My Ketsana Story

It’s been a week since Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) whipped Metro Manila and its surrounding regions with the worst rainfall in recorded history. I don’t need to burden you with figures; you can look those up on Wikipedia and the news websites. Let me instead tell you my story.

I had left the house early that morning to take the admission exam for my graduate studies at the Ateneo de Manila. I only thought it would be a regular rainy day; I left my umbrella at home. Since my car was running low on fuel, I loaded up on gas before I drove off to the campus.

When I arrived at  around 7:30 am, the rain had just begun to come down. I managed to walk calmly to the testing center since the rain wasn’t that bad yet. My jacket protected me from the downpour quite well, so I didn’t worry about it.

As I was taking the test, I noticed that the rain outside was only getting stronger and was not showing any signs of stopping. The horrific downpour continued through the morning. Between the half time break and the end of the test, it only seemed to intensify.

The test ended at 12 noon. I decided to go as quickly as I could to my car and go home; the test was exhausting and I just wanted to relax with a good lunch and sleep the rest of the afternoon. Little did I know that I was in for the long haul.

The rain was coming down in sheets. Since I was wearing waterproof hiking boots and my jacket was quite thick, I decided to make a break for it and ran the 200 or so meters to my car through the driving rain.

In hindsight, it was probably not a good idea. While my boots themselves were waterproof, the pools of water splashed up past my ankles as I ran through them and soaked into my socks. My denim jacket wasn’t waterproof and my wool hood was highly absorbent, so the water soaked me through very quickly. By the time I got into the car, the rain was coming down like a madman.

I quickly stripped off my jacket and outer garment. Thankfully my inner shirt was still dry, although my pants were soaked up to my thighs.

As I started my car, I noticed that the line of vehicles headed for the exit was not moving. I remembered that it was the Ateneo Grade School fair, and so they might have ended early due to the horrid rain. I took a cue from the other cars and followed them to a new egress from the parking lot that I had not known of.

Since there weren’t that many cars passing through the exit road, I thought I could get out easily. Or so I thought. I ended up hitting thick traffic that was barely moving. This was unusual; Ateneo rarely experienced a jam of this magnitude. The rain was still coming down in sheets and I could barely see the high-rise condos along the road.

I looked out of the University’s fence and saw that there were cars going in the wrong direction along the Katipunan avenue, and that they weren’t moving. The flood was so deep that the cars couldn’t progress at all. I also noticed that the creek that was flowing along the road had swelled into a raging river.

That was when I did a double take. There was no creek alongside Katipunan avenue. The raging river was Katipunan, and the counterflowing cars were actually in the right lane. Realizing I was trapped, I decided to call my mother and tell her my situation.

My mom knew what was going on and she said that it would be a good idea for me to stay inside the campus first, as the situation was quickly turning bad all over the city. Better for me to stay in the relative safety of the campus than to risk damaging my car in the raging floodwaters. Before I hung up, though, my she gave me another piece of bad news: my brother, who was abroad in Malaysia, had been hospitalized with a fever. He had woken up that morning to find himself unable to move. My father had already booked a flight out of Singapore to see him.

The news was heartbreaking. Despite my brother being the more athletic of us two, he was always the one who ended up getting hospitalized. I was never sick enough to need surgery or hospitalization. Since we were children, I would often find myself at his bedside keeping him company in the hospital. I said a quick prayer for him and returned my focus to driving as the traffic began to move again.

It took me about thirty minutes to get out of the jam and onto University Road, which leads deeper into the campus; I decided to look for a parking spot and get lunch. Unfortunately, the guard at Xavier Hall refused to let me park there to get food at the canteen, so I decided to park at one of the higher-up parking lots and wait there.

I took off my soaked socks and boots for a while and also looked into my backpack to see in what condition my belongings were. My bag was water-resistant so I didn’t expect the rain to penetrate.

Unfortunately, it did. There was some moisture on my laptop, which I quickly patted dry; there was also a small pool of water inside that thankfully did not damage my books. Out everything went.

Trapped, soaked, and slightly hungry, I decided to go ahead and pray.

I thanked God that I had a car and that I was in a relatively safe place. I would learn later that the flood rose so quickly that many people were trapped along the road and had to abandon their cars. I thanked God that my family was safe–mom was at work in a high building, my brothers, father and grandmother were safely abroad, and our house was still untouched by the rising floodwaters. I thanked God that I at least had something to do while waiting; my iPod was fully-charged and I had filled my car with gas that morning.

I then cracked open my Bible and found the following passage:

Psalm 107

1Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his love endures forever.

2Let the redeemed of the LORD say this—

those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,

3those he gathered from the lands,

from east and west, from north and south.a

4Some wandered in desert wastelands,

finding no way to a city where they could settle.

5They were hungry and thirsty,

and their lives ebbed away.

6Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,

and he delivered them from their distress.

7He led them by a straight way

to a city where they could settle.

8Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

and his wonderful deeds for men,

9for he satisfies the thirsty

and fills the hungry with good things.

10Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom,

prisoners suffering in iron chains,

11for they had rebelled against the words of God

and despised the counsel of the Most High.

12So he subjected them to bitter labor;

they stumbled, and there was no one to help.

13Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,

and he saved them from their distress.

14He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom

and broke away their chains.

15Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

and his wonderful deeds for men,

16for he breaks down gates of bronze

and cuts through bars of iron.

17Some became fools through their rebellious ways

and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.

18They loathed all food

and drew near the gates of death.

19Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,

and he saved them from their distress.

20He sent forth his word and healed them;

he rescued them from the grave.

21Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

and his wonderful deeds for men.

22Let them sacrifice thank offerings

and tell of his works with songs of joy.

23Others went out on the sea in ships;

they were merchants on the mighty waters.

24They saw the works of the LORD,

his wonderful deeds in the deep.

25For he spoke and stirred up a tempest

that lifted high the waves.

26They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;

in their peril their courage melted away.

27They reeled and staggered like drunken men;

they were at their wits’ end.

28Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,

and he brought them out of their distress.

29He stilled the storm to a whisper;

the waves of the sea were hushed.

30They were glad when it grew calm,

and he guided them to their desired haven.

31Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

and his wonderful deeds for men.

32Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people

and praise him in the council of the elders.

33He turned rivers into a desert,

flowing springs into thirsty ground,

34and fruitful land into a salt waste,

because of the wickedness of those who lived there.

35He turned the desert into pools of water

and the parched ground into flowing springs;

36there he brought the hungry to live,

and they founded a city where they could settle.

37They sowed fields and planted vineyards

that yielded a fruitful harvest;

38he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased,

and he did not let their herds diminish.

39Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled

by oppression, calamity and sorrow;

40he who pours contempt on nobles

made them wander in a trackless waste.

41But he lifted the needy out of their affliction

and increased their families like flocks.

42The upright see and rejoice,

but all the wicked shut their mouths.

43Whoever is wise, let him heed these things

and consider the great love of the LORD.

I realized I had so many things to be thankful for at the peak of the bad weather; after I heard the extent of the damage and saw some of the videos on the Internet, I was even more thankful. I also said a prayer for all of those who were suffering in the horrible weather.  After I prayed I took a look at my books and tried to read.

Eventually, restlessness got the better of me and I went to go take a look at the traffic. The line of cars leading to the exit still hadn’t moved, so I decided to drive over to Bellarmine hall and rest there. I had remembered there was a canteen there, as well as some vending machines. I was able to find a relatively sheltered parking spot and made a run for the building.

I arrived at the canteen just as they were closing up for the day and managed to buy a bowl of hot noodle soup. It wasn’t what I was hoping to have for lunch, but it was definitely great to have when I was all wet and chilly. I had just enough coins to also buy a low-end mocha frappe from the vending machine to keep me awake throughout  the afternoon.

I had heard from other stranded people at Bellarmine that Marcos Highway was already badly flooded and that many houses in the Marikina and Cainta area were being inundated as the rain kept coming down. The line of cars was still not moving, so I decided to stay put for another hour.

I tried to leave the campus twice, but unfortunately the traffic was not budging. At 3:30 pm, I tried to leave one last time, and I saw that the traffic was beginning to move slowly out of the campus. By this time, the creek that crossed under Katipunan avenue had begun to subside, so the floods on the road itself began to drain out. I was soon able to leave the campus.

Initially I had planned to pass Xavierville Avenue and take the Edsa route. However, when I got to Xavierville, it was not moving at all. I then turned back and took a long detour so I could reach the other route through UP. At first the trip was quick and I breezed through Katipunan avenue without much trouble. Then I hit CP Garcia, from whence everything was a crawl. Even when I thought I could avoid the insane traffic along Commonwealth Avenue by taking a detour through Teacher’s Village, I ended up hitting a solid wall of vehicles.

It was beginning to get dark at this point so I used my car’s trip meter and my iPod’s stopwatch to measure my progress. It had taken me 2 hours to move 400 meters.

As we neared the Commonwealth-QC Circle intersection, I realized what was causing the traffic: vehicles were counterflowing along QC Circle into Commonwealth, which wasn’t moving either. To make matters worse, just as I was about to go around the counterflow, the delivery van in front of me collided with an incoming SUV. It took me quite a bit to maneuver out of that pickle, but thankfully the cars behind me were able to give me enough space.

When I finally got around that obstacle, it was smooth sailing until I got to North Avenue, where I immediately turned back after learning that North Avenue was congested because the traffic at the Balintawak cloverleaf was seized up.

I breezed through Quezon Avenue, only to see that the underpass was flooded up to 2 feet deep. I didn’t want to risk passing through, so I turned back once more and decided to see if I could camp out at Philippine Science High for a while. Thankfully I had my ID and the guard recognized me, so they let me stay for a while. After half an hour, I decided to brave the last leg of the trip home.

The Edsa-Quezon Avenue intersection above the underpass was stuck. A bus had blocked the U-turn slot, and the traffic from the intersection all the way to Balintawak was frozen solid. It took a solid 20 minutes before the bus moved out of the way, and even then an SUV almost blocked my turn.  I finally arrived home at 9:15 pm, taking 6 hours to drive what usually takes 20 minutes.

Day 2: The Aftermath

It was the day after that I had learned just how badly other people had suffered. Entire villages that had never experienced flooding before got hit incredibly hard. People had lost their homes. People had lost their houses. Many people were in a bad place.

Pastor Jonathan and my discipler Aumar gave a very good joint sermon on how people saw Jesus—Judas saw him as at best a shallow sense of religion and at worst a source of profit; Mary (Martha and Lazarus’s sister who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair) saw him as a precious and beloved Lord. Judas’s relationship with Jesus was based on his own wants and led to his own destruction; Mary’s story gave both Jesus and her honor and is now preached wherever the gospel is preached, as Jesus himself had prophesied. Mary gave of herself to her God in an extravagant, humble and self-abandoning manner–by wiping his feet with her hair, she was saying “the worst part of you is better than the best part of me.”

I was thinking about this and eating lunch at a nearly empty Podium. I posted on my Facebook profile that I wanted to find a way to help the people. Soon after one of my friends posted that there was going to be a relief operation at CCF–perhaps the first large-scale relief operation we held there. I was already home when I got her reply, so I wasn’t able to join, but I vowed to help out the next day. And help I did.

Day 3-4: Cheerful Giving

My mom and I went to CCF to help out and pack relief goods. The operation was rather hectic and somewhat chaotic, so it got tiring quickly. Yet we both found the strength to keep at it. It was the first time I had ever volunteered to take part in such an effort, and I really felt the love of God coursing through the place. It was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.  This continued until the second day.

Day 5: The Stench of Death

Our church organized a group of volunteers who were to go out and help clean houses in the stricken areas. We were sent to Vista Verde to clean the house of an injured church member. Getting there wasn’t easy due to the traffic, but when we got there we saw just how bad it was.

It was a fairly large house, and mud was everywhere. The mud wasn’t the kind you would let your kids play in—it was the consistency of melted ice cream. When we were cleaning out the homeowner’s kitchen, we opened the cupboard to discover that all of the pots and pans within were caked in the thick clay silt that the mud was made of. It was sticky and carried the stench of dead things. Holding in my stomach was more than a little difficult, but we managed by God’s grace.

The most rewarding part of the cleanup operation (apart from the workout it gave me) was listening to the stories of the lady and how she had learned so many lessons from this disaster. I don’t want to preempt her testimony by talking about it here, but suffice to say it made me think about my own tendency to withdraw from other people instead of reaching out.

On the way home, we were greeted with an ominous sight of just how high the water was during flooding. A bus passed us by along the road; it had been stained in the mud of the flood. Chillingly, the mud marks along its sides rose  up to halfway up its door—almost as high as the van we were riding. I later realized that the mud stains on the walls along the roads were of similar height and stretched from Cainta all the way to Marikina. The flood was that extensive and that deep.

As we passed by SM Marikina, we saw how bad the flood’s wake was—the mud left strewn across the mall’s sub-road parking was black and tarry (later I learned that Noah’s Paper Mills’ oil reservoir had spilled into the flood) and covered with garbage. Further down the road, there was a commotion: cars were parked along the side of the bridge overlooking the river.

We were wondering what it was at first until a man passed by our car window making a throat-slitting gesture.

There were corpses floating in the river.

I decided to rest the next day and put together some groceries in preparation for the storm we heard was coming.

Day 5: A Scare

I decided to stay at home to rest and also to look for a good pair of headphones.

Frightening news had come—a new storm was coming, and by all accounts it was predicted to be an incredibly devastating storm: a Category 5 Super Typhoon named Parma. CNN’s weather center had described its rainfall as “tremendous”—not something we’d want after what Ketsana had drowned us in. All weather sources described its area as so large it wouldn’t matter where it would hit—rain would come down all over Luzon again.

To make matters worse, the storm would hit the northern province of Isabela at a bad time—during rice harvest season. My rice grower friend said that if the storm were to hit now, it would destroy the harvest and leave the farmers without income for the rest of the year.

Just I was about to go out at noon, however, a massive downpour began, and it felt a lot like Ketsana’s rampage last Saturday. I cancelled my plans to go out and brought the car into the garage. I even unplugged my Playstation 2 and put it up on a high shelf.

Thankfully the downpour ended after a while, but I learned later that it was enough to cause flooding once more, since the ground had been saturated and could not absorb water anymore.

Day 6: A Storm Is Coming

Parma had been maintaining its strength and forecasts were grim. Prayers were frantic and hoax news (The power company shutting down distribution, the storm being as strong as Katrina, and a “Hyper Typhoon”) spread like wildfire across the Internet and the text messaging networks. While I continued to help out at church I also decided to go home early in order to brace for impact.

At around noon I was happy to see that the weather tracking website I was using had predicted  Parma to weaken and to only graze the northern part of Luzon.

When we got home that evening, Parma was headed straight across the northern Philippines again. I said a few desperate prayers and went to sleep.

Day 7: One Week Later

I woke up early to check the weather trackers. The storm was back on a grazing course, and this time it would only hit the very tip of Cagayan in the northernmost Philippines. It would not hit Isabela and endanger the crops, but would instead just bring rain and wind upon most of Luzon. Most of its rain was falling offshore. The rain that did hit Manila was nothing like what Ketsana had brought.

I went out to buy myself dad’s birthday gift at Eastwood and drove back through the route I took during the Ketsana traffic jam. I realized just how far the total distance of the trip was and indeed how long it took normally.

But things have not gotten back to normal.

Many people remain in evacuation centers and might just become victims of novelty—people thought it would be cool to help out in relief centers, so they did, but when the novelty wears off and regular life calls, the volunteers vanish. Will it be this way? Will the evacuees and survivors be left hanging?


I will withhold my opinions on the storm. All I have to share are the lessons.

First of all, I learned to be thankful. I’ve been increasingly bitter about my life lately, but the storm took away all that.

Second, I’ve learned how to give and give cheerfully. While I’ve been okay with giving out of my pocket, what always bothered me before was giving of my time. Now I’ve learned how to be generous with that as well.

Finally, I’ve learned how to cooperate with others. I’ve never been a team player and I’ve often gone my own way, but now I know that the survival of others can depend on how well I cooperate.

Whether you consider this storm the effect of divine judgment or human negligence, I think we all have lessons to learn from it. I pray we won’t have to learn them again.


~ by J. R. R. Flores on October 3, 2009.

One Response to “My Ketsana Story”

  1. Scary stuff but it sounds like you managed to avoid the worst of it. Glad you and your family are all okay.

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