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‘Calamidades Publicas’

By: Ambeth R. Ocampo - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | July 14,2023 - 07:31 AM

All roads out of Makati were crowded on Wednesday night because of the heavy rains that caused flash floods that left motorists and commuters stewing till late.

Hungry and desperate, I changed from defensive to offensive driving just to get to my destination. Santillan street leading to Arnaiz was not crowded and I decided to test my luck after watching motorcycles navigate the dark waters. People were stranded on elevated parts of the street and the few people who took off their shoes and waded home did so at the risk of stepping on something sharp underwater, or worse, catching leptospirosis.

The flood reminded me of the bundles of archival documents on earthquakes, typhoons, locust infestation, fires, flooding, and other disasters waiting for researchers in the Philippine National Archives. These are grouped under the subheading “Calamidades Publicas” that needs no translation.

Many years ago, I browsed over documents on earthquakes not so much for the inventory of damage caused to buildings and houses, or the lists of casualties. I was interested in how people described the two types of movement: circular that made them dizzy, or up-and-down that made things fall off shelves and brought pedestrians to fall on the ground. Buildings were not very high in Spanish colonial times, so many of that casualties and injuries resulted from roof tiles falling on people.

The proposed solution was to replace heavy baked clay roof tiles with lighter galvanized iron or GI sheets that also caused trouble when blown off during violent storms. Going back to nipa roof was not advisable because it was flammable. There is one account of a destructive fire, that razed much of Intramuros, caused by an unattended candle in a church. Then there were the locust plagues that ravaged rice fields. Scarecrows didn’t work, neither did making loud noises or bonfires lit to produce more smoke than fire. One solution proposed was to import martins from China that were reputedly the natural enemies of locusts.

I don’t know how far back in Philippine history our policymakers go to provide context to disaster prevention and preparedness. Of course, those of us who lived through the time of Typhoon “Ondoy” in 2009 and Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in 2013 do not think much about it until the next big one hits us.

Typhoons and floods are an annual annoyance that we respond to afterwards with donations of food and used clothing rather than actually planning how to reduce the problem. While our storm drains will get overwhelmed by long and heavy rain, the flash floods that paralyzed parts of the city could have been minimized if drainage is regularly inspected and cleared of debris. Instead of spam and scam texts we receive on a daily basis, an emergency text would have warned people of Wednesday’s traffic. I used to think the 5 p.m. chime, audible throughout Tokyo, was a signal that the work day is over. I appreciated it more when it was explained that the chime is tested daily to make sure that it is ready for an emergency.

The Jesuits in the Philippines, mainly associated with their Ateneo and Xavier schools, should be better remembered for the scientific thinking they brought in as early as the 16th century. It is not well known that today’s weather forecasting office, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration, was born out of the Jesuit Manila Observatory that used to be in the Ateneo Municipal in Intramuros.

Later, the observatory moved out of the walled city into Ermita, that’s why the major street where it once stood known as Padre Faura today was named in honor of one of the Observatory directors Federico Faura. While Faura made the first accurate weather warnings that saved ships and lives at the port of Manila, his name overshadows his successor Jose Algue, observatory director from 1898-1925 who published a lot that is worth rereading today.

The Manila Observatory is now located in Quezon City, inside the Ateneo campus. Its archive a mother lode of data. Jesuits did not just document weather and seismic data from their time, analyzing these and plotting distribution. They went through historical sources, picked out references to earthquakes and typhoons, and came up with historical data to guide the present and the future. Unfortunately, all that unread historical data was no help to me in the flash flood the other night.


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TAGS: floods, history, Makati

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