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#ARCHIVED: Philippine Floods

By John Macklien Olandag | January 23, 2021

Resiliency and destruction — two contrasting aspects, yet conjoined in one single event as nature does her bidding. Across time, the Philippines and its people stood on such canvas.

As an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines stands in the middle of calm waters: the South China Sea to the West and the Pacific Ocean to the East. However, when warm and cold masses of air get mixed up, low pressure areas, which sometimes ramp up to become typhoons moving with devastating wind speeds or torrential rains, bring chaos to the islands.

Located in the western part of the vast Pacific Ocean, the Philippine islands lie in a typhoon highway, seeing storms which have claimed many lives, along with the destruction of millions of pesos in property and infrastructure. Every year, an average of twenty storms test the mettle of both the country and its inhabitants. One day, a house stands under a gloomy sky. But within a few hours, it is barely holding on— trying to brave the strong winds and heavy rains brought by this natural phenomenon. Such a sight is not a new one, however.

During the pre-colonial and Spanish era

Data about the flooding in the Philippines during the pre-Hispanic period to the American occupation can be found in the compiled chronologies from a Jesuit named Miguel Selga, a Spanish director of the Manila Observatory. The Jesuits were deemed to be the ones who pioneered the study of meteorology in the Philippines. 

The Jesuits had already settled in the islands as early as the late 16th century, just years after the installation of the new Spanish colony in the Philippines. This religious order had been one of the active missionaries in the region. Despite their prior disposition, they  had also shown an interest in studying the natural history of the archipelago. As such, the intense tropical storms became one of the subjects of their study. 

A Jesuit priest, Fr. F.I. Alzina, had this to write after 30 years of staying in the islands:

“The Indians [native Filipinos] of this area call Baguio this type of hurricane, which in other parts and in the East Indies are called “typhoons.” And all this means a very strong tempest. There use to be in these Islands so numerous and so strong that neither Virgilio in his Eneid, nor Ovidius in his Ponto, nor any other poet that I have read reaches by one thousand miles to describe their rigors or their strength. We see them very often and we suffer so much, that even after experiencing them it seems impossible to believe. To say it briefly, when one of those baguíos runs (usually one of two every year), neither the trees are safe in the center of the mountains, nor the animals in the caves, nor the men in their houses, nor the beasts in their middens, nor even the worms in their dens…”

There was also an instance where a Crown officer wrote to the Spanish Crown that a voyage from Manila to Acapulco in Mexico should not hit the month of July where monsoon winds are at its peak, giving an impression that the Spanish colonists were already aware of the typhoons since the beginning of their settlement.

The deadliest recorded flooding according to Selga during the Spanish colonization happened in Luzon on September 20, 1867. It caused an estimated 1,800 deaths, and many other casualties who died in a shipwreck. A tsunami was also recorded on October 7, 1897 that affected the islands of Mindoro, Leyte, and Samar.

The primary causes of such tragedies were mostly natural, yet the concentration of settlements near water was also the main reason for the flooding. The Spanish adopted a fortress system in their urban architecture which lowered the average elevation of lands. Thus, coastal areas became vulnerable to flooding from the overflowing drainage of the urban areas and the increasing water levels of the surrounding lakes, rivers, or estuaries. 

Early to the mid-20th century

Picture postcards of floods in the early 1900s in the Philippines show that the country was flood-prone. Most of the documented floods happened in low-lying areas in Metro Manila.

Back in the day, floods were less substantial in terms of its effects on the community. Records suggest that even after heavy rains and the exponential growth of registered cars and other vehicles in the 1930s, flooding wasn’t a serious issue. Floodwaters easily ebbed, and canals were still functioning properly. Even esteros and sewage machines were still functional. The early instances of flooding did not see a hampering of inter-province and inter-city travels, even with the use of animal-drawn carriages. 

The urbanization by the Americans saw not just a massive change in architecture, but also the landscape itself. As cities were transitioning from a fortress-style to a cosmopolitan one, drainage systems were also put up along with the piping systems. Dams were created as sources of water supply, and this affected how people perceived the issue of flooding. Thus, the term “flooding” then didn’t just denote floods brought by typhoons, but also filling reservoirs with water to be a useful source of clean water.

Floods as natural phenomena remained tolerable until the late 1960s. But gradually with the booming industry, the whole landscape that used to cope with the natural phone during those times changed during the turn of the 70s.

Contemporary times

“For the first time, the waters of Manila Bay linked up with those of Lingayen Gulf…” said former President Ferdinand Marcos as he observed the great flood in Metro Manila which started all the way up from Central Luzon during The Great Flood of 1972. To put the matter in the context, the military-led Marcos regime saw the repercussions of rapid economic growth, affecting the urban poor greatly. Such unsustainable growth also caused rapid deterioration of the environment. Industrialization took a toll on the flora and fauna as trees were cut in an overwhelming scale. Political power also played a major part in the devastation of the Philippines as typhoons ravaged the country.

James Warren wrote the following regarding this matter for the Asia-Pacific Journal:

“The typhoons and floods that occurred in the Marcos years were labelled ‘natural disasters’ by the authorities in Manila. But in fact, it would have been more appropriate to label them un-natural, or man-made disasters because of the nature of politics in those unsettling years. The typhoons and floods of the 1970s and 1980s, which took a huge toll in lives and left behind an enormous trail of physical destruction and other impacts after the waters receded, were caused as much by the interactive nature of politics with the environment, as by geography and the typhoons per se, as the principal cause of natural calamity. The increasingly variable nature of the weather and climate was a catalyst, but not the sole determinant of the destruction and hidden hazards that could linger for years in the aftermath of the typhoons and floods in the Marcos years.”

The effects of politics on the overall landscape of destruction echoed until the present times, as industrialization and the domination of elites further deteriorated the once tolerable floods and storms. The worst typhoons in Philippine history all happened in recent memory. Take 2013 for instance, when the Philippines had run out of letters to name the typhoons because of the numerous ones that crossed the country. Typhoon “Yolanda”, internationally known as “Haiyan”, proved to be the most devastating of them all, as it hit the Philippines on November 8, 2013 leaving 6,300 dead and further 2,000 remained unaccounted for.

Just recently, typhoons Rolly (Goni) and Ulysses (Vamco) hit the country amid the nation’s fight against the COVID–19 pandemic. 

Resiliency and utter destruction. At present, one becomes a myth, mouthed off to cover the tracks of incompetents. The other becomes a reality.

Gab Meija of The Manila Times had this to write regarding Filipino resiliency: “Resiliency is a design that takes years of constructive preparedness, engineering and proactive action to be able to fully adapt and mitigate the hazards and disasters……..A word overused and misused amid the harrowing incidents and headlines in our country to excuse accountability and liability from people supposedly tasked with preventing such disasters from happening in the first place. We can never truly be resilient when we are negligent.”


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