Column: Processing disaster news

Published October 6, 2009.

Distance magnifies everything, or so we have often heard. We may have used this principle ourselves. The disproportion, for instance, between life as it is lived on the “great island” of Mindanao and as it is perceived through the prism of TV news in “imperial Manila” or the mirror of newspaper pages in foreign capitals can be attributed to sheer distance.

Distance magnifies (to choose only one example) the kidnappings the Abu Sayyaf perpetrates, until the entire island (larger, according to Wikipedia, than the territory of 125 countries) is conflated in public opinion outside Mindanao with the bandit gang. The farther from Mindanao, the tighter the conflation.

In the case of “Ondoy,” however, distance failed to suggest the true scale of devastation. I was out of the country at the time; I feared the worst; and yet my fears did not, could not, imagine the apocalypse that actually came to pass.

Imagination proved unequal to reality.

* * *

Even today, it is difficult to grasp the scale of the devastation. The estimate first aired (if I remember right) by Gwen Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross, that at the height of the typhoon as much as 80 percent of Metro Manila was under water, is the closest to a definition of the apocalypse that I’ve come across.

And yet it still fails to approximate the horror almost 4 million people went through. The interactive maps available online, which allow victims to contribute their own reading of the depth of the floodwaters in their respective areas, bring us a step closer to the big picture—but these, too, come up short.

The all-important context is missing.

* * *

The way the friends and relatives I was with that fateful weekend processed the information about the floods may say something about context.

I may have had a head start on them. A Facebook friend’s innocent observation, about the non-stop rain before the deluge, had pricked my curiosity before I took to bed. Then phone calls and SMS updates woke me up at around midnight (3 pm, Manila time). By Saturday, though, everyone was learning to check for updates online.

I was struck by the way the friends and relatives I was with processed the information as it was coming in. They went straight to the source: the photos and videos that began to circulate.

I remember, in particular, discussions about video taken of Katipunan Avenue, now unrecognizable, and video of the floating cars in what turned out to be the UERM compound.

Someone posted a link to the Reuters photos available on Yahoo, which included several shots of desperate residents clambering up telephone poles and balancing on power lines.

There was, too, that photo of popular actress Christine Reyes, marooned on her rooftop in Marikina. (Her pose reminded me of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”—an iconic painting which depicts an elegant young woman in a treeless field, in a pose that on closer inspection turns out to be a paralytic’s painful crawl.)

By Saturday night (around mid-morning Sunday, Manila time), so much information was available on the online social networks there was an echo-chamber quality to the whole process. People were e-mailing each other photos that had been posted online, and videos of sunken garages and pedestrians in deep water were discussed in comment threads.

In the first 24 or 36 hours, their main and perhaps only source of news was the material they could access directly. No one among the friends and relatives I was with thought of checking the news websites. Or, rather, it was only when I would suggest a story I read on Inquirer.net or picked up off GMANews.tv that they would stop and take a look. Indeed, it was several hours before any of these Internet-savvy users thought of watching the GMA news videos available online or reading the Inquirer stories that sought to place the developing crisis in perspective.

There is a lesson in here somewhere.

And it may not be the triumphalist one we are almost conditioned to accept. After all, and as both Conrad de Quiros (who is speaking on the columnist’s craft at UP Diliman on Thursday, by the way) and Rina David have helped to point out, the media organizations in the affected areas served as lifeline and surrogate government.

The lesson may lie in the definition of context. A newspaper reader all my life, I immediately looked for perspective; that was my instinctive reaction to the crisis. The younger ones wanted detail. 

* * *

Back in the capital last Thursday, I managed to hear Ted Failon interview Sec. Gilbert Teodoro (I caught the TV Patrol simulcast on dzMM while driving). I was, to say the least, disappointed with his procedure-oriented answers.

Teodoro was asked about the uncollected garbage that had clogged Metro Manila’s waterways and thus contributed to the massive flooding. Now that supertyphoon “Pepeng” was a couple of days from making landfall, what would the government do about the garbage this time around?

Teodoro gave an involved answer which could be summed up simply enough: He held meetings.

Instead of revealing the results of those meetings, he preferred to emphasize the fact that the meetings were held, as though this alone would reassure a battered public. (I thought there was too much of the newbie in his answers. Like a new employee who wants to impress the boss with his activity, Teodoro mistook procedure for results, busy-ness for business.)

He is an obviously smart cookie; too bad the reality of the great flood made him sound soggy.

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