Let’s take a look at this lead sentence of a front-page headline story by a major Metro Manila broadsheet last October 13:

“MANILA, Philippines—Water equivalent to a billion

*balikbayan* boxes tumbling at the rate of 5,000 cartons per second hit 10 hapless towns in Pangasinan province on Thursday when the San Roque dam spillways were opened amid a storm drenching and swirling floodwaters, scientists say.”

**AMID A STORM, THE SAN ROQUE DAM SPILLWAYS WERE OPENED, FLOODING COMMUNITIES DOWNSTREAM**

I would like to make the following observations about the language and mathematics used in telling this particular flood-disaster story:

**1. The “water equivalent to a billion ***balikbayan* boxes” metaphor. This imagery of the dam’s water releases as so many

*balikbayan* boxes falling from the San Roque Dam is false and misleading. It mistakes the concept of volume of water with the actual

*balikbayan* box itself, and gives the wrong impression that the water releases fell as a solid mass in rigid containers, which is far from the reality of the actual event—the water remained liquid and fluid all the time. Also, the figure of 1 billion boxes, although presented in a highly sensational manner, appears to be wrong and understated. A very simple computation shows that the total volume of water released by the dam on that fateful day was the equivalent of 2.54 billion

*balikbayan* boxes instead.

**2. The idea of “***balikbayan* boxes tumbling at the rate of 5,000 cartons per second.” That the

*balikbayan* boxes tumbled at the rate of 5,000 cartoons per second is highly loose, inaccurate language that has no bearing on reality altogether. The boxes presumably

*fell* at that rate, not individually

*tumbled* at that fantastically high rate; to "tumble," according to my

*Merriam Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary*, is “to turn end over end in falling or flight.” Also, the “5,000 cartons per second” figure itself looks wrong and understated. A very simple computation shows that it should be “29,412 cartons per second” instead, or almost six times that quantity.

**3. The statement that “a billion balikbayan boxes…hit 10 hapless towns in Pangasinan province.”** As I will demonstrate in my analysis, this statement misrepresents what actually happened when the dam made its water releases at the height of Typhoon Pepeng.

**4. The imagery of “spillways opened amid a storm drenching and swirling floodwaters” being attributed to the scientists.** The news story made it appear that the scientists themselves made this highly effusive and contrived description of the dam’s water releases. I find the attribution to the scientists incredible, for the statement looks every bit a fastidious literary flourish either by the paper’s reporters or desk editors.

**MY CRITIQUE OF THAT STORY AND MY ANALYSIS OF ITS RECITATION OF FACTS:**I will now analyze the problematic aspects of the language of that flood-disaster story and show how I arrived at my conclusion that its physics and mathematics could be terribly flawed as well.

**1. The “water equivalent to a billion ***balikbayan* boxes” metaphorI think this is flawed, over-the-top reportorial language that uses incendiary imagery to boot. To begin with, it’s not the water that’s equivalent to a billion

*balikbayan* boxes; it’s the volume of the dam’s water releases that’s presumably equal to the combined volume of a certain number of balikbayan boxes

*filled with water*. I particularly found the billion figure for the

*balikbayan* boxes suspiciously low in comparison to the huge water releases of the dam on that fateful day, so I asked myself: Was this billion figure arbitrarily chosen simply for political resonance, or was it in fact computed correctly? (Later in this critique, I will make some computations to verify this billion-box figure.) And even if the equivalence is tenable from a computational standpoint, what does this farfetched imagery serve other than to politicize what should be a dispassionate, level-headed assessment of the flood disaster by scientists?

**2. The idea of “balikbayan boxes tumbling at the rate of 5,000 cartons per second”**Figuratively speaking, if it was only empty

*balikbayan* boxes that were falling from the dam at the rate of so many boxes per second, that shouldn’t have been cause for great worry. After all, the volume and weight of one

*balikbayan* box are negligible compared to the volume and weight of all the water it could presumably contain. What’s dangerous is if those boxes are filled with water and they fall on you, regardless of how many boxes eventually fall. This aspect of the mass of water inside the box—in physics terms, this is the density of the water times the volume of the box—is what the news story was unable to convey anywhere in its narrative, so preoccupied it was with exploiting the number-of-

*balikbayan*-boxes metaphor.

It’s also appropriate to ask at this point: What’s the logic of further stretching the already strained imagery to “a billion

*balikbayan* boxes tumbling at the rate of 5,000 cartons per second.” Assuming we accept the metaphor of water becoming

*balikbayan* boxes for illustrative purposes, why must the water be also made to tumble like

*balikbayan* boxes at such a great oscillatory rate? After all, liquid water by nature flows and doesn’t tumble. So why stray from the physical reality of the disaster much too much? Why overrely on figurative language when the bare facts could very well speak for themselves in a tragedy as big as this?

**3. The statement that “a billion ***balikbayan* boxes…hit 10 hapless towns in Pangasinan province”This is obviously false imagery, for assuming that the equivalent of a billion

*balikbayan* boxes of water was indeed released by the dam on that day, those water releases fell on the dam’s spillway and not on the 10 towns directly, and the releases were made not all at once but spread out presumably over a 24-hour day. Those water releases doubtless contributed to the flooding of each town, but not to the extent of “a billion

*balikbayan* boxes” hitting each town in full force, for over that 24-hour period the floodwaters would have naturally distributed and dispersed themselves over the area comprised by those 10 towns.

**4. The imagery of “spillways opened amid a storm drenching and swirling floodwaters” attributed to **

the scientistsI strongly doubt if the scientists really made this statement, as the construction of the news story’s lead sentence would like the reader to believe. If anything, it looks to me like a reporter’s or a deskman’s overly exuberant literary flourish. Indeed, the phrase “amid a storm drenching and swirling floodwaters” sounds like nonsensical doggerel to me. If a scientist actually said that in a press conference, I would be very leery of everything else he would say.

**CHECKING THE PHYSICS AND MATH OF THAT NEWS STORY:**Does that news story’s

*balikbayan*-box metaphor have a proper basis?

Now let’s analyze the news story’s basis for its balikbayan-box metaphor, as stated a little later in the story proper: “A

*balikbayan* box measures two feet by two feet. If it is shipped, freight cost is based on size. If airfreight, it is weighed.”

It looks like whoever came up with that

*balikbayan*-box metaphor or whoever wrote that news story had a two-dimensional mindset about

*balikbayan* boxes, able to picture the box in their minds only in its flattened state. I can’t imagine how the reporters or the paper’s deskmen could have missed out on the critical third dimension of the

*balikbayan* box to complete the width-length-height triad so the volume of the box could be determined. And yet, the writers or editors were resourceful enough to provide the following curious, totally irrelevant, and—if the subject wasn’t that dire and serious—laughable information about the

*balikbayan* box: “If it is shipped, freight cost is based on size. If airfreight, it is weighed.” (There’s something semantically wrong even with this statement: In the language of transport, freight is considered shipped whether it’s by land, sea, or air. The term "shipping" is inclusive of all modes of transport.)

Anyway, for the

*balikbayan*-box metaphor to actually hold water, so to speak, I searched for and found the following standard dimensions of the

*balikbayan* box:

Standard: 24 x 18 x 18 inches

Regular: 23 x 17 x 20 inches

Medium: 24 x 18 x 24 inches

Jumbo: 30 x 20 x 20 inches

For simplicity, let’s use the size that corresponds nearest to the two dimensions (“two feet by two feet”) provided in the news story, which is “Medium: 24 x 18 x 24 inches.”

Now let’s figure out what the holding volume in cubic meters of that

*balikbayan* box is, after it’s actually formed into a three-dimensional box. As we do so, let’s keep in mind the following conversions from the English system to the metric system:

1 foot = 12 inches

1 inch = 2.54 centimeter (cm) 1 cm = 0.01 meter (m)

The dimensions of the medium

*balikbayan* box would then be:

Width = 24 inches x 2.54 cm/inch x 0.01 meter/cm = 0.6096 meter

Length = 18 inches x 2.54 cm/inch x 0.01 meter/cm = 0.4572 meter

Height = 24 inches x 2.54 cm/inch x 0.01 meter/cm = 0.6096 meter

So the carrying volume of that box would be:

Width x length x height = 0.6096 meter x 0.4572 meter x 0.6096 meter = 0.17 cu. m

**The medium-size balikbayan box’s carrying volume = 0.17 cubic meter**I must say that I was floored when I reached the part of the news story where the geologist among the team of scientists was quoted as saying that “one cubic meter of water was much like one

*balikbayan* box.” Either the geologist had computed a wrong figure or she was misquoted in the news story. For as my computation shows above, the carrying volume of a medium

*balikbayan* box is definitely not in the region of 1 cubic meter—that would be a very huge

*balikbayan* box indeed!—but only 0.167 cubic meter. Even for the biggest

*balikbayan* box available, the jumbo size at 30 inches x 20 inches x 20 inches, that carrying volume would only be 0.197 cubic meter.

*The geologist therefore appears to have overstated the volume of the balikbayan box by over 5 times!*Still, let’s accept with no argument this declaration of the group’s lead scientist: “Based on our computation, it was unbelievable that with 5,000 cubic meters released per second, it was like having a billion

*balikbayan* boxes dumped on Pangasinan in a day.”

In volumetric terms, 5,000 cubic meters of water per second released from the dam would be equivalent to the carrying volume of how many medium-size

*balikbayan* boxes? That would be:

Number of

*balikbayan* boxes = 5,000 cu.m per second / 0.17 cu.m per box

= 29,412 boxes per second

The news story’s description of “

*balikbaya*n boxes tumbling at the rate of 5,000 cartons per second” is almost six times lower than this number of boxes. So that quoted statement should be corrected as follows: “

*balikbayan* boxes tumbling at the rate of 29,412 cartons per second.” This is an even worse flooding scenario than the team of scientists had envisioned. At this point, though, the count of balikbayan boxes falling from the San Roque Dam doesn’t have as much shock value anymore, given what we now know about the tenuousness and misleading aspects of this imagery.

**It looks like the scientists got their ***balikbayan*-box volume wrong Based on what we have found so far about the presentation of facts by the news story, I now suspect that the team of scientists and the broadsheet’s reporters got their

*balikbayan*-box-metaphor figures all wrong. A telltale sign of the major error in their computation is, as I have already pointed out, the geologist’s statement that the volume of a

*balikbayan* box is about 1 cubic meter. For them to get a figure this big, they must have computed their

*balikbayan*-box volume based on a two-dimensional box instead of a three-dimensional one, then possibly mixed up their English-metric conversions besides. If this is indeed the case, then all of their computations of the number of

*balikbayan*-box equivalents of the dam’s total water releases for that fateful day would be wrong, too!

Now let’s check if at the given rate of 5,000 cubic meters per second of water release by the dam, this claim by the lead scientist would still be sustainable: “it was like having a

*billion* balikbayan boxes dumped on Pangasinan in a day.”

Number of seconds in 1 day = 1 day x 24 hours x 60 min per hour x 60 sec per minute

= 86,400 seconds

Therefore, assuming continuous uniform flow at 5,000 cubic meters per second, the total volume of water released by the dam on that fateful day on would be:

Total volume of water released for one day = 5,000 cu m per second x 86,400 seconds

= 432,000,000 cubic meters

The equivalent number of balikbayan boxes for this volume would be:

**Equivalent number of boxes** = 432,000,000 cubic meters / 0.17 cu m per box

= 2,541,176,400 boxes

=

**2.5 billion boxes**The lead scientist’s figure of 1 billion boxes is way, way below this figure by a ratio of 1 is to 2.5. What we have here is an even graver flooding scenario than the one they projected during the press conference and the one reported by the broadsheet. This can only mean either of two things: the flooding computations of the team of scientists were erroneous by being based on the wrong volume for the

*balikbayan* box, or they had made assumptions in their computations that they didn’t tell the media about.

I do hope the latter is the case; otherwise, the team of scientists and the broadsheet’s reporters and editors would have a lot of public explaining and apologizing to do for what looks like seriously inaccurate and misleading reporting.