Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Typhoon Ondoy Death Toll: Killer Mall or Killer Corruption Figured?

TYPHOON Ondoy (Ketsana) that struck the Philippines’ capital region in late September 2009 with the “record amount of rainfall” officially left more than 300 people dead and nearly P9 billion in total damages to agriculture and infrastructure. The responsibility for its destructive flash floods has been blamed by certain sectors on the administration of “President” Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with regards failed disaster management prevention and management. Based on a November 6, 2009 tabloid article and limited but rather persisting offline and online talks, it may be that a Metro Manila mall is also partly culpable for the Ondoy casualties.

According to the Remate article entitled “Ondoy prober with the Galas PNP sings: Death by Drowning of 100 people inside a Mall Kept under Wraps,” an investigator connected with the Galas Police Station squealed the news on the death of customers, mall tenants, and employees and security guards inside a mall during the typhoon. The victims were supposedly trapped inside the mall’s grocery section when mall management ordered the area secured so as to prevent theft of store items.

The Story

The investigator recounted the testimony of a witness who claimed she was one of those who managed to leave the grocery section before the roll-up door was locked. Power outage ensued, followed by the rise of flood waters, which thus prevented any easy opening of the door. According to the witness:

“I heard the shouts inside. That strong wailing. Hearing those pleading for help sent shivers through me. I asked a guard outside why they would not do something in order to raise the roll up door but he only said that it was mall manager’s order so they could not do a thing.”

The witness supposedly cried when s/he went up to the second floor especially when the shouting and wailing ceased as the waters greatly rose and those below drowned. She said there were other witnesses, including the salesladies on the second floor who were also crying because they were aware of what was going on.

According to the news report, some salespeople recounted how management secured the grocery store when the flood subsided. A sunglass saleslady narrated the revoltingly and pervasive smell of decomposing human flesh below. A mall official admitted that many died and they brought out the decomposing bodies in the evening. The report adds that according to the investigator, the story met with news blackout because “everyone had been tipped off.”

Remate says it tried but failed to get the side of the Galas PNP head. Based on a broadsheet article dated Oct. 16, 2009, the Galas Police Station Commander around the Ondoy flooding period was Supt. Edgardo Pamittan.That Galas investigator and the witnesses to the actual event are not the only ones who know about the horrible mall deaths. There was considerable talk about the deaths even before the November 6, 2009 issue of Remate came out.

Some two weeks before that tabloid account, I already heard about “the many who died in the xxx mall in Manila” from my husband’s sort-of-relative nurse assigned during the Ondoy disaster operations. According to her, at least some of those who died in the mall were made to appear to be part of the death toll in Marikina [which was the most Ondoy-devastated area in Metro Manila].

What’s that mall (If the story’s true, that is)?

If the report and talks were true, what could that mall (or there was more than one) be? In my husband’s conversation with said nurse, the name of the mall was mentioned. Obviously, one way of telling whether such reports are possible is by ascertaining whether that mall had indeed been damaged by the flood.

Mall flooding during Ondoy was not isolated but Wikipedia talks of a mall in Metro Manila that became rather significantly affected by the typhoon, with the flood waters almost reaching the ceiling of the lowest level. That entry that was first inserted around 8 a.m. of September 30, 2009 came from IP and unreferenced, but has been retained in that Wikipedia page. While it is Wikipedia’s policy that entries (especially the controversial ones, I believe) should be referenced, said entry has escaped deletion or even challenge because it writes of a commonly known fact.

In its present revision form, that particular edit entry on Wikipedia’s page on a Metro Manila mall is now footnoted. Interestingly, the footnote leads to a mainstream newspaper report about the reopening of the mall’s lower ground level but without directly discussing Ondoy’s impact on that mall. At the website or related website of that mall, the great damage wrought by the typhoon on said mall is mentioned.

News blackout

If such mall deaths did occur, certainly the news blackout has been very effective. I’m not sure if other tabloids also carried the story but such can hardly be found in any ‘authoritative’ site. It’s certainly not in any online Philippine mainstream news media.

The mall death story was also the subject of limited public discussion in the internet, but only in a very few websites. I searched hard and long to find references to it, ultimately hitting on pages in YouTube and Pinoy Money Talk websites. It should be noted that references to the story definitely appear only in the comment threads.

In two uploaded videos showing the gush of water in perhaps the same lowest floor area of the mall, the supposed deaths in the building during Typhoon Ondoy was discussed. The oldest YouTube comments dated “3 months ago” (October 2009) or at least 1 or more weeks just after the Ondoy onslaught, talk of the 26 to over 30 people who died as they got trapped in the mall’s grocery area. Someone writes that a neighbor manager of another branch of the mall informed them of the deaths, but which has not being publicly disclosed. Others talk of the mall’s foul smell that could be detected even as far as a nearby subdivision.

The only well-reported incident that got anywhere close to the mall and looting story involves not Typhoon Ondoy but, rather, Typhoon Pepeng (Parma), which ravaged parts of Luzon excluding Metro Manila. If I’m not mistaken, Channel 2 (ABS-CBN) anchors mentioned about a mall outside Manila having been locked from the inside to secure store items. (The mall owner later clarified that no looting took place because the grocery items simply floated and got out during the flooding). There was absolutely no mention of deaths occurring in that provincial mall, however.

Mall Death Cover-Up…

I hope the cover-up angle and the mall deaths are not true at all because, together, they don’t paint a pretty picture of the Filipino sense of humanity, or lack of it. Possibly denying and covering up any such mall deaths are criminally much too much.

What are involved here are human lives that were possibly ended by an unwise and fatally unethical capitalist decision. If the Ondoy deaths in that building were true, so what if that gargantuan mall suffers bad business from the exposure of the tragedy. It’s their fault that human lives were needlessly wasted so it is fair and just to make its management take responsibility. Besides, from an economic, there are other malls/mall chain that would only be too glad to absorb their possible business lost.

…Or a government conspiracy?

Thus, if the mall death reports–whether it’s really over a 100 as indicated in the Remate report, or much less—did occur, it does not make much sense that the government is going along with its cover-up. Unless, perhaps, the government is covering up its own responsibility in the bigger picture–that its faulty actions led to the disastrous levels of the Ondoy flash flooding.

Government culpability for the Ondoy tragedy has been suspected by not a few people. A blog entry perhaps best conveys that feeling of “conspiracy.”

Ondoy killed a lot! There was some sort of a news blackout. According to the reports, there were only about 300 that perished. It’s more than that. For one, everyone I talk to had somebody died in their network….

There’s some kind of conspiracy, I think.

…It’s like they let lose all the dams all at the same time and they’re not admitting the miscalculations that caused the disaster. Blame it on Ondoy.

Other blog posts and comments, such as those found here, are more direct in pinning the total Metro Manila deaths and damages on the supposed dam release(s).

These views come despite the official statement of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) Administrator that excessive rainfall was solely responsible for flooding and that “In as far as the flooding in Metro Manila is concerned, there’s no contribution from Ipo or Angat dam.” (The clogged or limited-capacity waterways have supposedly prolonged the decline of flood waters).

If the dams or government inefficiency didn’t figure in the disaster, as claimed by the Philippine weather bureau, is it perhaps the case that the mall deaths’ cover-up–if indeed true–is part of the bid of Gloria Arroyo’s government to prevent further attention from being drawn to its possible misuse or malversation of calamity funds?

The IBON Foundation research group asks the Gloria Arroyo government to account for the US$1 million reconstruction relief and rehabilitation funds it received in 2006, along with the $6.6 million disaster preparedness allotment out of the total US$8.5 million in humanitarian aid commitments, and the $1.9 million emergency response official development assistance (ODA) it got in 2007.

During a Senate hearing in October last year, PAGASA Administrator Nilo Prisco clears the weather bureau of responsibility for the Ondoy disaster. His reasoned that while the country has satellite information tools, there were yet no Doppler radars for measuring rainfall volume. Similarly, former Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro who headed the National Security Council defended the government’s delayed rescue response to the flash floods by saying that the country only had thirteen rubber boats during that time.

So based on the IBON figures, where did the US$9.5 million, or roughly P430 million go? Did the funds go to Arroyo’s lavish Le Cirque and Bobby Van’s Steakhouse stateside dinners, or to Mickey Arroyo’s reported plush and equally stateside houses, or both and more? In the first place, shouldn’t the government have been able to prevent such a horrible disaster with the huge funds at its disposal? If the mall deaths were indeed true, is it possible that the Arroyo’s government has gone along with the news blackout so as to minimize perceptions of its own responsibility for the deadly flash floods?

Killer rumor or what?

Of course, the Remate report on the investigation by the Galas Police Station, along with the offline and online talk of Ondoy-related deaths in that mall, could just be plain baseless “rumor.” However, what makes this rumor angle rather weak is the fact that mainstream media is eerily silent about it.

For something as serious a claim as a killer mall, and in the face of at least one print-published report on it, shouldn’t questions have been raised by other media outfits or, if not, a preliminary/informal investigation conducted by the government? It should be noted that the Remate report involves a collaborative authorship bylined as “REMATE INVESTIGATIVE TEAM,” indicating that the newspaper, tabloid though it may be, took the matter seriously.

Corollary to this, if the mall deaths were really untrue, shouldn’t the Remate Investigative Team itself be investigated for such a severe, unfounded report? It is so sad that such a story has been almost totally ignored, if not systematically kept under wraps. Makes one lament over what has possibly become of the Filipinos.

What have the Filipinos become?

More than a century after Andres Bonifacio founded the Katipunan revolutionary movement and adopted the laudable Kartilya code of conduct/ethics; more than a 100 years after our hard-earned Independence was practically stolen by the Stars and Stripes; more than 60 years after we were granted our post-World-War-II “independence,” it seems that the 21st century Filipino elites’ respect for justice and the lives of their countrymen and countrywomen are fatally lacking.

Greed for business profits, and political power and the monetary “rewards” that come with it appear to dominate the mindset of the elites–to the detriment of the common “tao.” Worse, the masses and those just above them seem to have developed incredible tolerance for unethical, immoral, and even essentially unlawful actions by the powerful.

In one of the YouTube pages, a commenter says that the victims’ families were offered or paid 1M pesos each (although those who were hesitant to settle or wanted to file court cases were reportedly threatened by namedropping a general). Assuming that the mall deaths did happen, granting good faith in that the incident was purely unintentional, and further assuming that justice by way of generous monetary compensation has already been served, should not the truth matter at all? That is, if one believes that the Filipinos deserve to know which malls are conducive to their lives and safety.

Another post dated December 2009 has the commenter remarking that the story shows just how “Money makes the world go ‘round.” I wonder how far round the Filipinos’ heads should go.

Not true those talks of Ondoy mall deaths at all? Let’s go talk about it then. Disprove, don’t just ignore the “rumor.”


by Jesusa Bernardo

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