Ondoy’s impact lingers 10 years later

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 26) — On this day, exactly ten years ago, Caitlyn Camangonan was spending her day off from work to do her laundry.

Overcast skies were pouring rain nonstop. A storm named Ondoy was making landfall over Central Luzon, where Signal No. 2 was hoisted.

Like any resident in flood-prone Marikina City, Caitlyn paid no mind.

Mga a week before that, nagkaroon na rin ng baha. Palagi naman ako on the lookout sa baha, kasi bahain naman talaga sa Marikina, pero hanggang tuhod lang,” she said.

[Translation: Floods had already hit a week before that. I’m always on the lookout for floods, because Marikina is usually flooded, but it’s only knee-deep.]

The flood was already rising and the rain — which Caitlyn described as large droplets — had no sign of stopping. She decided to leave her apartment and wade through the waters on the streets of Malanday, an area in Marikina near the river that traverses through the city, to check on her brother who lives nearby.

Her brother had work that day, so she only found her sister-in-law, her niece and her two children, who were taking shelter in the second floor of the house to stay dry from the waist-deep flood.

But their respite from the flood was brief — in fact, their ordeal had only begun. Thirty minutes after Cailtyn arrived, the water’s height already surpassed the average height of a human person and was still rising. In a frantic bid to get to higher ground, Caitlyn raided her brother’s carpentry tools to find a hammer and break through the roof.

This, however, failed. Caitlyn and her four other relatives could have been trapped in that house — possibly among the hundreds dead — had their neighbors not heard their attempts to escape the raging waters that seemed to have swiftly come to reclaim all the land.

Caitlyn’s neighbors sawed off a portion of the roof for them to get out and get to the third floor of a nearby house. From that tiny space, with an area of just seven by seven feet, Caitlyn and some 50 others could not do anything but watch, without much food or water, as two-storey houses and 20-foot electric posts disappeared, as the water engulfed everything in its path.

Napakalakas ng current ng tubig, para siyang galit na galit. Alam mo ‘yun, para siyang may gripo sa baba, tapos sumisirit siya,” Caitlyn recalled. “Lahat inaanod. Appliances, mga sala set, lahat. Tapos ‘yung nakita sa TV, ‘yung nasa bubong ‘yung tao, ‘yun nakita rin namin ‘yun. Tapos naririnig rin namin ‘yung sigaw nila.

[Translation: The water’s current was so fast, as if it was so angry. It was like there was a faucet from underneath, and it was spouting … Everything was being swept away. Appliances, furniture, everything. And then what was shown on TV, the people on the roof being swept away, we saw that too. And we heard their screams.]

There was no immediate help in sight for Caitlyn, or for anyone stuck on the roofs of houses during the flood. Even rescue workers needed rescuing too.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Ondoy’s horror that swallowed almost all of Metro Manila, and central and southern Luzon. Flooding had become part of existence in many portions of the sprawling metropolis — then home to nearly 12 million — but hardly anyone has experienced it at this magnitude, brought by a storm that then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo described as “once in a lifetime.”

The National Disaster Coordinating Council’s (NDCC) final report on Ondoy listed 464 dead, 529 injured and 37 missing due to the storm. It wrecked P11 billion worth of agriculture and infrastructure, including schools, day care centers and health facilities.

Nearly a million families were affected by Ondoy, representing close to five million people in 2,018 barangays in 172 municipalities and 16 cities of 12 regions. Almost 16,000 families, or around 70,000 people had to stay in evacuation centers.

Forecast failure?

But then again, people knew what was coming.

International weather monitoring agencies had already issued bulletins about a tropical depression east of the Philippines as early as September 23. Local weather bureau Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) reported about it the day after and named it “Ondoy.”

Ondoy intensified into a tropical storm on September 25, prompting PAGASA to hoist Signal No. 2 over Catanduanes, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur and Polillo Island in Quezon, while it raised Signal No. 1 in 11 areas.

PAGASA warned that the storm will intensify the southwest monsoon, or Habagat, and that this would bring rains over central and southern Luzon and Visayas.

But reports never warned that Ondoy will bring a month’s worth of rain in a day, beating the record for Metro Manila set in 1967.

As rain poured and floods continued to rise, paralyzing Metro Manila and nearby provinces, people scrambled for answers. Confused netizens on forums were wondering why the rain was so heavy in the metropolis, when this was not in the forecast. But their questions remained unanswered, as PAGASA’s website crashed in the afternoon.

The UN-backed PreventionWeb site even noted that PAGASA did not hoist a public storm signal warning over Metro Manila until the evening of the floods, when the national government was already gearing to declare a state of calamity in the region, and some areas in Rizal.

So when the floods subsided and thick mud covered most of the land, people got their pitchforks and torches and aimed them at PAGASA. A Marikina resident, who lost his family during the deluge, even sued the weather bureau, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, the Department of Highways and the National Power Corporation for negligence.

But PAGASA could only do so much. At the time, it could not predict rain volume because it did not have instruments to do so and lacked personnel.

So PAGASA officials, like Nathaniel Cruz, offered other things to blame: Metro Manila’s poor drainage system, pollution and garbage.

“Maybe 10 years ago, maaaring hindi ganito kabaha [The floods might have not been this bad.] The heavy flooding might have been caused by these other factors," Cruz said in a report.

Impotent infrastructure

Again, it’s not like no one saw this coming.

Metro Manila, a cluster of cities surrounded by channels of waterways, creeks and rivers, has seen flooding as early as the 18th century, and administrations have tried to address this through flood control infrastructure. In fact, the MMDA had boasted that flood prone areas in the region were reduced to just four percent in 2008, from 20 percent of its total land area in 2002.

“However, the flood created by typhoon Ondoy in 2009 covered at least 34% of the metropolis,” Romeo Gilbuena and other researchers from the Tokyo Metropolitan University said in a 2013 study on Metro Manila’s flood management system. “The sudden increase in the flooded areas in 2009 indicates that the flood control structures collectively performed poorly during this event.”

Gilbuena and the other researchers found that Metro Manila was ill-equipped to deal with a catastrophe like Ondoy.

Another study in 2011 by Sato Teruko and Nakasu Tadashi found that the Pasig and Marikina rivers had been designed to withstand a once-in-30-years flood, but this was only achieved in the middle section of the Pasig River, as the drainage in other areas was incomplete.

Sato and Nakasu also confirmed Cruz’s claims as they found that the flood control facilities faltered due to garbage disposal and the construction of shanties in drainage channels.

“As a result, in the city drainage channels, where the drainage capacity has decreased to the point where it can only cope with rainfall levels estimated to occur once every two to five years, it was not possible to protect the city from the heavy rainfall caused by Typhoon Ondoy,” Sato and Nakasu said.

The two researchers also blamed the “haphazard development” in Metro Manila that pushed residential development into low-lying areas while also filling in poorly-drained back marshes, creating a man-made basin that would catch all the flooding.

Despite the pitiful state of Metro Manila’s flood prevention infrastructure, Glibuena and his fellow researchers said proper flood forecasting and flood warning would have reduced casualties.

But with outdated equipment and a lack of manpower, the weather bureau at the time could only predict a storm’s intensity, predict flooding in river basins, and give real-time updates on the status of major dams.

Moving forward

The devastation was immediately evident the day after Ondoy poured a month’s worth of rain in just 12 hours. People who were on rooftops were now able to climb down as the floods subsided, but they now had to deal with a thick layer of mud that covered everything the water touched.

The death toll climbed higher. There were reports of missing people. On social media and television, a video of more than a dozen people helplessly being ferried away on a raft by the strong current before they disappeared in the turbid, brown waters was shown. Newscasts ceased counting down to Christmas at the end of their shows, even if they had been doing so since the start of September.

Ang mayroon lang ako ‘yung suot ko. Suot ko, and then may wallet ako. ‘Yung cellphone ko, naiwan ko rin sa inuupahan ko. Halos lahat nawala. ‘Yung sa kuya ko, may sasakyan siya na ‘di na rin napakinabanagan right after. ‘Yung motor okay. Tapos ‘yung ref and TV wala na rin, lahat,” Caitlyn recalled.

[Translation: I only had my clothes. My clothes and my wallet. I left my cellphone in my apartment. I nearly lost everything. My brother’s car could not be used after, but his motorcycle was fine. His fridge and TV were also damaged.]

As Ondoy’s victims scooped out buckets on buckets of mud from their houses and tried to salvage whatever they could, aid began pouring in for them.

Bearing the memories of Super Typhoon Reming that barreled through the Bicol region just three years before Ondoy, Ria Mae Ruiviviar-Torres gathered her fellow high school alumni so they could donate and join the relief operations of a TV network foundation.

Ria Mae Ruiviviar-Torres' group, called Task Force Ondoy, volunteered again in 2012 when the southwest monsoon flooded the same areas hit by Ondoy.

Bilang kami na taga-Bicol, we experienced sobrang daming bagyo,” Ria said. “Na-experience namin kung gaanong kahirap. And it was really something na parang nakakatakot. Maraming nakakaawa na binaha, na nakitia natin sa media, sa TV.”

[Translation: We came from Bicol, we experienced a lot of typhoons … We experienced how hard it is. And it was really something frightening. A lot of flood victims looked pitiful on the media, as we’ve seen on TV.]

International humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross and the Tzu Chi Foundation came swooping in to help those worst hit by the flooding.

At the end of it all, the government received ₱1.5 billion in donations, both in kind and in cash, from international and local donors.

Beyond aid, the government also began work on reforming disaster response in the country.

Lawmakers recognized the need to shift from mere disaster response to disaster prevention and passed in 2010 Republic Act No. 10121 or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, which abolished the NDCC and replaced it with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

The country also enacted the Climate Change Act just a month after Ondoy hit. This provided for the creation of the Climate Change Commission and the development of the National Climate Change Action Plan.

A year after the tragedy, PAGASA assured that they were ready for another Ondoy, as they acquired new equipment that would allow them to make better weather forecasts. The weather bureau also completed a flood monitoring system in the Marikina and Pasig rivers in the same year.

The weather bureau was eventually able to predict the amount of rainfall and is now able to issue advisories warning people of danger due to heavy rains.

READ: Understanding PAGASA's public storm warning system, rainfall advisories

PAGASA's color-coded rainfall advisory system

The Marikina City government and other local governments invested in early warning systems and established command posts for disaster monitoring.

Climate change

But despite these reforms and improvements, the government’s readiness to deal with extreme weather events was tested in 2012 when Habagat again caused flooding in the same areas hit by Ondoy and in 2013 when Super Typhoon Yolanda — one of the strongest storms on record — battered the Visayas region.

Habagat killed 95 people and left more than ₱600 million in destruction, while Yolanda, which caused a massive storm surge in Leyte, killed 6,352 and destroyed ₱95.5 billion.

Despite the fact the Philippines has been listed among the countries that would be badly hit by climate change, the government tried cutting the already measly funding earmarked for climate change response in 2017.

But people like Caitlyn, who have experienced firsthand the wrath of extreme weather, know that there is extreme urgency to act on climate change.

Ang Ondoy kasi parang naging lesson siya din, both sa government at sa mga tao na ‘wag nating i-underestimate ‘yung impact ng global warming, climate change kasi ngayon, talagang evident na siya,” she said.

[Translation: Ondoy became a lesson for the government and the people not to underestimate global warming and climate change because now, its impact is really evident.]