Remembering Ondoy: Lessons from the Past

By Caroline J. Howard – The Philippines, a country often battered by storms, and prone to landslides, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, has been tried and tested by natural calamity many times over. But while the country should’ve been used to anticipating or dealing with the impacts of acts of God, a year ago today, it was caught unprepared for what experts say were the unexpected impacts of climate change.

On September 26, 2009, flashfloods submerged communities as tropical Storm Ondoy dumped 455 millimeters or a month’s volume of rain across Luzon for 6 hours. Pasig and Cainta, Rizal were among the cities turned into virtual “water worlds.”

The hapless picture of a country drenched and swept in a deluge was exceeded only by the desperation of stranded residents looking for speedy rescue, and the misery of a nation looking for someone to blame.

Figures from the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) show 464 people were killed, 529 injured and 37 unaccounted for. A total of 15,798 families or more than 70,000 people were driven from their homes by massive floods. Damage to agriculture was estimated at P6.669 billion, while Ondoy’s wrath caused P2.617 billion worth of damage to infrastructure.

But more than the death and devastation, Ondoy exposed the lack of infrastructure and emergency measures for the country’s disaster response.

“We never expected Ondoy to hit that heavily,” says Defense Secretary and NDCC Chair Voltaire Gazmin.

“It was massive. Everybody was requesting for rescue, and we bungled on that because we were simply overwhelmed,” recalls Maj. Gen. Benito Ramos, administrator of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD). “We have our capabilities but we have our limitations, we were prepared not at the level of Ondoy.”

A veteran of military rescue operations with the special forces in the Cabanatuan College following the July 1991 earthquake, relief operations in Baguio when the earthquake destroyed the runway, and following the rescue in lahar-affected areas following the Pinatubo eruption, Ramos remembers Ondoy’s devastation vividly.

“The Marikina River and Pasig River can’t contain that water. At a level, it can drain to the Manila Bay, it went to the Laguna de Bay. All 15 municipalities were inundated. It couldn’t contain the volume from San Mateo, Montalban and Antipolo. No matter how prepared Marikina is, all the siltation coming from the hills of San Mateo, Montalban, Antipolo can all go down, and if the Marikina River is silted, the water will spread to the town centers” Ramos says.

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