By Pennie Azarcon Dela Cruz
Executive Editor, Sunday Inquirer Magazine
MY first inkling that things could really turn out bad was when the hubby brought out the saw, “for the window grills in case we have to jump into the waters or climb up the roof.” Turning to the two helpers, he asked that the empty gallon flasks of purified water be kept at hand, “handy floaters,” he described them. The floodwaters had breached the ground floor and was now filling up the second floor, lapping at the first of five short steps that led to the bedroom area.
After this, the deluge, I thought, thinking of the window grills and the two disabled 90-year olds in their bed. Granted that the grills are sawn off before it’s too late, how does one get to the roof? The ceiling was intact, the rain was pouring, it was pitch dark, and out the window was a 10-foot fall into murky waters. The scenario didn’t inspire much hope. We could die, I thought bleakly. Should I text my kids my final goodbye? But that could alarm them and what if they get stranded should they try to get home from the safety of school and the office? Besides, my pragmatic self asserted, better to conserve my charge should I need it for emergency calls out there on the roof. IF I ever get there.
How different things seem just hours ago. We had shrugged off Typhoon Ondoy, noting that Signal No. 1 in the Metro meant nothing more than rains and some gusty winds; at worse, the inconvenience of a brownout. No big deal, we thought. Taga-Malabon yata kami. We’re veterans in the flood business. Floods were nothing new to this densely-packed city squatting on the outer rim of crisscrossing fishponds and rivers that empty into Manila Bay .
Sure there are perennial floods—thanks to the ebb and flow of the tides which meant that on certain hours of certain days, Malabon is several meters below sea level. The excess water then flows aggressively into the streets and into homes, no thanks to the flurry of fishponds that have effectively blocked the natural waterways.
Because the old folks choose to stay, we’ve learned to live with it, holding on to these giant wall calendars like they were amulets against the forces of nature. A true Malabon native knows better than leave home without consulting this oracle, this almanac that tells us what time the tides are coming in, what time they recede, when it is safe to come home and what time to leave to preempt the onrush of water. Yup, Typhoon Ondoy had nothing on us.
Even when the morning news showed the inundated streets and houses in Cainta and Pasig , the hubby could afford to be smug. Not in our neighborhood, he says, tucking into a late breakfast.. We aren’t affected by the Pasig , and besides, it’s low tide. Nothing to worry about. Indeed, at 1 PM that Saturday, the night’s worth of rain had dumped less than a foot of water on our driveway. By 2 PM, the waters started spilling into our house and we started moving stuff on top of tables and narra chairs. But we remained optimistic. Even the worst typhoons in the past meant knee-high waters inside the house and a gigantic clean-up the next morning.
Just the same, I started bundling off clothes and books and moving them upstairs. Not too many, the hubby cautioned; let’s play it by ear and move stuff as the need (and the water) arises. “Mahirap magbalik ng mga iyan.” No need to panic, everything’s under control, he said, pointing to the ref that was now resting on a half-meter tall iron platform, with the waters now swirling around our knees.
I rushed upstairs to deposit a bundle of clothes. When I got back downstairs, the waters had reached my thighs. Then CRRAAASH! the ref had tumbled on its side. "The TV!!!" the helper screamed, noting that the table on which it rested was now wobbling on its side. Just in time the hubby caught it, otherwise the LCD—my gift to him last Christmas—would have been a goner. After that, everything started tumbling into the waters: the dining table with all my kitchen gadgets, the food and other handy breakables, the narra sofa from Quezon that took four hefty men to drag into our house (now bobbing in the waters like a rudderless ship), and assorted tables on which rested almost 28 years' worth of conjugal acquisitions. Then the heavy mattress from our ground-floor bedroom levitated and slid off into the waters without a splash. And so did everything else, including our smug complacency.
At that moment, the lights went off. Working frantically in the half light and humid heat, we started piling stuff wily nily upstairs, our main thought being to get them out of water’s way. By 5 PM, I was shivering as I grabbed stuff handed to me by our assembly-line of helpers and assorted relatives who had rushed to help us out. The water was chest-high and icy cold. By 6, the flood was two feet away from the ground floor ceiling and over my head. At 8, with everything we could rescue piled higgledy-piggledy on our second floor, we suddenly realized that we hadn't had dinner at all. But everything had tumbled into the water: the pot of rice, the breakfast rolls, the sugar, coffee and tea and the kawali of fish escabeche: that had all rested atop the table when it collapsed sideways into the flood. Scrounging around, we managed to find a pack of Sunflower crackers and three bottles of Gatorade and carefully apportioned these among us five hungry adults. Great, I thought. Up on the roof or thrashing in the water-- hungry, unable to swim and shivering with cold. What a miserable way to go. I decided to root among the bundled stuff for my life jacket. Found it and decided to make it my pillow for the night. By 9, we settled to bed or what little space remains of it, what with all the boxes and plastic bundles piled on every available surface. It would turn out to be the longest night of my life, marked by endless prayers, a listless checking of the water's progress up the stairs (we were three steps or about 15 inches away from perdition), and desperate glances into the luminous numbers of the wall clock: God, six more hours before daylight, now five, four....Somehow, jumping into the murky waters in the light of dawn was more comforting than jumping into utter darkness.
As soon as it got light, I jumped out of bed. We had survived! The water level appeared to be ebbing, if only by a painful inch, and the whole of our still flooded ground floor appeared like a surreal wavy mirror from the top of the stairs. We had lost two computers, a ref, small kitchen appliances, the piano, two mattresses, two cabinets worth of clothes, half a month's worth of food and groceries (we had just gone to the supermart the Friday before), several swivel chairs, the dining chairs and wooden tables, the electric circuits of the car (fortuitously parked on very high ground), and two bookshelves worth of books (oh no, and I've just done my Christmas shopping at the Bookfai!). And so many pairs of slippers and shoes. As of last count, anyway. But heck, we're alive, the kids are alright as are the oldies, and except for some residual nerves from the trauma, nobody got hurt.
As I nervously await what everyone has been texting as Supertyphoon Pepeng, I look back on Saturday night last week and realized that I've learned a few things from it:
1. Assume the worst. No need to panic, though, but no harm either in bundling up stuff in plastic bags early enough so you can just trundle them off to higher ground should the floods start licking your sala. Sure it's quite an effort getting your things back where they belong afterwards (believe me, you'd rather buy stuff you need rather than try to find them among all that bundled mess), but it still beats washing off all that brownish muck from soiled clothes. It can also turn out to be much cheaper: think of all the appliances you could have saved had you put them away before the deluge.
2. Prepare for all eventualities. Candles and matches for the brownouts that inevitably follows. Charge your cellphones. Get out the radio (remember those? You'll need it to keep track of the news). Flashlight and batteries. Rubber boots, alcohol, umbrellas and jackets, life jackets.. Plenty of bottled water. Food you don't need to cook like bread, boiled eggs, bottled sardines, cheese, jam, biscuits or cookies, fruits.
3. Check out an escape route to avoid being trapped in your rapidly sinking home. Are the window grills a possible exit point? Can you still find the key to padlock holding the grills together? Or has rust made the lock inoperable? How do you get to the ceiling? Does it have enough crawl space? Is the roof accessible should the waters force you out of your home? Now's the time to check.
4. Never underestimate the power of prayer. Even if you're not a believer, thinking of the next Glorious or Sorrowful or Joyful Mystery while praying the rosary keeps your mind off all those awful things floating in the waters. It keeps you focused too on a Higher Power who could turn things around.
5. While you still can, pay attention to your Physics class. I could have saved a lot of stuff if I could remember our lesson in Physics about tipping point. Who the hell would think a 300-pound narra chair weighed down by another 300 pounds of assorted goods would flip like a plastic kiddie chair once the flood waters reached a certain height?
6. Learn to cook. Preferably dishes with vinegar. Believe me, surviving is half the battle. What to do, how to keep alive the morning after is just as crucial. With no electricity to keep the ref going, what is one to do with all the food rotting in the freezer? If you can scrounge around for a working stove and some gas after the deluge, think paksiw, adobo, barbecue, pecadillo, tapa, and so on. Get all the protein you can while it's possible. There's always enough time to get.used to canned sardines and instant noodles.
7. Take a deep breath and keep telling yourself, "it's just stuff." Sure we spent half our life saving for a home filled with stuff that tells people something about us (even if it's only that we're rich but have bad taste). But stuff is stuff, utterly replaceable and, believe me, you'll reach a certain age when showing off what you've got doesn't matter that much anymore. It becomes more of who you spend your life with, and how. When I realized that my baul of baby pictures had been sitting on three inches of floodwaters before anybody noticed, I felt a pang of momentary regret. As the credit card commercial says of memories--they're priceless. But what the heck: the babies are now grown up and flourishing, although I can close my eyes anytime and can immediately summon them as cuddly tykes once more in my head. Yup, come hell or high water, nothing can take that away from me.