MANILA // When the authorities crumbled along with the infrastructure under the devastating storm that hit the Philippine capital at the weekend, residents turned to the internet and their mobile phones to save lives.
Within hours of the start of the flooding during Saturday's nine-hour deluge that cut power lines and forced people on to their roofs, tech-savvy Filipinos made pleas for help and informed friends of their plight via mobile internet links and text messaging. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter carried calls for rescue divers and details of drop-off points for relief packages, places where medicine could be picked up and areas where people were still stranded.
Blogs and Tweets covered in dramatic detail the plight of people, rich and poor, struggling to come to terms with the loss of possessions or loved ones. Videos on websites like YouTube showed the extent of the flooding and highlighted the lack of preparedness on the government's part to cope with the calamity. The images and video footage of tropical storm Ketsana were taken up by mainstream media organisations around the world including CNN and BBC.
As of yesterday, the death toll had reached 246 while more than 500,000 were left homeless in the aftermath of the worst storm to hit Manila and surrounding provinces in 40 years. A second tropical cyclone is forming and may reach the Philippines, the World Meteorological Organisation said yesterday. Officials in Manila said they were unable to cope with the hundreds of thousands of flood victims who were continuing to pour into evacuation centres.
President Gloria Arroyo described the floods as a "once-in-a-lifetime" event and in an extraordinary move opened the Malacanang presidential palace to flood survivors. In a country that has seen a boom in internet and mobile phone usage, the flooding was the first time social networking sites played a major part in the coverage of a disaster in the country. "I think we are seeing for the first time just what social networking can achieve in this country and it is amazing," said Tonyo Cruz, the president of TXTPower, a consumer telecoms advocacy group, and an avid blogger. "At first people were surprised at the suddenness of the storm but they soon became angry as the government was so slow to react. Instead, ordinary people took it into their own hands to do something.
"Videos on mobile phones started to circulate, photographs and blogs. Soon these were being picked up by mainstream media locally and internationally." In one widely blogged incident, the popular television actress and model Cristine Reyes was rescued from the roof of her flooded home in Manila thanks partly to text messaging. With landline phone networks in disarray, Reyes's talent manager sent out text messages on his mobile phone to alert the world about her plight. In what could have been a television plot, another actor, Richard Gutierrez, was alerted and came to her rescue.
In another incident on Monday night, one resident Nino Mendoza, posted on his Facebook page the following plea "attention policemen needed Provident village Marikina. As of now robbers are all over the place trying to break into houses. There is no electricity. The place is like a ghost town covered with thick mud." Police could not confirm the claims of looting although some local media reports said men pushing wooden carts had entered the gated middle class suburb and could be seen carting away electrical goods.
In the tumultuous days since the disaster new media have provided an important platform for raising funds, organising volunteers and searching for missing people. The writer Alma Anonas-Carpio, in her Facebook status update, informed those who wanted to help that: "Volunteers at PNRC [Philippine National Red Cross] Rizal Shaw Headquarters are sufficient for now. Volunteers may want to head elsewhere."
Many have also turned to Facebook to spread updates about the latest death toll, other potential storms and the cancellation of schools. Mr Cruz set up a website for donations on Saturday afternoon and by 4pm in the Philippines yesterday he had received 1.2 million Philippine pesos (Dh93,000) from 600 people in 18 different countries via PayPal. Although the Philippines is a poor country, Mr Cruz said there are an estimated 10-15 million internet users in the country and it is spreading.
"Most people have mobile phones and this is the text capital of the world, so word spreads very quickly," he said. "In the last few days we have seen websites set up so people can trace missing relatives, sites for donations, relief goods, clothing ... just about anything. "Everything the government should be providing people are doing for themselves. It's amazing." Even Hollywood celebrities and other well known personalities put the word out about the tragedy, with Demi Moore and Josh Groban tweeting about the tragedy and asking people to help out.
As many parts of Metro Manila ground to a halt over the weekend the internet was still working, allowing ordinary people to use social networking sites in the rescue efforts. It is continuing to function four days after the storm hit. One foreign NGO worker, who did not want to be named, said: "Even with the social networking sites I doubt whether the full extent of this tragedy will ever be told.
"Many areas of poor housing and squatter camps have simply disappeared washed away by the deluge. I expect the toll will be many times more than the official toll. Many people have simply gone for ever their bodies will never be found." email@example.com * With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse