Worst and best times

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Sunday, December 29, 2013


I WAS in front of the computer at past 4 p.m. yesterday when I felt the table shake.

It was over in, I think, two seconds but my worries lingered for long after that. The year is about to end and I wondered whether the woes that visited us in the latter part of 2013 would tarry until 2014.

Indeed, the year that is about to wind down will be remembered in history for the two calamities that prompted the world to look our way. I am referring to the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that hit Bohol and Cebu in mid-October and super typhoon Yolanda that ravaged parts of the Visayas in early November.

Other stories did break out in the early part of the year, including the holding of the national and local elections in May that saw the administration coalition score a sweep in the senatorial joust. But nothing could top a powerful quake and a super typhoon hitting us one after the other in a span of less than one month.

For the quake, the images that stood out were those of churches, which had withstood the ravages of nature for more than a century, being reduced to rubble by forceful and lengthy shaking sparked by the movement of a newly discovered fault in Bohol. Heritage Conservation Society listed at least 10 churches in Bohol and Cebu that were damaged by the quake.

Among these churches was Cebu’s own Basilica del Sto. Niño, whose belfry collapsed and which sustained cracks on its walls.

Another image that will be etched in our collective memory is that of a wall of rock and earth that rose as high as three meters across two kilometers of largely farm land in Inabanga town in Bohol. Scientists may declare a 300-meter permanent danger zone around the fault.

In sum, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported more than 200 people dead, eight missing, almost a thousand injured and more than 70,000 structures damaged.

Trivia: It was the deadliest earthquake to hit the Philippines in 23 years, its released energy equivalent to 32 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

The lasting images of Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) will always be those of the devastation it wrought on parts of the Visayas provinces where its eyewall passed.

Flattened structures and scattered housing materials were particularly observable in Tacloban City where the number of casualties was exceptionally high.

Yolanda was considered a “perfect tropical cyclone,” packing winds of 255 kilometers per hour when it entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) heading for Guiuan, Eastern Samar. Its diameter of 600 kilometers was a record in size. Its death toll was pegged at around 6,000, with damage to infrastructure and agriculture estimated at more than P30 billion.

The super typhoon also made people understand the effect of “storm surge” for the first time. This was particularly true in Tacloban where the combination of strong winds and tsunami-like waves caused devastation of cataclysmic proportions.

The aftermath of the typhoon tested the capability of both the national and local governments to deal with calamities. Criticisms on the slow pace of relief efforts, particularly in Tacloban, often turned vitriolic. Even Cable News Network’s Anderson Cooper pitched in. The Aquino administration was put on the defensive.

But the blame throwing, I would say, was not what defined the response to Yolanda’s devastation. Rather, it was the scale of the relief efforts put up by private individuals and entities in the Philippines and by many countries of the world led by the United Nations. It proved that despite everything, we are capable of extending a helping hand to fellow human beings in need.

To paraphrase a line from a famous novel, it (2013) was the worst of times, it was the best of times.

(khanwens@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on December 30, 2013.

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