Remembering Pepeng: heroism and opportunism in disasters

Last year, in the aftermath of Typhoon Pepeng, we all learned of the death of Rex Mang-oy, former fireman, and three firemen in the active service, Siegfred Ngoloban, his cousin Richard Balusdan, and Benedict Tumayan, while they were engaged in rescue operations in La Trinidad.

They died after rescuing a three-year-old child and bringing the child to the hospital. (Both parents and the siblings of the child all perished when their house was hit by a landslide in Buyagan, La Trinidad.)

Perhaps euphoric after the successful rescue, they went to Little Kibungan in Puguis to help in the search and rescue operations there although it was already dark.

They died there.

Why they continued rescue operations even in darkness, when there was still earth movement in the landslide area, was perhaps because of a sincere effort to save more lives. It was perhaps driven by empathy and sympathy for the victims of the landslide, both the living and the dead. As the editorial of the Zigzag said then, “Being firemen, we expect them to have had the necessary training to have exercised all caution. For their sake, we presume that their deaths were unavoidable….”

At the wake of Richard Balusdan, an unnamed search-and-rescue volunteer recalled that Richard told him to go home and look after his home and family. It was after he left that the earth moved again, taking the lives of the four. This unnamed volunteer felt that he was saved by Richard’s gesture, and was unreservedly grateful.

Such stories are the stuff of legends. The successful rescue of the child was sure to have been told and retold in the wake of Siegfred, Rex, Richard and Benedict, as well as other stories of their heroism. Yet despite such emotional and praiseful recounting, the grief over their deaths is not diminished. Rather, it magnifies the loss, for we need such heroism at this age and time when we are surrounded by villains.

Villains were not lacking in the Pepeng ordeal.

While the good side of humanity, exemplified by heroism, voluntarism and charity is evident in our response to the twin disasters of Pepeng and Ondoy last year, and in this year’s recent super typhoon Juan, these disasters have unfortunately also brought forth the dark side of humanity.

In the houses abandoned last year because of the landslides, there was some looting, an occurrence not unexpected, for thieves are known to be busy during typhoons. But what rubs salt to the wound is that the victims this time were already victims of a bigger tragedy, for they have already lost family and property to nature’s wrath, again to be victimized by thieves.

In the rehabilitation site in Puguis, one woman was caught stealing from the donation box. Reports say that the woman was mentally ill. She probably was, for whoever does what she planned to do must really be sick.

But these forms of thievery are petty compared to the stark opportunism of supposed businessmen. When Baguio was still isolated because of landslides, vegetables were to be had for the price of gold. There was a time when the wholesale price for a kilo of potatoes and beans, for example, reached as much as P80. The price was perhaps driven by the law of supply and demand, for there was limited supply. It was good for the farmer who could deliver his patatas to Baguio then, for the middlemen and resellers drove the price up as they competed for his produce. Tinmama isuna.

The middlemen and resellers would add to the price even more, and consumers would then have to shell out P150 for a kilo of potatoes. The price of beans reached as much as P200 in Baguio. Sayote was selling in Manila for as much as P150 per kilo.

This opportunism is as despicable as the thievery of abandoned homes, if not more so.

On a lesser scale, but equally despicable, there were grocery and sari-sari stores that raised the prices of canned goods, anticipating shortage because of Baguio’s isolation, and also because canned goods were being purchased in bulk as they were being donated to victims of the disaster.

After every calamity in the Philippines, humungous amounts of rehabilitation funds are provided to the affected areas. These funds are the cause of other disasters in the making. In the wake of Pepeng and this year’s Juan, government estimates damage in the region to infrastructure, crops and private property in hundreds of millions of pesos. Last year, the Office of Civil Defense even came out with a report that the damage estimates were bloated by politicians in the local government units with the intention of getting more rehab funds.

The rehabilitation funds were eventually released, and for sure have provided opportunities for graft. It is a certainty that some people have gotten richer out of last year’s tragedy, and the grafters and other opportunists are on the top of the list. This year’s typhoons will provide the same opportunity for this despicable breed of humanity.

We do not wish them well. Karmic justice will overtake them soon enough. If they do not believe in karma, their Maker may perhaps be merciful as He pronounces judgment, though He is as vengeful as He is merciful. ****

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