The Great Flood, Part 1

Ondoy in downtown Manila

Until September 26, Xavierville 1 was a tranquil, middle-class subdivision, or gated community, in Quezon City, Metro Manila. It was a safe place of medium-sized and large houses, each house behind its own gate. There were coconut palms, bougainvillea climbing over walls and lush tropical foliage. Some houses were well tended, some streaked with the dark mold found in the tropics. Probably every household had domestic help—maybe two maids and a driver who also helped out with the gardening—but unlike the posh neighborhoods there was a community pool, not a private pool outside every living room. Apart from mild concern about an especially heavy rain, my interest in the weather was limited to enjoying it in the pool.

On Saturday the 26th I woke up around 10:20 thinking it was Sunday, when I was supposed to take a cake to birthday celebration. The wind and rain outside looked a bit worrying, so I sent a text to a friend who advised against going out. All right, I thought, I’ll put the cake in the freezer. From the kitchen I went to the living room to look out at the courtyard, where water was collecting. I reassured myself it wouldn’t get into the house. It never had. But it continued to rise. Ten minutes later I woke up my housemate, Mary, and she drove her motorcycle from the garage one step up onto the tiled living room floor.

The water crept into the house toward Mary’s study, which was just off the dining room. She yelled directions as we tried to get the computer unplugged and get wires, equipment and papers for her master’s thesis onto the dining room table. When the water rose up the two steps going up to the rooms in the back, I dashed to my own study and unplugged the computer, laying it on the top of a tall bookcase, moving the external drive and the scanner to safety, wrapping the wires around the top of the computer desk and forcing the monitor between the two shelves at the top of the desk, where I told myself it wouldn’t stay. It was a struggle both against time and against the voice in my head. I couldn’t find my camera bag.

The second time I got a mild shock while unplugging cords, I yelled to Mary to turn off the electricity. One by one I carried the fireproof box with my important documents, a change of clothes, a backpack with passport and bank information and two terrified cats into the living room—where each time I stumbled over the motorcycle submerged in the muddy water—then outside and up the tricky circular staircase to the “driver’s room” above the garage. Down below, the big refrigerator was floating waist-high in the kitchen, and water had risen to the edge of the dining room table. I took Mary’s computer and heaved it on top of the wardrobe in my bedroom.

Less than an hour had passed since I’d sent a text to my friend about the weather, but it was clear that we had to get out. What to wear in a flood? I put on my modest Marks and Spenser swimsuit, went back upstairs to the driver’s room for my backpack and the cats. I had to fight to get them both into the carrier. Each time I got one in, the other would pop out and dive under the bed. I pulled someone out by the tail, hoping I wasn’t causing physical damage. Then I looked out at the flooded courtyard. There was shouting on the street. Could I climb over the gate and maneuver my way through the spikes at the top?

In front of the gate the water was at mid-chest height, well over the latch. After a struggle it yielded. Outside, several yards away in the brown, swirling water, a young man stretched out his hand as a signal that he was there to rescue me. I told him I had to go back. I yelled to Mary—who later said she couldn’t hear me over the sound of the rushing water—and fetched backpack and cats from the driver’s room, ignoring the internal advice to roll up the dry clothes and put them in the backpack. I didn’t want to take the time.

Outside our gate, the young men in bathing suits who were going around rescuing people put the cage on a small, brightly painted raft and gave me a floatation device made of bamboo poles tied together. One held my backpack on his head as we swam or walked the distance of two houses to the subdivision entrance. No guards were posted at the guardhouse. The adjoining street was underwater but still navigable. We stood on the sidewalk and watched it rain. Mary followed a few minutes later in the tee-shirt and boxer shorts she’d slept in, but she went back for her purse and some essential medications. Our rescuers advised me to stay put. When she returned, the water in our subdivision street was over her head.

For maybe half an hour, I stood on the curb wondering what we should do next. The only refuge I could think of was a hotel I’d stayed in twice, but it was some distance away, and I didn’t know whether we could get there or whether I could talk them into accepting the cats. Other people stood around soaked but under umbrellas. Tricycles (motorcycles with sidecars) came, turned around and left. Water was too high on the other side of the intersection. People were friendly, and I was certain that eventually I’d be advised what to do.

A gate opened across the street, and a woman invited Mary and me to her house—later she told me she’d looked out and wondered what that woman was doing out on the street in her swimsuit. We could not have been more grateful for her kindness or more apologetic for getting water on her tiled floor. Our hostess provided a couple of dry housedresses, and she sat at the table with us while her maids served us a hot meal.

I was afraid to let the cats out, but after the boy growled I discovered that, in addition to being crowded together in one carrier, they were lying in two or three inches of water. I explained that, yes indeed, these were very special cats, Russian Blues who were litter mates, a boy named Raku and a girl named Sasha, born in Russia and purchased in Korea. Quiet, affectionate, non-destructive and easier on Mary’s allergies than most breeds. I might have exaggerated a little. However, I got two bowls of canned fish, a bowl of water and permission to let them out in the maid’s bathroom off the kitchen, where I fed them and toweled them down. I couldn’t get them dry. The girl cowered on the wet floor behind the toilet, and the boy growled from time to time. Otherwise, they were silent. Ordinarily they would have been pleading and demanding to be let out.

From time to time, Mary trembled with shock. I kept apologizing for talking too loudly in response to our hostess’s questions, but I couldn’t stop. We explained that we had both taught in Korea for some time, that Mary was studying at the University of the Philippines and that I was working on a novel. Mary talked about the death of her beloved husband Walter a year before and the agony she’d just suffered at having to leave his ashes behind in the house. “He would have thought I was crazy,” she said, “if I’d drowned because I was trying to save that heavy urn.” After lunch I sat in the entryway for a while and sobbed. I think it was mostly gratitude for being alive, but I was also seeing water rising over books, photographs, cameras and furniture. I lay down for a while but was unable to get any rest. Mary started trying to make cell phone contact with friends and neighbors.

Later our hostess said that a young man had appeared at the door, probably in hope of getting some money in exchange for having rescued us. She’d told him I was asleep. She and her daughter left for church, which she assured us was just around the corner. Her maids would look after us. When she returned, she fed us again and said other people from our subdivision were evacuating to a new “condo” down the street. I wasn’t allowed to leave money for our rescuer—no, no, she’d just tell him we left. We got loaded up in her car, me barefoot in my swimsuit and a donated jacket, Mary in her borrowed housedress. I had the backpack and the cats. She had a collection of plastic bags with medications and other items which proved useful.

Studio 87 was a sort of resident hotel for students—given the prices, I imagine it was built for foreign students. It did not take credit cards, but I had enough for one night in a three-bed room with bath. In the office our former hostess bought me some plastic flip-flops so I wouldn’t have to go barefoot. Again we were effusive in our thanks. We all exchanged hugs, including the maids, who seemed quite uncomfortable with it.

In the lobby the cats remained silent. I mentioned them to the manager and I promised to pay for any damage, but it wasn’t until we were upstairs and in the room that the staff discovered them and balked. I must have looked a pitiful sight, a flood refugee in my swimsuit and donated flip-flops, ready to return to the flood-ravaged deep of night rather than part with my cats. After a call back down to the manager, they were allowed to stay provided they didn’t leave the room.

In the convenience store next to the hotel, the radio was broadcasting an emergency rescue program. Babies and elderly people needed to be rescued from rooftops, and someone’s departed relative needed to be picked up by a mortuary. The television in the hotel lobby showed relief operations underway, crowded shelters, lines of refugees wading through muddy water with a few possessions and maybe a baby floating in a basin beside them. Mary continued to try to locate friends and neighbors with her cell phone. She spoke with her daughter, who sent emails to most of the contacts on my mailing list saying we were safe.

On Sunday, still in my swimsuit and flip-flops, I spent an hour or two locating a bank machine. The inter-bank system was down. I finally walked down a main street to a branch of our bank. Since the maximum machine withdrawal is 4,000 pesos (about $80) at a time, I kept feeding the card into the machine—desperately, like a gambling addict, as if money were all that would keep us safe. After seven withdrawals, I forced myself to quit. And I did that only because in the past I’d been unable to take out money during holidays because some greedy person had gotten there first.

Once empowered with funds, I took a taxi to the hotel, paid for a week’s rent and set off again to buy kitty litter, cat food and a few other things. The supermarket was packed with people loading up on water and food, but there was no run on kitty litter. People were friendly and considerate. I stood in line for the cash register and asked people to tell me which was shampoo and which was something else because I couldn’t read without my glasses. I explained that the swimsuit was all I had to wear and told my story. I was still shaking from time to time and could hardly stop talking.

The woman behind me translated my story into Tagalog for the benefit of others in line. She talked about having to rent a rubber boat to rescue relatives who’d been on a rooftop for eight hours, including a baby who was now in the hospital. Then she bought me two gallon jugs of water and gave me a ride back to the hotel. We parted like two newly-found best friends.

I had always wondered about people who could survive catastrophe and remain fairly level-headed, helpful to others and grateful. Oddly, that seems to have been the case with us. We haven’t exchanged one harsh word since the beginning of the rain. The cats have been amazingly good—perhaps they’re grateful as well. Almost our entire subdivision was flooded, which means that the homeowners will probably be unable to get a decent price for their houses. Many of them—including a family in the same hotel—were trapped on a second floor for eight or ten hours. Worse, thousands of homeless people who had little before the flood are now truly desperate. By comparison, our loss is not so much a tragedy as a major inconvenience.

Everyone we’ve encountered has been friendly and helpful—the young men who rescued us, the woman who took us in, the manager and staff of the hotel and the people in the grocery store. That goodness and generosity continues in Part 2 of this story.

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kurt in portland
kurt in portland
13 years ago


This is some recount. I can only imagine that voice in your head muttering while the water quickly rose.

How bad was the damage?