Benjie Oliveros | In Ondoy’s Aftermath, the Poor Still Bear the Brunt of Disaster


MANILA — Storm Ondoy was said to be a “great equalizer.” It spared no one: the rich, the middle class, and the poor. Some rich people suffered losses in their businesses when their factories, warehouses, and luxury cars were submerged in water. A substantial number of people from subdivisions catering to the middle class likewise had their houses, belongings, small and medium businesses, and cars destroyed by the flood. A great many urban poor dwellers lost their children, parents, and relatives, their whole house, and all their meager belongings after being washed away by the floods. Thus, while the storm locally named Ondoy, affected people from all walks of life, it hit the poor the hardest.

Those from big business who were affected by the flood may have lost property worth tens or even hundreds of millions of pesos. People from the middle class may have lost hundreds of thousands up to millions of pesos worth of property. The poor may have lost a mere thousands of pesos worth of belongings, but they have lost everything.

Now, the rich who were affected by the flood would have to recoup their losses. Those from the middle class would have to start fixing their homes, their cars, and belongings and rebuild their businesses or start working again with less resources. The poor would have to try to survive.

The poor who have lost their homes, all their belongings and their relatives have nowhere to go to. We know people who were living beside a creek in North Fairview who have lost everything but are still keeping watch over where their homes used to stand hoping to recover even just one or two belongings and wishing that they could start all over again. Meanwhile, those lucky enough to still have a small space to rebuild their homes would have to think of ways where to get the resources to do so. While interviewing residents of the urban poor community in Tatalon, Quezon City who lost their homes and belongings to a double whammy of a fire and flood, this writer asked them what their main concern is. They said they do not know where to find P50,000 to enable them to rebuild their homes.

Thus, while at first the storm Ondoy seemed like a “great equalizer,” when one really thinks about it deeper, one would realize that it hit the poor hardest.

To make matters worse for the urban poor, not only are they neglected, they are even being driven away from their homes. After the storm Ondoy left the country, the first act of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro — who, by the way, intends to run for president in 2010 — is to declare that those living at the banks of creeks and rivers, as well as those whose houses are under bridges, would not be allowed to rebuild their homes, not so much because of the dangers of continuing to live in these areas, but because they are being blamed for blocking the flow of water and thus, causing the flood. This is a good example of victim-blaming.

It is true that those whose shanties are near creeks, rivers and bridges are living precariously. It is also true that they somehow contribute to blocking the flow of water. But why does the government pick on the urban poor and turn a blind eye to subdivisions inhabited by the rich and the middle class, as well as factories in similar situations? Why does the government not run after those engaged in logging, mining, and housing development in hills and mountains, which cause landslides, soil erosion, and the destruction of watershed areas? Why does the government not blame itself for poor land use planning, for diverting the calamity and flood control funds, and for being chronically unprepared for disasters, considering that the country is within a typhoon belt and the Pacific rim of fire?

The government promised that urban slum dwellers who would be displaced would be relocated. The problem is where would they be relocated? Gauging by past experiences, they would most likely be relocated in some remote place where there are no basic utilities and social services, and worse, no sources of income. And to make matters worse, those who would be relocated would have to find the money to pay for the amortization, which may be cheap by middle class standards but impossible to pay for the urban poor who have no stable sources of income and are struggling to put food on the table.

The government is missing the point entirely. The urban poor live in dangerous areas not by choice but out of necessity. They do not have to pay rent or amortization, and it is near areas where they could eke out a living by working as construction workers or in factories and offices as low-paid workers – for those who are lucky enough – or by vending, or doing odd jobs. It is not the urban poor who are to blame for the floods and for being downtrodden, but the government because of its poor planning, unpreparedness, and wrong priorities, and for its corruption, for failing to ensure the people’s right to work by its inability to generate sufficient jobs, which pay decent wages, and the lack in affordable housing and inaccessibility of social services for the majority of the Filipino people.

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