POSTSCRIPT / October 1, 2006 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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'Milenyo' devastation: Was it an 'act of God'?

POOR GOD!: I heard somebody who sounded like a lawyer argue on radio that the massive devastation wrought Thursday by typhoon “Milenyo” was an “act of God.”

To someone not used to lawyers and legalese, that may sound blasphemous. Kawawa naman ang Dios! Imagine blaming God for something whose dire effects could have been mitigated by proper and timely human intervention!

What pañero probably meant was “force majeure.” That is French for “greater force,” referring to an extraordinary event beyond the control of man, or some damage arising from an irresistible force or unforeseen event beyond the control of any party to a contract.

No one, as far as I know, can prevent typhoons from blowing this way from the deceptively pacific ocean and tearing up the terrain and whatever stands on it….

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IF ONLY WE COULD: But surely we could minimize roofs from being torn away and hitting innocent passers-by if only squatters would stop relying on old tires and hollow blocks, aided by Newtonian gravity, to hold down their GI sheet roofing.

We could reduce to near-zero the probability of giant billboards collapsing if engineers were employed to compute the strength of the materials and the design of their scaffolding versus the maximum confluence of forces that could slam and topple them like cardboard.

We could cut down damage to property and loss of human lives if our weather bureau were so staffed and equipped that it could warn, more or less with certainty, the advance of weather disturbances much ahead of its usual 24-hour hit-or-miss forecasts.

No Administrative Order can forestall the fury of typhoons, but surely we can speed up our reaction time by adopting a response system that is automatically triggered without the President of the Republic having to call a meeting, listen to reports and then order everybody at the table to do this and that.

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ACT OF GOD: Maybe I could start believing that those cyclonic winds were an act of God if they swept away only those billboards showing Caucasian youths in sexually suggestive poses angled to sell nondescript jeans. (Did Freud say anything linking sex, buying urges and jeans?)

It could have been Divine Fury if the typhoon smashed that billboard near the airport advertising a brandy with a gilded label and the line “When only gold will do.” Whenever I saw that billboard, I plotted in my mind clambering up one dark night and changing the word “gold” to “God.”

It must have been God at work when Milenyo’s thundering winds shattered the glass windows of the condominiums of some big grafters ensconced on upscale floors of luxurious residential towers.

Yes, it was certainly an act of God that high winds came last Thursday to snatch away the brownish-black blanket of polluted air hanging like a death shroud over Metro Manila and environs — as it was the black hand of man that put it back three days later.

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MY GOD, THE TREES!: I can understand if some of those who had no relatives among the casualties were almost crying for the trees that were uprooted or had their limbs torn off.

If a building were knocked down or gutted, all that the owner has to do is build a new and better structure in its place. In a year or two, the void is filled.

But you watched an acacia from your childhood grow into a motherly shade tree, or an aratiles blossom into an cornucopia of fun and cherry-like fruits, or a mango tree maturing to offer its seasonal harvest of luscious mangga – and then see your tree savagely torn from the earth.

How do you pick up a broken tree and nurse it back to life? In place of an uprooted tree you can plant a seed, a cutting or a sapling — but how do you compress the years, how do you bundle up the joy of having grown up with it?

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TREE-PLANTING SPREE: It was only recently that our officials woke up to the need for more trees around us to give beauty and balance to the ecosystem.

Now we have just lost thousands of those trees, many of them decades-old and some of them with a story to tell.

That they are gone is an irreversible reality, almost like a death in the family. What we, officials and citizens, can do is to replant with a vengeance.

We are lucky we have the soil and the climate that make tree-growing not only easy but pleasurable. In a massive campaign, we can tap school children, civic groups, the army, even tourists, to join in a tree-planting spree.

Pero pakiusap lang: Let us plant for the sheer joy of doing it. No official should take advantage and make money from an all-out tree-planting program under his care.

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TRUE CHARACTER: Like a couple discovering the true character of each other when caught together in a crisis, the Milenyo devastation may have shown us the inner selves of some people around us.

Total strangers helped push vehicles stalled on flooded roads, or quickly patched up damage inflicted by flying debris, or cleared lanes blocked by fallen branches or power and telephone cables.

Neighbors who seldom bothered to talk to us suddenly were leaning over the fence to chat and help clean up the common debris left by the exiting typhoon.

Some children who kept to themselves in their rooms were suddenly mopping the wet floor without being asked. They lighted up candles and emergency lights, helped with chores with more alacrity that usual, cooperated and fell into line like an army squad, and kept conversations light and cheery.

While their own homes were swathed in darkness, Meralco crews were working 25 hours a day to restore power. The damage was just too much and restoring power in the franchise area could not be done in one fell swoop (and risk a bigger catastrophe), but in sections and stages.

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CRISIS BEHAVIOR: But a friend told me of how he had to suffer the whining of somebody with him in their slowly moving car as the typhoon raged outside. How does one bear with a companion endlessly complaining about everything that was going wrong that day?

There were also reports of thievery in the confusion, of public service personnel conspicuously absent from their posts, of political grandstanding and a lack of systematic approach to the problems at hand.

It was not fair for one major newspaper to play up on its front page photos of lighted Rockwell towers in Makati that happen to be owned by the same Lopez family running Meralco. The editor failed to point out that the buildings were lighted while the surrounding area was in darkness because Rockwell has its own power generators.

The core of one’s character is revealed in how he/she behaves in a crisis.

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KINTECH IN?: A report has it that President Gloria Arroyo asked the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System about reports that some investors with dubious backgrounds were being pre-qualified in the public bidding for a bulk water supply project.

The MWSS reportedly had to explain, for one, why the Taiwanese firm Kintech was pre-qualified despite the fact that its two water projects in Kaoshiung had failed quantity and quality tests of the Taiwan Water Co. The projects must produce 1,200,000 tons of potable water daily for Kaoshiung.

The report about the President asking questions was surprising, because an MWSS source told Postscript earlier that Kintech’s bidding for the Laguna de Bay bulk water project had the blessings of somebody close to Malacanang despite its unsavory record.

The MWSS project aims to draw 300 mld (million liters per day) of potable water from the lake to forestall a possible shortage by the year 2009. Teaming up with Ranhill Berhad of Masinloc notoriety, Kintech is one of the bidders.

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ANOTHER PROBE: The project seeks to provide additional water for the west section of the MWSS concession area covering Western Quezon City, Southern Caloocan, some fringes of Manila, Valenzuela, Malabon, Navotas, Pasay, Parañaque, Las Piñas and Western Muntinlupa.

Last thing I heard, some congressmen are trying to get into the picture by summoning all parties to another legislative rigmarole disguised as a public inquiry in aid of legislation.

Together with the usual expense entailed in winning a bid, the cost of hurdling a congressional public hearing will make the project more costly for the MWSS and the winning bidder.

The added expense will be built in later to the price of the water processed by and drawn from the project. As is usual in the Philippine market, the consumer or end-user always pays for the cost of graft.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 1, 2006)

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