We set out before dawn to head north of Manila. Parma had finally left the country – and the rains had stopped. But the devastation the new deluge – which came just 2 weeks on the heels of Ketsana – brought to Northern Luzon was like nothing anyone had seen before. “It’s worst than Manila,” radio commentators reported.
We drove for 4 hours through 3 provinces. So far, so good. But after the sun rose, as far as the eye could see – where agricultural lands had been, now there were only vast, vast lakes. Endless kilometres of damaged crops. And there was still water coursing through many of the roads. But until we got to the boundary of Pangasinan province, they were still passable.
On the border, all traffic stopped. There was only one lane for both directions, and no one could get in because there was a mad rush of people coming out – all of them warning stalled commuters from going further. Word had spread that one of the 5 main dams in the area was on the verge of bursting and terrified Pangasinenses didn’t want to be caught in another epic flood. Within the hour, the government tried to assuage fears and announced the dams were all fine, but no one really believed them. They’d already been through too much…
In 2 weeks of unrelenting rain, almost 1,000 people were killed, tens of thousands had been left homeless, and millions – millions were affected.
When the panic slowed, traffic began to move again.
The busy town of Rosales had been turned into a wasteland. Homes were washed away, buildings were still half-submerged, and residents walked around in a seeming stupor. Many were bringing what few belongings they could salvage out to drier land. Others just walked around aimlessly as if taking it all in. Life as they knew it had changed forever.
The Chan family sat by the newly-emerged pavement having breakfast. It was a sparse meal, and they were grateful they even found some food to eat.
“This was our home,” the father said numbly. Where?, we wondered. “This…”, he said gesturing at the empty space around him, “this is where it was.” He scratched his head, still unable to believe his home was now gone. “Thank God for that tall building next door,” he pointed. “If not for that third floor – I’d never have been able to save my children.”
What was left of his home and the family’s motor repair shop were now submerged in the newly-formed lake just metres away. “See? There –,” he gesticulated at the waters. “You can still see the top of our kitchen counter…”
More than 70% of this province was submerged. In many areas, the floodwaters are only just receding. In others, they’re not receding at all. Water is still chest-deep, and people are braving the floods to try to find food and clean drinking water. There are even those who are making money bringing people across using make-shift rafts, fishing boats, and air-beds; charging $2 dollars a trip. Many are aghast wondering how there can be opportunists among them trying to make money at a time like this…
And they’re also aghast at the government. Officials admitted that at the height of Parma’s downpour, they let water out of the 5 dams. Not in a trickle – but in a torrent. They hadn’t planned ahead and had hoped the rains would stop. They didn’t. And the excess dam waters compounded the flooding.
The fish from all the over-flowed fishponds were now everywhere. Scavengers were collecting them and selling them on for a “bargain price.” Health workers deemed them unsafe… but no one listened. It was still food. And there was not much else anywhere.
Further down the road, an exhausted Rhoderick Dawis approaches rescuers who are working out logistics of where to go next – they lack equipment, and they lack manpower. As it was, this was already a volunteer brigade. Rhoderick approached them desperately begging for help – no one had come to his village yet – and there were 4,000 residents, he said, now having to live practically under-water.
There is a massive need for food and clean water. And even the relief work is being helped along by a flood of volunteers – private citizens and businesses filling the gaps.
But there are too many gaps now – too many dead, too much devastation, and many are calling for government heads to roll. There is no controlling the weather they admit, but someone must be held accountable for the failings of man, for not doing properly that which might have been done to alleviate a little bit of the suffering.
The smiles are beginning to fade as reality sets in – that the rains have just stopped for the meantime, but they have a lifetime of rebuilding ahead.