Markers of Disasters



“Ugis” is a term, which means “white.” In other places in Bikol and Samar-Leyte area, the name is used to refer to an “albino.” My childhood, however, brings me back to another reference of “ugis,” and it was a typhoon that bore the name. Bagyo Ugis was not a particular name of a typhoon but a generic label for the strongest of storms, so strong that the wind peeled off the bark and covering of big trees, exposing the inner part that was whiter. The surroundings became all white – “ugis.”

It was common then for old men and women who could not read or write to remember important events in their life or the life of the communities in terms of the kind of typhoon or any calamity that ravaged their place. For someone who was but a small child when a typhoon hit the farm, he would do time reckoning using the coming of Bagyo Ugis.

I met farmers who remembered also birth and death by days or weeks when even a buried coconut shell was blown by the wind. This reference to a coconut shell must be strange now when most of us (or most of our readers) live in places with cemented ground. In farm villages and barangays, one can still see empty coconut shells that were, through the years, stuck deep in the soil. A wind that can extract an object like that embedded in the ground must indeed be a strong one.

The last typhoon has given us a new marker for memories – a Signal No. 5 super typhoon. Even with our lack of numeracy (the ability to think of facts in terms of numbers), we knew what to expect with a signal that had reached level 5. For most of our lives, our recall of typhoon signals have only reached “3.” What does it mean to be at the path of a super typhoon?

Generations can be identified by the names of typhoons they could recall. Those who are in their 80s could remember typhoons that had American names. The reason for this was the Joint Typhoon Warning Center based in Hawaii, which tracked storms hitting the Western Pacific region and giving them female names. We read reports thus about Typhoon Jean and Trix.

In the case of the Philippines, the Philippine Weather Bureau initiated the practice of giving Philippine female names to storms. It has been touted that the use of female names was an attribution to women unpredictable temper, which is very much like those of storms. This begs the fact though of weather bureaus whose duty it is to predict the entry, path, and direction of a weather abnormality.

The Philippine Weather Bureau is the same office that began considering typhoons in the Philippine area of responsibility. This resulted to a typhoon carrying two names – its name from outside and its name, which becomes Filipino, upon its entry into the Philippine area of responsibility.

The Internet technology has allowed any Filipino to track any typhoon and the idea of a climate disturbance with two labels is not anymore confusing. We have, in effect, became the reliable/unreliable weathermen/women.

Expertise is ideal but when there are many experts, each one hogging a spot online, the effect on the population can be disastrous. It is still good to follow what the official sources are saying. In this case, it must be noted that Japan Meteorological Agency, described as the Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre (RSMC), is now tasked with monitoring cyclones in the Western Pacific.

Naming of cyclones has become more global or regional with some 14 countries working together to come up with a list of names in sequence. The Philippines, it has been reported, added more names to the list.

For all these changes and advancement, Typhoon Rolly has shown also how many things have remained the same. Electricity goes out and takes long to restore. Water supply, in some towns at least, is cut. In Albay, with due respect to those whose loved ones perished in the storm or were lost, have the people forgotten the tragedy brought about by the massive landslides during Typhoon Reming?

The memory of disaster is valuable. There are books that treat this theme of memories as the beginning of a keener knowledge about what how we could respond to Nature.

Much as we love to anthropomorphize (or attribute human qualities to storms or other natural calamities), Nature is neither cruel nor vindictive. Let us reserve those human qualities to us humans. We are cruel to the world around us. We bring havoc on ecology. We cut trees and pollute streams. The natural environment impacted by our action is ruined – mountains collapse, water surges through ravaged forests and inundate homestead, and yet we continue to manufacture products that poison the air.

When the last typhoon was nearing the country, the climatologists were talking about how the warmer ocean was making it stronger and stronger. Then we realized there was something wrong already with our seas and waters. It was too late for us to see that the dangerous strength of Rolly was coming not from the act of God, but from the act of man.