The Great Flood, Part 2

Fe washing the mud away–Photo by Harriet Sewell

Being in a flood can change your entire relationship to water: you hesitate around puddles, you shriek when accidentally splashing water on yourself, you hear the sound of rushing water in your sleep, you get anxious when it rains—which is unfortunate during rainy season. Mary still has flashbacks of calling my name and hearing only rushing water, while I remember going out the gate first and yelling repeatedly, “Come on, Mary. We have to get out!”

Sodden stuff–Photo by Harriet Sewell

Then there’s the flood mud. We had the thin, slimy stuff that can be washed off with a hose and scrub brushes, not the thick kind that has to be shoveled out. It was still awful. The stench filled the house and clung to everything, including books and clothes above the water line—which was about five feet above the floor. We were told the mud carried rat feces and snakes. And of course it left behind bacteria and mold. I wondered whether my empathy with the Katrina victims—many of whom are still not adequately resettled—had to do with more than an affinity for the music, food and people of New Orleans and South Louisiana. As if I knew it could happen to me.

More sodden stuff–Photo by Harriet Sewell
Our house was uninhabitable. The built-in cabinets below the water line disintegrated immediately. The recently repaired parquet floors in the back were warped and broken. Almost all electric outlets were suspect. The upholstered furniture became home to disease. Some of the solid wooden furniture looked salvageable, some didn’t. We lost cameras, books and electronic equipment. Mary despaired for her master’s thesis. However, we discovered that Filipinos had a wealth of information on how to dry out water-logged electric appliances. And of course many people were very helpful.
Exercise equipemtn after floating around in the kitchen–Photo by Harriet Sewell

Two days after the flood, there was a special meeting of the Rotary Club of Loyola Heights—which, I hurry to say, is a relaxed, fun-loving, service-oriented group nothing at all like the American organization my dad belonged to in the 1950s and 60s. Mary was among the four members who were flood victims. As the microphone passed from one person to another, her friend Rose said to me, “This group is getting too serious. You tell your story about escaping in your swimsuit.” Later we were offered clothing, a few small appliances and the use of a truck and crew when we moved into a new house.

Much of the meeting was devoted to helping the residents of Brookside, a community where Rotary had been offering on-going assistance in housing and education. It was completely swept away by the flood. Members were collecting money for food and supplies, cooking and distributing food themselves and trying to relocate the community. This was clearly not a relief effort where three-fourths of the contributions went into the pockets of the rich. I decided to get involved after we were resettled.

A helper surveys the mess–Photo by Harriet Sewell

The next day Rose took us to see two apartments which were unacceptable for different reasons—one cheap but dismal; the other small, overpriced and in one of those wrapped-in-ribbon apartment house complexes.

Afterwards, when she saw all of our surviving stuff, Rose said, “Oh, well, you need a house!” She made a phone call, and the following day we looked at what was soon to become our new home. It’s half of a giant duplex, and it once housed two non-governmental organizations, one after the other. Downstairs, there’s a garage and porch immediately inside the gate. The front door opens to a large office area with desks and cubicles on the left and living room and dining room on the right. Further back are two kitchens, bath, and conference area. Upstairs are four bedrooms and two baths. My immediate thought when looking at the office space was that I was meant to start teaching classes at home, but who knows? The space could be useful for a variety of things. It may also be temporary.

A neighbor’s wall with cushions drying–Photo by Harriet Sewell

So now we had a place, but we found moving very different from before. For example, normally, if you want to pack clothes from your closet, you get a box, set it on the floor and fold the clothes nearby—maybe on the bed—and put them in the box. After a flood, the floor will be wet with puddles or standing water, the bed sodden and stinking. There’s no place to set the box anywhere in the house, and the even the clothes above the water line need to be washed or dry cleaned first. Those below need to be washed two or three times by hand before they can be washed by machine—if the machine is working or if the laundry service will accept them. All other aspects were equally complicated. Most of the dishes and pots and pans were carried out of the kitchen and washed in the courtyard, where appliances and Mary’s motorcycle were repaired. A move which under normal circumstances would have taken a week will take over four weeks, not including much of settling into the new house.

We were very fortunate to have wonderful people helping us. Several days Ken and Harriet, two expat friends, drove up from Makati—maybe three hours’ round trip—to spend the day helping with the cleanup, prying photographic prints apart and letting them dry and hauling stuff to the new house. Fe, our housekeeper, and her husband Jessie slept in the “driver’s room” over the garage and worked almost around the clock, taking off only a minimal amount of time to deal with their own house, which was also flooded. Jessie took a four-weeks’ leave of absence from his regular job, and they both recruited others. We asked about the young men who rescued us, but only one appeared, a tricycle driver I was eager to thank with words and a large tip.

What proved more beneficial than I’d expected was my previous move down from Korea, when I’d hired professional movers. The Koreans showed up with a moving van, uniformed crew and packing crates all bearing company colors and logo—except for the boss, who drove a car, wore a white shirt and carried a clipboard. It took them three or four hours to box everything up. Their Filipino partners had a scruffy-looking truck and a crew in jeans and flip-flops, but they were equally efficient. They had me standing behind the truck with the clipboard, checking off ninety-eight boxes of stuff and giving directions about where to put them. Which meant that we now had a wealth of sturdy cardboard packing crates. The move would have been impossible if we’d had to scrounge for empty boxes in supermarkets or post offices.

At the same time all this was going on, Mary was trying to contact friends and neighbors on her cell phone. (Mine was stolen from the driver’s room within twenty-eight hours of my leaving it.) Eventually, everyone was accounted for. They all had stories, their own or someone else’s: being trapped on the roof or in an upper story for hours, being trapped in water under furniture, renting a jet-ski to rescue family, swimming to rescue family, playing hostess to neighbors and pets and then having to clean up after the animals, marching through water with dead people and animals floating by. Many people were cooking for and feeding refugees.

We learned that Xavierville 1 was flooded in part because water had been released from a dam too quickly and in part because a creek which should have provided drainage was clogged with an illegal squatters’ settlement four stories high. Of course, it’s now clear that the floods have wiped out most of the nation’s farmers and a large percentage of the small businesses that make up almost all of the nation’s economy. Lack of investment in infrastructure is only making the situation worse.

A personal concern of ours was our inability to contact the landlord. The papers with his address in Canada had been swept away. For days his bank was closed. The homeowners’ association had no address for him. His niece’s phone number didn’t ring. We did contact the real estate agent, who said that in cases like this the lease was usually cancelled and the three months’ advance rent and security deposit returned. When the landlord finally appeared—he’d been in Manila all along—we reached a friendly agreement. We’re leaving the house is as clean as our crew could get it.

All this time we were sleeping in relative comfort in the student hotel down the street, where we had a large three-bed room with bath for the two of us and the cats, along with housekeeping services, Internet access and a coffee bar downstairs. The cats were very quiet and very loving with us and with each other. No territorial disputes or hissing and very little running around like crazy in the middle of the night. Just hiding when the door was opened and fighting vigorously against being put back in the cage. I did take them to the vet for a shot of antibiotics, since their fur had been thoroughly drenched in the filthy flood water. At the hotel we tried to rescue some things from permanent loss. Mary dried books and papers, and I went out into the hall one night and laid out many rolls of photographic prints on the floor to dry.

October 10 was the one-year death anniversary of Mary’s beloved husband Walter. Her friend Rose arranged for a mass at a local church. Several of us went and offered flowers and contributions for the flood victims. It was a nice service, but of course an emotionally draining occasion for her. The following day she was a member of a friend’s wedding and had to appear in a long gown with the proper shoes and makeup and hair and nails and all that. Not at all easy to do with a migraine, but she managed. She looked magnificent.

Several people have asked what we lost. We did lose a lot of stuff—although not the two Cuisinart food processors, which I put side by side on the microwave, or the desktop computers, which I heaved on top of tall furniture. The cords I hastily wrapped around the top of the computer desk and the monitor I shoved onto the wire shelf stayed. One of Mary’s notebooks suffered from being used before being sufficiently dried out, and she lost two still cameras and a video camera.

My Minolta 700-X’s and Canon AE-1, along with the lenses, were submerged in muddy water. There’s a digital mini-camera somewhere too. I know the mechanical parts of the cameras can be cleaned—the electronic functions would be another matter—but maybe even where labor is cheap it wouldn’t really be worth it, given the increasing difficulty of processing film, particularly slides, and the fact that my eyes can now use autofocus. It’s sad to think of parting with tools that at one time seemed extensions of your arm and your eyes, essential to the way you see the world and express it to others.

Oddly, I don’t think anyone has asked what we gained. And that is a clearer perception of what is important and what isn’t. The pettiness which can clutter any relationship and the self-centeredness which can warp anyone’s thinking for a time, all that seems to have been washed away. My sister-friend of twenty years and I may have said “I love you” as many times in the last three weeks as we did in the past three years. We have been abundantly blessed with other friends. We are very fortunate, and we know it.

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13 years ago

When it comes down to a disaster, pettiness gets washed away. What is true and real remains.

Hugs from Corea, ~ Sil