by Geoff Pearce
A few years ago, there was a television program called, “Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil” that captured my attention. After watching, I thought back to my late teens in the early 70’s when the energy crisis hit and I remember petrol being rationed and huge headlines in the papers about it. I started thinking more about the finiteness of oil and what it might mean as supply runs low and prices go up.
Hitting the internet and searching for “peak oil”, I eventually came across the YouTube based show called “Peak Moment” hosted by Janaia Donaldson. I watched many of their 30 minute shows interviewing in depth what ordinary people are doing to change their lives and the way they live on the planet. In various episodes, Janaia interviewed authors like Richard Heinberg, Michael Ruppert, Chris Martenson and James Howard Kunstler whose criticism of urban sprawl and acerbic writing style are immensely refreshing.
Each of these authors had the same powerful message to communicate but I was looking for someone who could forward project from what the current data tells us and a paint a picture of what life is really going to be like in the future. Ideas started to float around in my mind of a very different and troubling future. During another Peak Moment episode, Janaia mentioned the name of Dr. Guy McPherson in passing, so I did a search and came across “Nature Bats Last” and the many YouTube presentations of Dr. Guy McPherson.
Anyone who isn’t shocked to the core at what the future holds for humanity and the rest of the planet just plain hasn’t got it. When you see graphs which show a correlation between world population growth and rising fossil fuel demand, the realisation hits you that a sudden decline in energy availability is going to mean an ugly population crash in which many people are going to go hungry. I noted that these future scenarios of energy decline, economic collapse and environmental degradation were not from crystal ball gazing but from realistic projections of continually updated data. Now I regularly read Nature Bats Last and appreciate the analyses presented by Guy, guest essayists and commentators.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with my wife, Sharon, about what climate change might mean for countries in the tropics. I mentioned that the atmosphere can hold 7% more water vapour for every degree C the globe warms and this means there will be bigger storms and flooding events.
Then, a late night news program told of super typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) that was heading for the town of Tacloban on the island of Leyte in the Philippines.
Tacloban is my wife’s hometown.
She frantically called and texted all her relatives and told them to keep abreast of weather reports and make sure everyone stayed safe. The next morning, still frantic, my wife couldn’t get through to anyone as communications had been knocked out. We were in a deeply concerned state of mind wondering if everyone was okay.
The first news we got were words and pictures of the devastated areas posted on Facebook by ferry travelers who could only post their news from the city of Cebu as there was no internet in the worst affected areas. A couple of days later, international mainstream media arrived and started broadcasting images of the devastation. We sat glued to the television.
Then to my wife’s surprise, as a reporter was doing his piece to the camera, she recognised in the background, the weave pattern of a blind belonging to her sister’s now collapsed house.
Five days later, when the cell phone system was partly restored, my wife finally got word that her sister, Janeth and extended family were safe. They are middle class by Philippine standards and had been able to afford to move into a hotel room in the down town area of Tacloban. When the storm surge hit, the water was a raging torrent right outside their first floor window.
My wife eventually managed to call another sister, Arlene, staying at their mother’s house in the town of Basey on the island of Samar about two hours’ drive away from Tacloban. The rest of my wife’s extended family were safe and as their house was inland from the coast, had only experienced minor flooding up to knee level. However, they were greatly concerned for the safety of their brothers, Gregorio, Wendell, his wife and their three-year-old daughter.
My wife owned a two-story, seven-room boarding house with a small restaurant facing the street. The house was a wooden construction, typical of the area, that had its back to the open water. As the typhoon progressed, a warning had been broadcast for everyone to evacuate to the Astrodome sports centre. As the empty homes were left behind, looters moved in. Wendell, his wife and daughter unwisely, (in hindsight), ignored the evacuation warnings and decided to stay to prevent looting.
Arlene repeatedly insisted that Gregorio stay with Wendell and help. Although he initially refused citing the evacuation warnings, he eventually relented.
After the water subsided, Janeth and her brothers, trying to find what had happened to the four who stayed behind, walked back to their house, weaving their way through scattered debris and dead bodies. They described what they saw as looking like a scene from a horror movie.
To their great surprise, sitting on the side of road, sobbing uncontrollably, was Gregorio and his brother’s three year old daughter. He was wearing clothes that they were unfamiliar with.
Gregorio told the following story:
I had walked out to the back of the boarding house and was surprised to see the water had disappeared! I could see the muddy bottom of the bay. I ran back to tell my brother that we have to get out now! As we ran through the house the water was up to our ankles and by the time we were outside were struggling to stay afloat 25 feet above the ground.
In seconds we had swept over rooftops and were washed hundred of yards inland. I saw people below me drowning, struggling to get to the surface. Then the water receded and washed us into the bay about 200 yards from the shore. My brother, Wendell was struggling with his daughter and his wife who couldn’t swim. He threw his daughter to me and I held her on my chest. I saw a Styrofoam box floating nearby so I swam towards it and put the daughter in it and held on.
Wendell’s wife was getting tired and begged him to let her go as she was slipping into unconsciousness but he slapped her face several times and screamed at her to keep her awake. The next huge wave floated us onto the shore again. I saw Wendell and his wife floating away and I don’t know what happened to them! I was able to grab onto a power pole and struggled to keep holding on in 200 MPH winds with the daughter still in the box. The sound of the wind was louder than the sound of a jet engine blast.
Other people were drifting by calling out for help but as I extended an arm or a leg to grab on to, the current just pulled them away. My clothes caught on debris floating under the water and were ripped off. I was only wearing underwear. There were two more big waves surging in and out and for the next eight hours the daughter and I clung to the power pole until the water subsided. It didn’t seem real. It felt like we were in a disaster movie.
I had nothing to wear so I took a shirt and shorts off a dead body.
After consoling him for a while the group continued down the street and to their relief, they found Wendell sitting with his wife who couldn’t walk as she had cuts to her feet and legs from floating debris.
My wife’s family were all accounted for but it could have been very different. Gregorio, Wendell and his wife are deeply traumatised. They have gone through the “what if” scenarios. If Arlene hadn’t have insisted that Gregorio go and help Wendell, then Wendell would not have been able to cope with trying to save his wife and child and any or all of them may have drowned. Arlene is also traumatised because she would never be able to forgive herself if Gregorio had not survived. And the whole family reflects on the fact that they should have forgotten about trying to save a few possessions as lives were put unnecessarily at risk.
Now five families totaling about 20 people are living at my mother-in-law’s 2 bedroom house at Basey on Samar. They have sufficient stocks of rice as they are rice farmers but little other foodstuffs and not much in the way of clothes.
Janeth and her husband, Nelson, told us a story that their neighbours who held positions of importance in law and government looked down upon them as lowly lumber cutters. Whenever it rained, the water would spill off the first-story roof of Janeth and Nelson’s house and make a loud clattering as it hit the roof of their neighbours single level house. This happened every time it rained.
The neighbours were insistent that a builder and plumber should come there right now to fix the problem so they would not have to put up with the noise!
Janeth said, “Well, they don’t have to put up with the noise of the rain any more because the brick side wall of our house fell over and flattened their whole house!”
Residents of the low lying area around Brisbane in Queensland, were hit with a “once in a hundred year” flood and after the cleanup and rebuilding, a few years later got hit with another ” once in a hundred year” flood. Is nature trying to tell us something? The town of Tacloban like many other coastal towns in the Philippines, is only about 8 feet above sea level.
I was talking with my wife that considering that the Philippines already suffers about 22 typhoons per year, there may be more typhoons like this one. Also, if future projected sea level rise makes the coastal areas uninhabitable, is it worth rebuilding in the same area again? If I lived there, I don’t think I would.
Tacloban and other affected areas are going to need aid for many months to come just to feed, shelter and provide medical services to the population. Further aid is going to be needed provide for a more permanent shelter as these places slowly rebuild. However, re-establishing the economy is going to be a long, slow process.
It is worth noting that international aid arrived quickly by industrial civilisation created planes, ships and helicopters powered by fossil fuels. If aid could only get there by sailboats in fair weather in a future age of no fossil fuels, then by the time aid arrived, there would hardly be anyone left to save.
We may well see many future climate refugees from the tropics seek asylum on our shores as nature bats last.
Geoff Pearce is a former airforce electronics technician turned children’s entertainer, silhouette artist and Christmas-season Santa Claus, who is upset that the North Pole is melting and is installing floats on his sleigh after being awoken by a loud ship’s horn from a freighter cruising the now open North West Passage past his window. As Santa, he responsibly feeds the reindeer flatulence free feedstock to reduce atmospheric methane and because the arctic may be ice free in several years, is considering relocating the
elves and his toy workshop to the South Pole. Move over, penguins! Santa has now placed his North Pole residence and workshop on the market and is hoping a real estate salesman with a record of selling swamp land in Florida is able to make a successful sale.
He lives in Sydney with his wife, Sharon and two young boys with plans to escape to a small country town in the future.
McPherson’s work is featured in radio show that aired 27 November 2013. It’s described and embedded here.