I've just returned tonight from an overseas trip that I was supposed to begin posting about on my way to the airport last Thursday. In light of the tragic events that transpired afterwards, it's a good thing I forgot to hit the "Publish Post" button before I frantically flew out the door half-packed and half-witted due to a late night and an early flight.
The weather had been fine when we left although we had known a tropical depression was supposed to be on its way. The first frantic texts came in on Friday evening. I, like everyone else I was with, was blissfully unaware of what was happening in Manila until the texts started pouring in.
My first notice of the unfolding tragedy was when my maid texted, asking where I kept the spare keys to my cars. Puzzled, I naturally demanded why she needed to know that. "Sir, tumataas na po ang tubig, baka pasukin ang kotse ninyo. Baha na po dito sa Maynila, walang tigil ang ulan." was her reply.
As if on cue, one by one the people in my group started receiving news about the grave situation. Like the flood, the news - and its corresponding level of grimness - came first in trickles, before swelling and surging like a deluge. "Nag-evacuate na daw sina Carrie sa Marikina! Lampas-tao daw ang tubig!" "Nasa bubong na daw sina Frank at yung pamilya niya. Ganun kataas ang tubig!" "Panic buying na daw, hanggang labas ang pila sa Monterey!"
People started frantically texting their families and loved ones until one by one, the responses ominously stopped. "Nawalan na daw ng koryente sa Paranaque!" "Wala nang signal ang cell sites!""Diyos ko, ano na kaya ang nangyayari sa atin?"
Some fellow bachelors in my group worried about their unattended apartments and the belongings left exposed there to the mercies of fate. The married ones worried about their kids. While the younger singles fretted about their families and other loved ones.
But what could we do? We were miles and miles away. And even if we were in Manila - what could we possibly have done to prevent the tragedy from happening at all?
Helplessness comes in many forms. Those truly, truly helpless were our poor countrymen who bore the full brunt of this merciless catastrophe. Those who huddled on their rooftops in the night as swirling waters submerged their earthly belongings. Those who were swept away and lost in the raging rivers of death and destruction. And those who were stranded as traffic ground to a standstill, sitting ducks in stalled vehicles while the elements laid waste around them.
We, thousands of miles away, were also stranded in helplessness. And because we were away on what was initially a big, exciting, yet official business function, we could not stay in our rooms desperately watching CNN for updates after all the texts from home went dead.
We could only be impotent, hosted in a First World country, smiling while mingling with international VIPs as free champagne flowed in an open bar and endlessly replenished hors d'ouvres were proferred to us. As, thousands of miles away back in our Third World home, our countrymen were mired as floodwaters freely flowed in an open bar of death, ruining lives and ending some forever, and another endless helping of misery was being force-fed to our country.
Truly, tragedy is often marked by bitter irony.
My heart goes out to all who lost their belongings and homes. All who lost their loved ones. And all who lost their lives in this most cruel of random events.
And to my fellow bloggers who endured this catastrophe: unlike foreign news reports that tend to blur human suffering into yet another nameless, impersonal, sad but distant news item, your stories and your personal losses put a human face on this tragedy. I only became aware of the scope of this cataclysm from short news reports and truncated texts from home. Reading about your very personal, very real experiences made me aware of its depths, and it hits home.
This is a sad homecoming.