Typhoon ripple effect deals poor double whammy

MANILA, Philippines — These days, Danilo Fabre spends his time asking friends and neighbors where to look for cheap wood. His home, a hovel right beside a creek in a district called West Kamias, in Quezon City, was completely demolished by typhoon Ketsana, which struck the Philippines on Sept. 26, inundating nearly all of the capital of Manila.

With their homes gone and with his community — a shantytown right beside the creek — still struggling to put their lives back together after the disaster, Fabre can be found on most days either lining up for relief goods from government and charity organizations or sitting by the curb, chatting with friends, exchanging tales of those harrowing days of deluge.

“I pity my youngest,” Fabre, 46, said in an interview. “She’s still so small and now we have nothing, not even milk to feed her.” The baby, at barely one year old, is the youngest among his five children.

All across Metro Manila, the region composed of 17 towns and cities that was the hardest hit by Ketsana, similar tales of woe now ring familiar among the poor.

There’s Danny Regenio, a 45-year-old car painter with five children whose home in Tatalon, another poor district also in Quezon City, was flooded and razed by a raging fire at the same time. “It was just the worst thing,” he said, recalling how he and his neighbors clambered up to their roofs in order to evade the flood and the fire.

There are Fabre’s neighbors who lived in huts beneath a bridge and who are now homeless. Although some huts remain nearby, it wasn’t the same as it used to be, said Fabre. “We were poor but we were all together and we were happy,” he said. Now, even the nightly wailing of the videoke bar nearby is gone. In Pasig City, another Metro Manila city, mothers complained about not being able to send their sick children to the public hospitals, which are still closed because of the flood. When another typhoon, Parma, struck the northern Philippines over the weekend, sending rains on Metro Manila, residents of a district beside the Pasig River panicked, thinking that another flooding was on the way. Thankfully, Parma was not as devastating as many had feared, though the rain brought ankle-deep water to the homes of many of the poor in many sections of the city.

As in the past, what Ketsana underscored is the extreme vulnerability of poor Filipinos to calamities. According to the National Disaster Coordinating Council, the typhoon affected 629,466 families or 3,084,997 individuals. According to the government, Ketsana killed 288 people while 18 died due to Parma.

Today, more than a week since it wrought havoc by dumping an unprecedented amount of rain on Manila and its environs, thousands of Filipinos have not been able to even remove the trash and debris that accumulated around them, exposing them even more to diseases and illnesses.

While the government, with the help of countless NGOs, charity organizations and even the United Nations, has been trying its best to respond to the needs of the poor, these remain largely unmet. As a result, the U.N. on Monday appealed to the international community for more help, as much as $100 million.

And now, according to Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro's Monday announcement, the government is prohibiting slum dwellers from rebuilding their shanties on waterways. As a result, Metro Manila’s poor are faced with the real problem of where to rebuild their lives. Prior to Ketsana, the government recorded 70,000 families that had illegally built their homes on these canals, creeks and bridges. Many had their homes destroyed by the typhoon, while many remain.

But relocation seems imminent at this point, with everybody — from government officials to geographers — now proclaiming that removing those shanties as well as the garbage that clogs Metro Manila’s drainage system should be a priority. 

Teodoro, who also chairs the National Disaster Coordinating Council, said in an interview that the structures that constrict the waters are the reasons why floodwaters remain in many parts of the capital more than a week after the disaster.

Jose Lito Atienza, the environment secretary, agrees and said, in a separate interview, that “the first thing that should be done now is to remove the garbage and those structures.” He threatened to sue any mayor in Metro Manila who will defy such a move, saying that these local executives have allowed the garbage to accumulate in the first place. Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement), the country's largest labor group, cautioned the government on Tuesday against arbitrarily demolishing these shantytowns without viable relocation plans for those affected.

"We agree that flood-prone areas should be vacated and that these are not fit for human residence in the first place. Even poor people say so. We believe, however, that the best way to leave these spaces vacant is to create new homes for our urban poor," said Elmer Labor, chairman of the Kilusang Mayo Uno, in a Tuesday statement.

Pamalakaya, a group of fisherfolk, criticized the government for even thinking about removing the houses of poor residents around the Laguna Lake, where floodwater had accumulated and spilled over into several communities. The forced eviction, said Salvador France, vice chairman of Pamalakaya, would displace “100,000 lakeshore residents mostly small fishermen and poor people who have been living in Laguna Lake surroundings for generations."

According to the nonprofit economic think tank Ibon Foundation, Ketsana “could cause lasting poverty and severe difficulties” to the majority of the families it affected.

“They will face greatly increased expenses for housing, housing repair, medical care, education and personal effects. Among the critical spending they may be forced to cut back on to accommodate these is on food with corresponding adverse nutritional and health implications,” the foundation said.

It added that “among the most affected areas are urban poor communities which have high concentrations of informal sector work and, hence, of families in insecure and particularly vulnerable livelihoods.”

To residents like Fabre, all this sounds like they have been dealt a double whammy. “If they are going to remove us here, where would we go?” he asked. Many of those who suffered like him are probably asking the same question.