Thanks to its innocence, a child seems able to blind itself blissfully to the ugliness of tragedy and disaster, whether it’s a war, as shown in the award-winning Italian film with that precise title, or the more familiar experience of storms and their inevitable consequence—floods.
On such ugly visitations, my first sympathetic thoughts go to friends and family in Magallanes Village, just off the superhighway going south, not far from where we live, around Greenbelt, in Makati City. Although much supposedly has been done to ease the perennial flood problem there, it has not proved enough.
On the night before the full impact of typhoon “Maring” is unleashed, I am on the phone with my friend Dada, a long-time resident and a community leader of Magallanes. She is all praises for the government for having cleared the metropolis of squatters along the waterways and for public-works efforts to ease flooding.
Dada herself is a member of the village task force in charge of warning residents, with whistles and bells, of impending danger. Even as we talk, most cars, she reports, have already been moved to higher ground.
But when TV news shows the floods there the next morning, all sense of ease that Dada’s assurances have inspired is gone. A perimeter wall collapses under the pressure of floodwaters, and boats are called to the rescue.
Until now, “Ondoy” of 2009 had no comparison in the annals of typhoons, in destructiveness, where Magallanes was concerned.
To lighten things up, I text her: “Good news, Dadge! Jojo and Junjun Binay (vice president and mayor, respectively) are on their way to your rescue—on an amphibian!”
I’m only kidding, but apparently father and son are, indeed, on their way to Magallanes, indeed, on an amphibian.
Overhearing the rescue talk among the adults, Dada’s 6-year-old grandson, Niko, rushes off unnoticed to his room and emerges in waterproof jacket and rubber flip-flops, backpack stuffed with his favorite toys. Eyes sparkling with excitement, he proceeds to announce, “I’m ready!”
Forty minutes—an eternity by Niko’s clock—and still no amphibian in sight. He is now hot and restless. So Mama Dada conjures an assignment that will engage some of the coiled-up energy of this frisky boy trapped upstairs with her.
She leads him to the front window. “See that neighbor’s striped gate across, Niko? Now, I want you to watch the waterline and report to me every time it goes one stripe up or down. Okay?”
This gets him out of her hair at a critical moment: It stops his nagging pleas for her to lend him her iPhone so he can play his games; she is conserving the life of her only connection to the outside world.
Night is falling, and one can only imagine her relief when a neighbor tips her how electricity can be safely turned on, but only for the un-flooded upstairs.
But as soon as the lights come on, Niko switches each one back off. He argues, brilliantly, that if the rescuers see the lights on, they will think there’s no need for rescue.
In fact, the easing rains, the receding floods as indicated by the lowering waterline that he has chosen not to report, and now the restored power are all bad news for Niko: It frustrates his adventure even before he can launch himself into it.
Mama Dada sits him down for a gentle reality check. The amphibian is no longer coming; it has been diverted to Barangay San Isidro, where people are in a more desperate situation. She and Niko can risk the adventure of wading up to where their car is parked and drive to the dry parts of their Lola Ning’s across Edsa, but it’s safer to stay put and avoid the danger of getting stuck underwater like a submarine.
Niko hears nothing else, and his mind flies off again. Who needs an amphibian now when here’s an even more exciting adventure in prospect?
It’s easy enough to understand how children fail to see danger, but what reasonable explanation is there for adults behaving no differently in the same situation?
In Malabon, where floods are a major part of the ebb and flow of life, a hardy old woman giggles it all off (genuinely or sarcastically, I’m unable to tell). “Sanay na kami sa baha, masaya pa nga kami,” she tells the reporter.
As if on cue, a young man wiggles his eyebrows and adds with a tinge of disappointment (or, again, sarcasm?), “Oo, masaya. Parang high tide lang ’yan, nakakasanayan din. Baka nga hanggang bukas na lang ’to.”
Meanwhile, television shows a red rubber raft floating by, paddled by a boy in unhurried glee; I just hope Niko doesn’t catch it.
Another scene focuses on the stubbornness of estero settlers who defy the direst warnings for evacuation from the authorities—afraid, they say, of losing their belongings to thieves. And in an unintended attempt at humor, I suppose, which all the same comes across cruelly, the camera gives us a close-up of their clapboard homes and allows us a guilty glimpse at the miserable possessions they’re risking their lives for.
They don’t begrudge nature at all; indeed, they seem to take its destructive power in their stride, in fatalistic surrender. But it’s another matter when humans exploit the situation and take from them what little they have. It calls for a fight to the death.
Either way, it’s tragic, and makes you wish for Niko’s innocence.