NEW YORK, N.Y.—The lives of 10 million New Yorkers had been interrupted, again, but this time it was not about terrorism, but the wrath of Hurricane Irene.
Thousands fled the city only a few hours before Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered a mandatory evacuation for urban dwellers in low-lying areas along the water and shut down the subway, trains and buses on Aug. 27.
Shops and restaurants were closed; the streets were eerily empty.
I live on the ground floor of a low-rise brick apartment building, two blocks from what the New York Office of Emergency Management considers flood Zone A, on the west side of 20th Street, in downtown Manhattan. If the eye of Hurricane Irene hit hard, as predicted, it would not be surprising if my street were flooded.
Suddenly, I thought, the Hudson River — so often marveled for its beauty and calmness and where thousands of New Yorkers usually walk or run along the park —-is considered a major threat. Water from the river could rise more than three feet and spill over.
My apartment building turned into an abandoned warehouse. Almost all my neighbors, except for the young woman on the second floor, had left. But, like her, I decided to stay alone in my apartment. I stocked up canned good and water and made sure that the battery of my cell phone was fully charged.
Typhoons — Part of Filipino Life
A friend, whom I called to express my concern said, “You’ll be fine. You’re from the Philippines.”
Although it was a heavily loaded comment, my friend made a point: I was raised and grew up in a typhoon-belt island where about 15 typhoons would pass each year — at least five of them category three or four storms.
Typhoons were part of our lives. Each time the wind peeled away a large piece of our corrugated metal roof, I remember, we looked for it the next day (more often than not, it would land on our neighbor’s backyard). We’d just retrieve it and patched it back in place.
But as a young boy, in 1987, less than a month before Christmas Day, a level-four typhoon (known as “Sisang” in the Philippines) ravaged my hometown. Just as it was in Manhattan on Aug. 26, I could still recall the bright sun and powder-blue sky before the winds pummeled the island.
I went to school early that day, just in time for the daily flag ceremony, when the students assembled to sing the national anthem and hoist the flag. But as soon as the ceremony was over, the school principal announced over a loud speaker that all classes had been suspended because of the coming storm.
On my way out of the campus, I saw Frankie, a kid from the other class, standing near the school gate. We’d never been close friends, but I knew he lived in Cabid-an, a small coastal village about six miles from the main town. We gave each other a quick nod.
By noon the wind lashed my hometown. The power went out. My mother lit a kerosene lamp. The wind blew stronger and stronger. Our roof flapped in the wind, and we could hear the nails wobbling and popping through the thin metal sheets.
Our kitchen, which was outside the house, was completely destroyed. The mud bricks we used for cooking were also gone. At one point I saw my cousin, who lived with us at the time, dangling from the ceiling and trying to hold on to the wooden chassis.
As the night wore on, we were getting hungry and cold. My mother took an empty can of milk and carved a hole on it. She placed a small kettle with rice and water on top of the can, and then inserted crumpled newspapers into the hole of the can and lighted them up. She told me to keep the fire burning, by continuing to put in crumpled newspapers until the rice boiled.
What mattered the most that night was my mother’s ability to cook and serve our dinner: rice and fried fish as small as my thumb.
The Tidal Wave’s Toll
The following day we heard that there had been a tidal wave. Many people — mostly women and children — on the coastal areas died.
Within a day, more and more dead bodies were recovered. The town’s morgues could no longer accommodate the dead bodies that were brought in, and so we were told that the rescuers wrapped the corpses with blankets and took them to St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral. The town’s mayor ordered a mass burial.
I also learned later that Frankie became an orphan. His parents and younger siblings were among the ones who perished in the storm. His father and sister were pulled out of the rubble the following day, bloated and covered with mud. A group of fishermen recovered his mother’s body floating in the ocean a week later.
In retrospect, my hometown didn’t have the sturdy houses that could stand through natural disasters. It didn’t have the capability to shut down the coastal villages and order everyone to evacuate, because there were no safe houses for elders, and those who were already afflicted and confined in hospitals. Even the town’s leaders were in the same predicament, just trying to survive like everyone else.
But, also, we didn’t have the mayor under pressure to provide sufficient services, as was Bloomberg after New York City mishandled the blizzard that derailed the Big Apple last December, while he vacationed in Bermuda.
Also, the Philippines didn’t have the world’s eye on its competence in managing natural disasters and their aftermath the way the United States does. Only six years ago this week, U.S. failures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina blew away a large portion of America’s international reputation, much like a patch of corrugated metal roof.
Still, given my past experiences with storms, I was scared this weekend. I didn’t sleep almost the entire night when Hurricane Irene roared through New York City. I put candles and a box of matches on my bed side, aware that a force of nature, such as Irene, is something I’d have to reckon with.
I should have learned from the past and evacuated, rather than underestimate the havoc the hurricane could have done. Fortunately, except for beaten trees and fallen debris, there were no flash floods, no casualties. I also didn’t have to look for the shard of metal roof and drag it back home. I didn’t have to see my mother go to a relief center and line up for food.
The one thing for me that did not change is that I still live on an island, this time one called Manhattan.