in the Philippines) on Metro Manila and its surrounding provinces has been severe. Over 600,000 people have been affected, with almost 400,000 at the evacuation centers, and some 246 deaths (including some rescuers who were lauded as heroes). In the welter of continuing stories and the addition of stories from mainland Southeast Asia as Ketsana hits Vietnam and Cambodia, what can we take away from this disaster?

First, there was an enormous amount of rain. More rain resulted from Ondoy in one day than the average monthly rainfall for the entire month of September in the Philippines. Spokespersons for the administration were derided for pointing out that Ondoy dumped considerably more rain on Metro Manila than Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans – critics said that Katrina was (what we in the Pacific would call) a Super Typhoon, while Ondoy was a mere tropical storm – meaning that the winds were much less severe. Still, in 24 hours 17.9 inches of rain fell (455 millimetres). That’s more than three times the record amount (4.81 inches) of rainfall in a day in Washington, D.C. And while the record rain in one day in Sydney, Australia, is a remarkable 12.9 inches, that’s still some 40 percent less than Ondoy’s deluge.

Residents of the tropics are inured to copious amounts of rain, which can lead to complacency. One theme of post-storm conversations was that many did not realize the extent of flooding and damage until it was too late. Certainly the strength of the early morning rain did serve as a warning to preemptively charge cell phones and the like, but many ventured out as normal and became caught in the flooding. Light rail lines operated as normal, so people waded across avenues turned into rivers in order to reach the mass transit. Traffic jams, on the other hand, became permanent as vehicles were flooded and unable to move.

A second striking point is how Filipinos turned to the Internet to cope with this disaster. When Ondoy struck the tech-savvy economic and technological hub of the Philippines, immediately webs of electronic communication sprung into being. Beyond texting, social network sites helped track the storm and rescue efforts in close to real-time. In this way, individual sharing of experience or cries for help became aggregated into a larger picture. Blogsites started posting pictures and videos. Dedicated sites instantly sprang up. One site aggregated “tweets” from Twitter.

One innovation had to do with the use of new mapping technologies that aggregated calls for assistance and reports of flooding into an overall picture of what was happening. Zooming into a map clearly shows where the prosperous community of Provident Village, inside a loop of the Marikina River, was flooded. In this manner those who still had electricity and Internet connections could get a more complete view of the situation, which was also transmitted to those watching televised news. Of course, such “crowd-sourcing” of information has its limits. The upper class enclave of Magallanes Village (the office of The Asia Foundation lies on its outskirts) was inundated with water from a nearby creek, but apparently nobody called for help or reported flooding to the aggregators.

By mid-afternoon on Saturday, the rain had slackened somewhat, making the scope of devastation clear. At that point, rescue operations were most urgent, and were hampered by lack of helicopters and rubber boats. One judge fond of water sports used his jet ski to rescue approximately 100 people in repeated trips through the floodwaters. Troops from the United States who were there to be part of joint training exercises were diverted to help in rescue.

As soon as the immediate crisis passed, Filipinos turned to cleaning up the muddy mess, and to the Internet to begin to raise funds for the hundreds of thousands in need of relief. A summary spreadsheet was developed using Google documents, and another site had a verified listing of bank accounts (useful, given the prevalence of scams on the Internet). Prominent political blogger Manuel L. Quezon III devoted his attention to detailing “how to help,” (his server kept being overloaded so he established mirror sites). One site quickly raised over $6,000 while another raised more than a million pesos – largely through the online payment system Paypal.

Give2Asia, The Asia Foundation’s philanthropic sister organization, is currently working with two partners in the Philippines that are undertaking relief operations – Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) and Visayan Forum Foundation. Both PBSP and Visayan have been on the frontlines of relief operations. PBSP’s Board of Trustees has already allocated an initial 5 million pesos (approximately US $100,000) for the relief operations, and is seeking additional funding assistance needed to provide food, clean water, and necessities to flood victims in Cainta, Manila. Meanwhile, Visayan Foundation is currently mobilizing food supplies, potable water, and medication to about 7,000 families in Pandacan, Paco, Isla Putting Bato, Parola and other affected areas. More information about the two organizations’ relief efforts are detailed on Give2Asia’s website.

A last point has to do with the location of the tragedy and how it has served to raise its profile in the news. The major media organizations are here in Manila, the major corporations have their headquarters here, and much of the country’s wealth is concentrated in this small geographic area. Of course, when a natural calamity strikes the nation’s capital, the media have a far easier time capturing it than tragedies in remote, rural areas. This is further underscored by the fact that the concentration of people and economic assets in a capital city means that the scale of human tragedy and property damage is huge. On the other hand, other regions of the country affected by the storms – even those on the outskirts of the capital – were left to wonder, “How about us?” Meanwhile, down south in Mindanao, Cotabato City, and its environs remain flooded after more than a month since storms suffered there. Cotabato City’s flooding – affecting 400,000 residents – is a repeat of 2008. Plans to try to prevent flooding by dredging and redirecting rivers have not made much progress in the past year.

Now, both Mindanao and Manila dread the new rains that typhoon Pepeng (international name Parma) may trigger as it heads closer to the northern Philippines.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action


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