Monday, October 02, 2006

Nature's powerful visit

The typhoon nationally code-named Milenyo that blew into Metro Manila on Thursday, Sept.28, was reportedly the strongest direct hit on the megalopolis in 11 years. The rhythm of our usual city lives continue to be suspended in its aftermath, with tons of debris still being cleared at this writing, and the slow restoration of electric power in ongoing repair of a significant number of damaged transmission towers and power lines.

But let’s be honest – Nature’s powerful visit brought a welcome massive clean-up of Metro Manila’s air and waterways. One especially salutary side effect was the sudden halt of an epidemic of dengue fever. “The strong water current and powerful winds flushed away the breeding ground of the dengue mosquito,” says health secretary Duque, who adds a warning to notoriously short Pinoy memory.

We have two to four weeks, he says, before a new upsurge in dengue cases if we do not start cleaning up now. By the same token, ordinary citizens must be equally vigilant and quick to report the widespread snipping and looting of downed power wires by human rats.

On the third day of Milenyo’s aftermath, we also look back almost fondly at the way another kind of pollution was temporarily suspended by howling winds, banging windows, and falling trees. More than welcome was the sudden simultaneous cease of the rumble of cargo trucks and buses, the ubiquitous falsetto whir of tricycles, and the impatient cacophony of honking jeepney horns. Nature was speaking and we could only listen for dear life.

More, a dispassionate cutting down of everything that stood in the way of winds gusting at 260 kilometers per hour toppled more than vital parts of the electrical grid. To no one’s regret but their sponsors and victims, the winds also went for those commercial billboards lining highways and major avenues – no better censor of excess than that.

For some time now, long-time Manila residents, who care about what our skyline says about the quality of our lives have cast a cold eye on billboard proliferation down major thoroughfares, beginning with EDSA. It was bad enough that they were promoting a blatantly consumerist lifestyle partnered by a mall culture that’s been creating ever more traffic in its hubs. These billboards’ increasing raciness in competition for public attention made them doubly offensive.

Noises were previously made by the Metro Manila Development Authority on their obstruction of traffic flow, on top of danger to life and limb created by the sexier ones. This has just been amplified by the reported determination of Madame Arroyo and Senator Miriam Santiago to finally rid us of such billboards

The hazard they pose in typhoon weather is reportedly the reason for Mrs. Arroyo’s impending executive order to “regulate” them. Senator Santiago goes farther, as usual, “Metro Manila is one of the ugliest and most unsafe capitals in the world because of these giant billboards…(are) a nuisance (that) injure and endanger the safety of others, offend the senses, and obstruct the free passage of public streets and highways.”

This time, we agree with these two ladies, and urge the public to add their own voices in support of immediate dismantling of all remaining commercial billboards. But let’s not stop there. Let’s ask for such dismantling to include self-serving political billboards with no other reason for existence than to build the egos of public officials on all levels. To their consistent insult to public sensibility is added the injury of using public funds to patronize Pinoy intelligence. Enough is enough.

Meanwhile, the rhythm dictated by sudden loss of electricity has been like a sudden retreat back to the 19th century – an unexpected re-measuring of our city lives has just returned us to the true scale of things. Back to basics has always done that. No iced water for drinking? You’ll survive. No TV to channel-surf, no mall, no fully loaded cell phone to escape boredom with? Aha! Now you’re back to your own inner resources, the ones you’d almost forgotten, if you ever knew you had them.

Now’s the chance to remember what really matters in life. In my little neck of the woods, a healthy rhythm of water conservation has suddenly returned to absent-minded household members. In the sudden leisure, the bookshelves are slowly returning to ordered efficiency; a thick pile of snail mail long unattended to is slowly shrinking. My little girl nearly went mad with withdrawal symptoms in the sudden silence of Disney channel, but she was happily drawing by candlelight last night.

The total mess in the garden – with its toppled trees, decimated branches, and thick carpet of green leaves –has made a quick return botany necessary. Which of these are for hauling to the garbage truck for eventual mulching in the city dump, which for drying into kindling for the next powerless emergency, and which for drying and installment as free-form adornment in memory of Milenyo?

It’s painful to read of the fatalities, the consequences to agriculture, infrastructure and the national economy, and to anonymous individual lives in this typhoon. But on the whole, this extended vacation in the 19th century has for a moment suspended superfluous desires and vanities, clearing the way to a healthier rhythm in greater self-awareness away from the addictions of life with electricity.

We really should do this more often.

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