Philippines Notebook: A National Disaster Brings Death and Blame

Like any Asian capital city, Manila is a magnet for people from the countryside wanting to make a better living. The city groans to over capacity; squatter villages and shanty towns spring up and ten years later they have taken permanent hold with their own infrastructure (usually involving illegal electricity and water supplies), their own laws, their own endless cycle of poverty as inhabitants marry each other and the shanty towns spread further and the cycle continues.

Last week, I filmed in a particularly violent, poor part of Manila. A shanty town of such renown that the Filipinos I traveled with cracked jokes nervously as we approached. If we wanted to buy a gun, a woman, drugs or contraband we were heading in the right direction, they said, double locking the car doors.

The night was monsoonal; a steady sheet of rain came down. The area was ankle deep in grime, it smelled bad, there were leaks and drips and mud and garbage everywhere. Open electrical boxes frizzed out wires inviting electrocution. This was an ordinary monsoon night. Happens every year.

Saturday comes and so does tropical storm Ondoy (known internationally as Ketsana). It rained more that day than the storm that caused the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. The wind racketed around my apartment (safe on the 18th floor, safe in middle class Manila); the rain beat the crap out of the building.

It didn't stop. The terrible infrastructure in this city could not cope with the rain. Throughout the day, the news reported that there was flash flooding. It got worse. It turned into a national disaster as people tried to get away from the rising waters.

An overburdened city is an overburdened city and on Saturday regardless of whether you lived in a shanty town (first and most badly hit) or in a utilities-paying neighborhood (collateral damage and lots of it), it was time to pay the price. People were literally washed away. There was something so poignant about seeing people clinging to umbrellas as they waded, armpit high in water, as if the last protection they had against death was holding onto a useless piece of nylon.

Blame is an important part of the process. There has not been civil, military or natural disaster in any country that I can recall when questions have not been asked afterward about government inability to deal with the consequences of rain, riots, or terrorism.

So it is here. On Sunday a photo of Mikey Arroyo (son of the President) taken that day in his local liquor store, choosing between expensive bottles of alcohol went like the clappers round the Internet. There was no surprise responses just wicked commentary about Mikey showing his standard form in the insensitivity stakes.

On Saturday, opposition representative Teofisto Guingona, citing government audits said that President Gloria Arroyo had violated Philippines budget laws by spending the entire annual $16 million national emergencies fund on her frequent, and very often extravagant foreign trips. (She has been on an average 6 foreign trips a year since becoming President in 2001.)

Blame may make you feel better, as if you were helpless in the face of someone else's wickedness, incompetence or corruption. But it doesn't get you off your roof and onto dry land and it doesn't find your missing relatives. The eerie feeling in Manila right now is more than blame, it's mourning.