Friday, December 20, 2013

Act of God

For the past two years, Ateneo de Davao has been scaling down its Christmas celebrations. What used to be a large gathering of teachers and staff had turned into a simple fellowship. This year, finally, the university decided to cancel all celebrations.

In light of recent events, it’s just as well. After Typhoon Yolanda and the earthquake in Bohol, it doesn’t feel right to carouse as we once did. There are still small private get-togethers amongst friends, but the mood all around is definitely subdued.

Will we ever recover the vivacity of Christmases past, I wonder? This is the third straight year that we’ve had to face a major disaster in the country. The reason we cut back on our celebrations two years ago was because of Typhoon Sendong in Cagayan de Oro. Last year, it was Typhoon Pablo in Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley. I dread to think what we might face next year.

In the face of calamities like this, it’s likely that faith can come out a little shaken. Where is God in all this? Why did He, who is all knowing and all good, permit these trials to happen? And, of all times, so close to the season in which we are supposed to celebrate His birth?

And yet, somehow, the believers soldier on, and even seem to respond by clutching tighter to their faith. Our churches are still packed to overflowing for the Misas de Aginaldo, by my count more so than the previous year. Likewise, so I’ve read, they still hold to the tradition in Bohol, despite their ruined churches. Is all this the product of hundreds of years of Pavlovian cultural conditioning? Have we simply rationalized the seeming absence of God to “His mysterious ways?”

Take God out of the equation, then. Humanly speaking, could we have done anything to avert the disaster? Could we have been better prepared? Did so many people need to die? Typhoon Yolanda, in the aftermath, became the occasion for such questions.

A month after Yolanda, Ateneo de Davao held a symposium to assess the causes. As our speaker, we had Dr. Gemma Nerisma from the Manila Observatory. One week before Haiyan arrived, Dr. Nerisma had already predicted its likely path into the Visayas. Overlaying the track of the typhoon onto urban maps, it was clear it would hit poverty-stricken areas: zones with high density of people, with poor structures unable to withstand the force of the storm. But who to send it to? How best to convey the information to the authorities? Believe it or not, they concluded that their best option was to send it to Rappler.

So we knew it was coming, but of the typhoon itself, nothing could have been done. That’s simply the reality of climate change that we’re living through. Per the scientists’ prognostications, we’re going to be seeing more severe storms in the coming years.

Therefore, we’re going to have to be more intelligent about how we respond to the storms. The flaw in the local government’s plan, Dr. Nerisma pointed out, was that they evacuated according to structures (gyms, public schools, etc.) instead of according to location (high ground away from storm surges.) As the evacuation centers were in the lowland coastal areas, they were vulnerable to 5-meter waves. The disaster could have been averted, but there was a failure in risk management.

We might curse God for a great many things: for not diverting the typhoon from its path, for not dissipating it into a gentle breeze, for creating the storm in the first place. But we can’t blame God that we didn’t move out of the way: the warnings were there, a full week before the typhoon came. We have to face up to the consequences of our sins of omission.

But we’re nothing if not resilient. We pick up the pieces, we soldier on; and if we’re the fortunate ones, we help those who are less so. In Ateneo’s case, for instance, because it was Pablo that hit closest to home, the past year, we’ve been involved in the rehabilitation and recovery of communities in Davao Oriental. Even now, after Christmas, there’ll be another contingent of student volunteers who will bring aid and cheer to the typhoon-hit towns.

It’s the godly thing to do.