As Hurricane Irene hit northeastern United States on the last weekend of August, northern Philippines was also being battered by Typhoon Mina (international code name: Nanmadol). Storms forming in the Atlantic Ocean are called hurricanes while those from the Pacific Ocean are known as typhoons. Different terminologies, same destructive power. As Irene and Mina made landfall, the powerful winds and strong rains ravaged towns and cities, destroyed homes and livelihoods, and caused injuries and casualties.
After the weekend of storms, we were left to count the dead and calculate the damage. As of last count the death toll from Irene was at 44 in the US. Here in the Philippines, 33 people were killed from the typhoon. Destruction from the hurricane was estimated to cost $7 billion while Mina caused at least 1.4 billion pesos ($33 million) in damage to agriculture and infrastructure.
I was up north on that weekend right in the path of Mina. Electricity was out by late afternoon. Loud warning sirens indicated storm signal number 2 which means winds of 60-100 kilometers per hour were expected in 24 hours. As a country that gets hit by tropical cyclones 20 times a year on average, typhoons and the resulting floods are no longer new to us. We’ve learned to live with disasters; we get by with a sheepish smile and a prayer. Or so we’d like to think.
As the rains subsided and the winds calmed down, we were finally able to drive out into the streets. The aftermath was also just like those of other strong typhoons: uprooted trees blocking the roads, flooded rice fields that ruined any hope for a good harvest, and news blaring on the radio of the latest death toll. It was sad but no longer shocking, as if we were already expecting and accepting that people routinely die and livelihoods are habitually destroyed with every strong storm that comes.
I later caught up with the news coverage on Hurricane Irene. States of emergency were declared in several areas ahead of the storm’s landfall in order to mobilize resources in preparation for disaster. Public transportation in New York City was shut down and there was that picture of a deserted Grand Central Station. In my corner of the world, a state of emergency or state of calamity is declared after the typhoon has hit. We learned a painful lesson on the value of disaster risk reduction after the capital was ravaged by Typhoon Ketsana two years ago. And yet with every storm that hits, we still seem to be just as helpless.
As a people who’ve been through quite a lot, we often boast of our resilience and obstinate optimism (although some would say it’s actually fatalism) even in the worst of situations. As much as I’m proud of these traits, I also wish that we’d have something more. Like maybe a strong will and a solid plan to actually prepare for disasters and adequately cope with the aftermath. And maybe the capacity to adapt and successfully recover from them, not just survive one catastrophe after another by the skin of our teeth.
Picture 1: Flooding in the US as Hurricane Irene made landfall.
Picture 2: Destroyed rice crops in northern Philippines.
Photo credits: Creative Commons