The typhoon curse and what to do about it







This type of hurricane is a very strong tempest, so many and so strong hitting these islands that neither Virgil nor Ovid nor any other poet I have read can describe its destructive power. These occur very often and we suffer so much, that even after experiencing them, it is difficult to believe these can happen. —F. I. Alzina, a Jesuit missionary in the Philippines, 1668

It has been the curse of our geography described as early as the 17th century. The Philippines is not just among those hit regularly by typhoons. It is the worst hit by this terrifying natural phenomenon, in terms of both frequency of occurrence and extent of destruction.

This is based on a 2006 US government study that included such factors as damage wrought, number of people affected, and number of years in which storms occurred, to produce a “storm index,” a measure of a country’s “victimization” by typhoons for the years between 1970 and 2002. The Philippines came out with the highest storm index of 0.0370, followed by the Dominican Republic (0.0205), Jamaica and Haiti.

Other measures on overall climatic disasters put our country in the top ranks. The Climate Risk Index ranks it the eighth most affected by “extreme weather changes” for the period 1990 to 2008.

It is a fact that stares us in the face this time of the year: We are in an area in the planet which nature has sadistically made the site for perfect storms.

The archipelago is in a tropical zone facing the vast Pacific Ocean, where cyclones are generated as the warm surface temperature causes moist air to rise, with the water condensing at the higher, cooler altitudes. This is the reason why typhoons cannot form over waters less than 26°C. How unlucky we are: If the country were located nearer the equator, we would, as Indonesia and even the southern Mindanao region are, be below the usual path of typhoons that veers northward after emerging in the Pacific’s center.

Worse, our most populated and biggest island, Luzon, is the first big landmass to be hit by typhoons generated in the Pacific. The Sierra Madre mountain range is too low to function as a wall to weaken the typhoons rushing from the Pacific. Typhoon tracks for two decades made by meteorologists clearly show that our country has been smack on the path of the hundreds of typhoons generated in the Pacific, at the rate of about 20 typhoons per year.

No wonder our collective consciousness is filled by the typhoons we have experienced. Etched in the minds of each generation of Filipinos is a particular powerful typhoon. For me, as a toddler, it was Typhoon “Lucille” in 1960 that made Retiro Street in Quezon City a gushing river, flooding the first floor of our two-story apartment. Then, it was “Yoling” in 1970, which brought so much suffering to the poor—to such an extent that it even convinced many students of that time (including myself) to join the revolution. “Ondoy” is now the unforgettable nightmare for this generation of Filipinos. A new nightmare last week: a typhoon, “Gener,” creating a system that generated torrential rains.

If typhoons and flooding have been our ancient curse, shouldn’t protecting our people from its consequences be the No. 1 concern of the Republic?

If the government can give away money to the poor totaling P85 billion (since 2008 and including the 2013 proposal) through its conditional cash transfer program, it should afford at least that much for a massive flood-control infrastructure program. A flood-free National Capital Region (which, after all, accounts for more than one-third of the country’s GDP) makes more sense in terms of employment generation, attracting foreign investments, and long-term economic growth than cash doles. If the Republic can raise P330 billion— the amount then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo mobilized in 2009-2010 that allowed the country to weather the global financial crisis of that period—it can raise that much to once and for all solve a national problem.

I would like to offer a concrete proposal: Enact a law mandating Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office to set aside, say, 20 percent of their income yearly to a fund that will help build the vast infrastructure (such as hundreds of water-pumping stations and the dredging of the garbage-filled rivers) to prevent floods, provide the necessary equipment for rescue operations (such as hundreds of amphibian trucks and rescue boats as well as a chain of permanent evacuation centers), and relocate residents of flood-prone areas. A law is needed for this, as we always forget the deluge and destruction of the typhoon and monsoon season as we enter the Christmas months.

There is one case in which a country heroically overcame the curse of geography to define itself as a nation. With 70 percent of its land either below or barely a meter above sea level, and therefore regularly hit by disastrous floods, the Netherlands—which means “Low Country”—created its awesome “closure dike,” completed in 1932, that blocked off the North Sea, and then the so-called “delta works” complex of dikes, started in 1958 and finished in 1997, one of the largest construction efforts in human history.

It can be done, with most of Metro Manila, after all, 50 meters above sea level. Perhaps our conquest of the curse of the deluge, as the Dutch did, would finally define us as a nation.

Author’s note: Except for a few revisions and updating of data, this column was lifted from a piece I wrote here nearly two years ago in July 22, 2010, titled “We are in the Goldilocks zone for typhoons”—to emphasize how much things haven’t changed.