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The Flood Fighters

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When news that the Manila Bay seawall along Roxas Boulevard was demolished by Typhoon Nesat (locally “Pedring”), how many officials immediately thought “What a great opportunity to create an engineering masterpiece to wow the world”?

Judging by the latest reports at press time, discussions have only gone as far as the shape (concave) and the number (two, in succession). Frankly, I hate to imagine what some government officials immediately thought.

When Harbin, the capital city of China’s Heilongjiang province, was devastated by its worst flood in 1957, the very next year its people erected a monument called “The Memorial Tower of Fighting Against the Floods.”

The 22-meter-tall monument on Zhongyang Street next to the bank of the Songhua River remains an important landmark to this day. Ask a Harbin native about it and you will hear a story proudly told.

A very nice lady I met told me that the higher step represents the highest flood level of 1957 (a horrible 120.3 meters above sea level, as I later found out!), while the lower step marks the highest level of the other great flood of 1932. Citizens and public servants (police, military, and various workers, the lady told me) are depicted in the middle and on the pinnacle of the tower.

The lady pointed out the marker added in 1998 to commemorate the flood that year as well. And then she paused, as if to let me absorb the difference of the mark low on the pedestal and the tower’s peak. The year “1998” is low on the base of the Roman-style column, showing the world that, indeed, Harbin’s people have fought the Songhua River floods and overcome.

The people of Philippine model city Marikina commemorated the worst typhoon in the history of the country—and of the Pacific typhoon season of 2009—Typhoon Ketsana (“Ondoy”). The ravages of Ketsana cost the Pacific area over US$1 billion and took some 747 lives.

Seeing the Marikina ceremony made me hopeful. Filipinos should not forget the past too easily.

Forgetting the past makes us resilient, perhaps; but it also makes us shortsighted. Most tragic of all, it kills the opportunity to aspire, to dream big.

Yearly ceremonies are fine. Yearly repairs are terrific. But wouldn’t it be a great idea to commemorate even our worst tragedies with something that will last beyond our lifetime? Something to tell the next generation why they are the way they are. Something to teach them that they too can overcome.

Sadly, we have barely scratched the surface of commemorating our history as a people.

Nowhere is it more true than in the Philippines: The worst ravages are not wrought by nature but by man. This country sorely lacks flood fighters.

Print ed: 10/11


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