The recent history of the Philippines reads like a catalogue of Hollywood blockbuster disaster movies — natural disasters and anthropogenic ones. Typhoons, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, mudslides, food crises, crowd stampedes and ferry sinkings — all these have appeared within this archipelago over the past twenty years, causing thousands of deaths and great loss of property in an already impoverished nation.

Often two or three disastrous scenarios combine to produce a terrible calamity. Mass evacuations saved more than 10,000 lives during the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. However, hundreds of deaths are attributed to the volcano after heavy rains soaked into the volcanic ash covering buildings, causing many structures to collapse. In February 2006, flooding rains followed by a minor earthquake triggered a landslide that buried an entire village, killing more than one thousand people.

Manila is always a brief stopover on the way to the provinces for me, but from my impressions of the city and the flood footage on TV, it seems that flooding is exacerbated by the massive volume of garbage within the city. Decades old public works infrastructure in Manila is crumbling (regional NSW readers take note — secede now!).

What was once a drainage system is now a massive network of plastic-sequestration systems. Needless to say, water doesn’t flow through plastic too well. In July 2000 heavy rains caused a mountain of garbage to collapse in an open dump in Manila. Over 200 bodies were recovered.

I’ve been close to two category-two typhoons as they made landfall. Each time, we were staying in our province, far from the megalopolis of Manila. There was something mesmerising about the roaring wind at the height of the storm. It was quite foolish, but I sat with my eyes just peering over the bottom corner of the front window of our place. Sustained winds of 120km/h had sheets of iron cladding and roofing flapping about like bed-sheets on a clothesline.

Tree litter — entire branches — hung in the air like it had just been blown out of some hidden cannon. A Sydney summer storm comprises of a blustery afternoon southerly and forty-minutes of torrential rain. What impressed me about a typhoon was the sheer persistence of it. Hour after hour after hour of rain and wind gusts well in excess of 100km/h.

The power cut out at about 11am and Typhoon Frank made landfall on the afternoon of 20th June 2008. The wind and rain roared all night. The next morning was greeted by a chorus of ten-thousand brooms. Despite their modest standard of living, Filipinos take great pride in the appearance of their place. Not just cleanliness being next to Godliness — decades of public education from organisations such as the Red Cross has gotten the message out about preventing infection and disease.

The school kids here seem more literate in hand washing and hygiene than do the ones back home. I crawled out of bed, found a long-handled dustpan and made a little contribution to the effort. All that remained of the house right next door to us was two walls. The whole town was a mess, but no one grumbled. They just got on with the job. The power was restored five days later.

My first earthquake was in Newcastle, December 1989. R 5.5. I’ve felt around half-a-dozen tremors in the five years that I’ve been visiting the Philippines, none as strong as the Newcastle quake. It is the length of the quakes here that I found unsettling. The Newcastle experience — and low-budget telemovies — taught me that an earthquake should shake and jolt for 10 seconds or so. One struck last month, while we were watching the Brisbane versus St George-Illawarra NRL semi-final on Australia Network — the satellite channel for Aussie ex-pats in SE Asia. A few seconds after it began I was thinking “if this gets stronger, I’m heading for the door.”

The shaking tapered off after about 20 seconds but after a full minute there was still a dull rumble, as if a convoy of trucks was going past right outside the door.

Despite our hometown here being situated on a bay that faces the Philippine Trench and the Pacific Ocean, the locals aren’t too concerned with getting to higher ground after an earth tremor. Some of the elderly residents here have a folk-memory of a “tidal wave” that wiped out the entire town late in the 19th Century.

A trip to the local University Library may reveal more, but there are certainly none of the Spanish-colonial era churches or buildings which may be found in other towns — despite this town being founded in the 1600s.

Perhaps the tremors I experienced were below the threshold that would cause the locals to consider the danger of a tsunami. More likely, the people’s lives are so focused on day-to-day survival — getting enough food for tomorrow — that the relative unlikelihood of a tsunami makes it not worth considering.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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