The Bicol Catastrophe – The Tragedies of Our Lives

Typhoon “Reming” left at least 1,000 dead in the Bicol Region, with the body count still climbing. Reming (international code name: “Durian”) is what we hope would be the last of a series of yearend killer storms to hit the country in 2006. It is a widespread belief that the closer a typhoon is to Christmas, the more devastating it becomes. And so it was with Reming, with a lot of help from the topography of the magnificent, and deadly, Mayon Volcano.

Prof. Randy David, in his regular column in the Inquirer, writes of a disaster threshold. According to Prof. David, our disaster threshold as a nation is extremely low, such that we suffer much from every visiting calamity and we recover ever so slowly.

A pattern of benign neglect by our political leaders is to a large degree responsible for the numerous deaths which occur during such calamities, which are as much man-made as they are caused by nature. After all, typhoons hit the Bicol Region with clockwork regularity. Yet nobody seems to have foreseen or at least sought to minimize the tragic effects of this catastrophe just waiting to happen. Already the finger-pointing has began among those who should have been working in concert to prevent such a tragedy.

In the meantime, the dead lie unburied and orphans wail inconsolably in the night. I received a text message from an old friend, a former mayor of Guinobatan, Albay, one of the hardest hit towns. His shock and despair is palpable, even from just a few text messages. Guinobatan alone has more than a thousand dead, with around 4,000 still missing. 98% of its homes have been destroyed. In his words, the stench of death is everywhere and the living are, in a sense, even worse off than the dead. The survivors have no water, food or medicine and little shelter. And they have the burden of going on in the face almost incomprehensible losses.
Prof. David reiterates the self-evident truth that mass poverty prevents the majority of our countrymen from shielding themselves from the worst effects of these devastating events. Poverty is what makes people live on the slopes of active volcanoes or build their shanties on the banks of powerful rivers. Poverty compels people to ignore the risks they pose; political opportunism makes politicians close their eyes to the dangers to which their constituencies expose themselves.

Are we therefore doomed as nation to suffer an unending cycle of poverty begetting tragedy ? It seems so, unless we take active steps, in our own small way, to lift up our less-fortunate brethren. It can be done. The Gawad-Kalinga initiative immediately comes to mind. Until we learn to pull together in one direction, the tragedy in Bicol will be repeated again and again.

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