Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazards in the Philippines

By Greg Bankoff | Go to book overview

Introduction: Of jellyfish and coups

‘Relax, it’s not the end of the world’ advised a Manila newspaper headline describing the dawning of the new millennium in December 1999 (Pablo 1999). The article was referring to a series of events that begun on 11 December when 53 per cent of the nation’s population, more than 40 million Filipinos, were plunged into a stygian darkness. Faults triggered the shutdown of two electricity-generating stations on the Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan causing power fluctuations that tripped several interconnected plants and that eventually led to the failure of the entire Luzon grid. 1 Manileños, struggling home at the end of a pre-Christmas Friday rush-hour, were trapped in ‘monstrous traffic jams’ that caused gridlock till past midnight in some areas. Heavy rains the previous night added to the difficulties as many thoroughfares were submerged in knee-deep floodwaters (Batino et al. 1999). Tensions ran high as the lights dimmed at the Manila Hotel where President Joseph Estrada was preparing to address a Senate anniversary reunion, prompting rumours of sabotage and feeding speculation about an impending military coup by officers alarmed at his plummeting public opinion polls (Batino et al.1999). Evidently, the President took such idle talk seriously enough to publicly deny these reports, announcing over the radio that the blackout was not connected to politics but ‘only malfunctioning’ (Atencio 1999). Even as the lights flickered back on in some areas of Luzon that night and into the early hours of the next morning, fires caused by falling candles or short-circuits destroyed homes and businesses across Metro Manila, one spreading rapidly to consume over 70 shanties in the neighbourhood of Barangay Tangos 2 (Aning 1999).

The ‘culprits’, however, were not to be uncovered among the ranks of disaffected army officers, or among the Communist-inspired activists of the New People’s Army (NPA), or even among the Islamic separatist movements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf. Rather they were to be found out at sea in the shape of jellyfish; in fact, enough jellyfish to fill 50 dump trucks (Batino et al.1999). According to the National Power Corporation (Napocor), coal-thermal plants like the Sual electricity stations tap water straight from the sea to cool down their condenser tubes. But these conduits had become clogged by an ‘extraordinary’ number of large jellyfish

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