Dan Lawton : Journalist

Flooded in the Philippines 

A boy rows a skiff down a flooded street in Rizal Province, Philippines

A boy rows a skiff down a flooded street in Rizal Province, Philippines

I was sitting in my hotel room in Macau, when a newsflash came across the television about catastrophic flooding in the Philippines.  Provinces outside Manila had been ravaged by another typhoon–the third in the last month–causing a number of low-lying areas to be inundated with water. A waterborne illness called leptospirosis was also ravaging the affected areas.  I wanted to see how people coped in a world overrun by water, so I booked a ticket the next day.

I flew into Manila and reserved a hotel room in Quezon City to situate myself closer to the flooded provinces.  I arrived at dark by bus.  It was a confounding place to be dropped off after a long day of travel.  The streets were teeming with people and bright silver jeeps (called Jeepneys), which were spray-painted with exotic designs and blared music.  This was public transport, I was told.

My hotel was close to the bus station, but to reach it I needed to climb an elevated footbridge that hung over the crowded avenue.  The steps were dark, and at the top I almost slammed into a legless man who was sitting in the middle of the walkway.  His head was hung downward, his eyes facing the ground.  His right arm was outstretched and held a paper cup full of change and I dropped a coin in it–though, when it plinked against the others, he didn’t budge.

A blind man was playing a muddy, yet surprisingly sound version of Eric Clapton’s Layla a few feet down, with a sign hung around his neck describing his plight.  I weaved around him, bypassed a beckoning prostitute and hustled down the stairs of the footbridge and into my adjacent hotel.

The next morning, I met with the OXFAM relief team that was working in the Rizal provinces, where most of the flooding had taken place. The first storm, they informed me, had been Ketsana, and it had caused most of the damage.  The flood refugees numbered in the thousands.  They had been evacuated to a number of shelters, but in the following storms, many of those shelters had been flooded as well.

The cause of the flood wasn’t just nature; but man, too.  Most of the victims were squatters who had settled in areas on the border of various tributaries.  Their refuse had gradually clogged water passages, preventing the flood waters from draining properly.

I went to Rizal Province later that day and saw the flooded neighborhoods with my own eyes.  The streets had become canals, and taxi drivers congregated in a circle offering a number of homemade skiffs for transportation. The main evacuation center was a hub of activity, but had taken on approximately a foot of water, which residents splashed through.

I hired one of the boatmen and proceeded through the neighborhood.  It was mostly deserted–the water neck-deep in some spots–but I did spy one couple napping on top of their home.  They had managed to set up a pair of functioning speakers, and Michael Jackson ballads drifted through the air.  Many of the other residents shared a surprisingly jovial attitude–especially the children, who swam playfully in the disease-ridden water.

One of the converted evacuation centers was a Presbyterian church, run by Korean native Armando Guiraldo. Guiraldo told me the church was housing approximately 50 families.  “We are sad because our homes were destroyed, but we are happy because we have so much community relief,” he said, adding that he still holds church service every Sunday.

Relief workers noted that the neighborhood had extremely strong communal ties and the cohesiveness was partly responsible for the high spirits, but even they expressed surprise at the peaceful and positive attitude of residents.  Inside Guiraldo’s church, children giggled and played soccer, while mother’s hung laundry and prepared food. There was no vibration of panic, none of the wild fear one would expect to accompany the destruction of homes.  People had simply made an adjustment–as radical as it may sound–from living on dry to land to living in a flood zone. Even the stray dogs, who sunned themselves on narrow planks of wood, looked perfectly at home.

For more images of flooded areas in the Philippines, check out the photo gallery.

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