x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Catastrophe at the end of a phone

Massive flooding in the Philippines triggers widespread alarm among thousands of expatriates in the UAE.

Abu Dhabi resident Jay-Ann Marquez.
Abu Dhabi resident Jay-Ann Marquez.

The first feelings of alarm began when text messages from her husband in the Philippines began arriving on Jay-Ann Marquez's mobile phone. It was raining hard, he told her. With their three-year-old daughter, Noel Antonio was trying to reach his sister's home, which lay on higher ground. "I was already worried for them because our daughter is particularly afraid of the rain," Ms Marquez said. "I didn't expect that our home would be completely flooded the next day."

Working thousands of miles away from the family's home in San Mateo, Rizal, Ms Marquez could do nothing as the rising floods threatened to sweep away all she held most dear. By the time tropical storm Ketsana had swept clear of the island, her home was one of thousands devastated by the impact of a month's rain falling in barely six hours. But at least her family was safe. For thousands of other Filipinos living in the UAE, the past week has been dominated by feelings of both worry and helplessness. Ms Marquez had arrived in Abu Dhabi barely two months ago, taking a job as a manicurist to supplement the family income.

"I had to leave them behind to prepare for our future, especially as my daughter will be going to school in June next year," she said. "But now I have to work harder after what happened. I still dream of having a lovely home someday." Mercifully free from natural disasters, the UAE nevertheless feels the impact when they strike almost anywhere in the world. Earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, hurricanes and drought - some part of the huge expatriate community living here will always feel the pain.

Five years ago, the Indian Ocean tsunami brought death and destruction on a massive scale. The countries worst hit were all represented in the UAE's workforce. India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, even Somalia. For everyone affected it was the same - sleepless nights and long days waiting for the telephone call that would bring news, whether good or bad. A year later it was the turn of the Pakistani community, as a powerful earthquake in Kashmir killed nearly 80,000 people and turned entire communities into heaps of broken rubble.

Yesterday, the UAE Foreign Aid Co-ordination Office (FACO) appealed for emergency relief aid for the needy after the earthquake in Indonesia and flooding in the Philippines. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, the Ruler's Representative in the Western Region and President of the FACO, asked for an urgent response from UAE-based donor organisations to deliver relief assistance to those affected. "The objective is to quickly reach the victims with much-needed aid and to accelerate the resumption of normal life there following the recent natural disasters. The safety and well-being of those affected is a prime concern of the people and the Government of the UAE," said Sheikh Hamdan.

The aim of the FACO is to help shape the international humanitarian agenda, carrying out analysis and research to develop policy. The story of Jay-Ann, Noel and their daughter, Nhea Ollie, is typical of many. When Ms Marquez landed her job in the UAE, Mr Antonio, 32, agreed to stay behind and take care of Nhea as well as continue working in a local factory. Tracked down by The National, he explained what had happened to him and Nhea as his wife fretted half a world away.

At 9am, he noticed that water had began to accumulate in the street outside their house, in a suburb of Manila. Within two hours the floodwater had started creeping into their modest home. Mr Antonio's first thought was to lift the 21-inch colour TV, one of their few valuables, out of harm's way. "We only bought the TV because Nhea begged us to, and only after months of saving," he said. By now the water was swirling above his knees. Alarmed, he decided to send a text message to his wife.

"I've been living in San Mateo for the past seven years and have never experienced flooding, even during heavy rains," he said. Sensing the potential danger, he grabbed his daughter and set out for his sister's house, on higher ground. In the street, the water was already waist-high, frightening Nhea. "The waves were so big!" she said. With his daughter safe, Mr Antonio went back to his house to rescue his possessions. By now clothes, pots and pans were floating in the chest-high water.

"I tried to store what I could," he said. "Some clothes, Nhea's toys, and a flimsy roll-up cushion that we use as a bed." By early afternoon, water in the street was two metres deep and had turned into a raging torrent. Mr Antonio swam and stumbled back to his sister's house where he and Nhea spent the night. The next day as things settled down and the waters retreated, Mr Antonio found the streets littered with debris and covered in thick mud. His home was no different. "I was so hungry. I found a bottle of soy sauce and drank some of it just to fill my stomach with something," he recalled.

By late afternoon, as electric power and water were restored, dazed residents slowly started to emerge from their homes. Mr Antonio found a metal can used to store rice floating in a corner of his home. He opened it and found the rice was miraculously dry. He cooked it and, at last, was able to eat. His wife finally managed to speak to him later that day. "I could not reach him on his mobile phone and was anxious all day," she said. "It was only at around 4pm on Sunday that I was finally able to speak to him."

By then she had seen the extent of the devastation on the television news. "We may have lost everything to the flood but I really thank God that my family is safe. So many people lost their homes, were declared missing and had died." The floods hit other members of the family as well. Her mother, Helen, 48, and three younger siblings were forced to take shelter on the second floor of a neighbour's home. Helen had lost all her belongings and had no money to buy food for three days.

Having spoken to his wife, Mr Antonio walked to the next district to check on her parents. It was here that he saw the full extent of the destruction caused by the storm for the first time. A landslide had buried 14 homes in a government housing project. Four people had been swept under the San Mateo Batasan Bridge. Ms Marquez's mother, recalled: "I could only watch and cry as the water swallowed our home. I kept saying over and over, 'Our house is under water. Our house is under water.'

"We were still trying to pack everything we could in plastic bags when someone shouted at us to save ourselves first, before our belongings. I was on tiptoe as I waded through the muddy floodwater to get to higher ground. It was so dirty and itchy." When disaster strikes, the Government and the Red Crescent are always generous in their response. This week, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed issued an appeal for emergency relief both for the Philippines and Indonesia.

For the expatriate community, it means providing financial help in the coming weeks and months. With secure jobs and better pay than they would have received back home, they can send money to rebuild lives and homes. Ms Marquez earns Dh2,300 (US$626) a month. She will be sending a large portion of her salary home to her family as soon as she is paid. And her mother is also looking to the UAE to provide her future. She is reluctant to leave her family so soon, but hopes a job here would provide an important source of funds. "This way, we can save to build a second floor where we can stay dry, in case this happens again."

The disaster has given Ms Marquez a new perspective on life. "I told my husband that he should not think about all the things and the money we lost," she said. "We will slowly rebuild our lives, even if it will mean starting all over again." newsdesk@thenational.ae